Illini Basketball 2004-2005: The Fantastic Voyage

It took two full nights for Brumby to sit down at a keyboard and actually realize that the 2004-2005 Illini Basketball season was over. No longer would this team suit up in the Orange and Blue and play in Assembly Hall, but that does not stop him from remembering the Fantastic Voyage this team took him as a fan on.

When thinking about Monday night's game, one constant thought has rushed through my head since the moment the final buzzer sounded to right now. It is simple, and concise. It is not anger or sadness over the outcome, just a simple one word exclamation, "Fuck!"

When the final buzzer sounded on the 100th season of Illinois Basketball, I stormed out of the Edward Jones Dome, missing the cutting down of the nets after the Final Four for the first time in five years. Every previous year since 2001, I have been able to sit in the stadium and watch another team besides Illinois cut down the nets, and it did not hurt.

In 2001, I knew Illinois lost to a better team in Arizona before reaching the Final Four. I knew Duke was better than Illinois, and their Championship was deserved, even with some interesting calls in their semi-final match up with Maryland.

In 2002, I knew Maryland and Kansas were better teams than Illinois. I knew Maryland deserved to cut down the nets. I enjoyed listening to the Georgia Dome filled with Maryland fans screaming "Fear the Turtle!" as I thought about what Illinois could do in 2005 in St. Louis.

In 2003, I enjoyed watching two freshmen and a sophomore carry Syracuse on their back over a much more talented Kansas team in the Louisiana Superdome. I thought about 2002 and 2003 and realized, if Syracuse and Maryland can do it, Illinois could do it in 2005. I had already penciled in a run to the Final Four in 2005 after this season.

In 2004, I enjoyed watching millions of dollars switch hands as Chris Duhon hit a meaningless three pointer as UConn advanced to face Georgia Tech in the National Championship game. While I wanted Georgia Tech to defeat UConn, I was able to watch One Shining Moment and think, next year, I will be here with a huge smile on my face as Illinois cut down the nets.

Since the start of the 2001-2002 basketball season, I and many other Illinois fans pointed to the 2005 Final Four as the year Illinois would win their first National Championship. Heck, Maryland did it in 2002 and Syracuse did it in 2003, leaving Illinois as the best program in college basketball to have never won a National Championship. I thought 2005 was the year this was all going to change.

Before the 2004-2005 season, I had one expectation of the Fighting Illini: A trip to St. Louis.

I was told by friends that you cannot say a season is a disappointment if the team does not make the Final Four because there are too many factors involved. I disagreed, and I had my sights, as a fan firmly set on the bus ride from Indianapolis to Chicago to St. Louis. The stars were aligned, and the Illini had the guards to make the Final Four run.

So I headed into the 100th Year of Illinois Basketball with a completely different outlook on the games and the season. This year I would not live and die with every dribble of the basketball and the ebbs and flows of the regular season. I would leave that until the games really mattered, March.

I watched with pride as Illinois rolled Gonzaga. That domination told me even in more concrete terms that this team was special.

I watched with even more pride as Illinois dominated the pre-season darling of the national media in Champaign, Wake Forest. I knew this was the best team I have ever been a fan of discounting the Jordan Bulls.

I let myself get wrapped up into the ups and downs of a game as Illinois defeated Missouri by six points in the annual Busch Bragging Rights game to win the school's fifth in a row over the Tigers. I walked out of the Savvis Center listening to chants of "M-I-Z-We-Own-You!" directed towards Missouri fans from Illinois fans. I walked out of the Landing and Morgan Street Brewery to head to Phoenix for Christmas knowing I would be stepping back on the cobblestones in April, and back in the bar that actually serves Miller products in St. Louis.

I took a short trip to Phoenix to save up vacation to watch Illinois take on Nick Lachey's Cincinnati Bearcats in Las Vegas. (Oh, I also did partake in quite a bit of gambling and drinking, it was New Year's Eve). I watched as Illinois finished out 2004 with a perfect non-conference record, knowing that all that was left was the Big Ten season before the games started getting serious.

I watched as Illinois rolled Ohio State to open the Big Ten season.

I watched Illinois travel to Purdue for the last time with Gene Keady as coach. I watched the Illini struggle, yet always knowing in the back of my mind that they would win the game.

I watched Illinois beat Penn State in a game that looked like they were playing Champaign Centennial and not a fellow Big Ten Conference member.

I watched as Dee Brown and Luther Head took what the Northwestern student section said about their roommate and team manager personally en route to a twelve point victory.

I watched as Iowa laid the groundwork in the class described best as "How to Beat Illinois in 2005." Yet, Illinois took the class and showed even the perfect game plan could not derail this train.

I watched the Bulls game as I followed the Illini game in Madison on my cell phone and the TVs in the luxury boxes of the United Center. I later watched the tape, and then realized I was going to be bombarded with e-mails and voice mails singing the praises of one Jack Ingram.

I traveled down to Champaign to take in the 100 Years Celebration of Illinois Basketball. I watched Illinois dismantle Minnesota and then honor its history. I thought the best was yet to come. The 2005 Illini were on pace to do something the Wiz Kids and Flying Illini never did, win the National Championship.

I watched as Illinois put on its best Villanova against Georgetown impersonation as they defeated Michigan State in East Lansing shooting 68.2% in the second half. The thoughts first crept in my mind that Illinois could go through the Big Ten season undefeated.

All through this season, I also heard one consistent thing that bothered me: The talk that the Number One team in the nation was not getting enough respect from the Chicago and national media. The fans jumping on any person that dared think Illinois was not the best team in the country, and had a different opinion than their own. This was not your typical arguments that I have seen in the past, this was a pack mentality.

When Greg Doyel dared to mention that Iowa's backcourt of Jeff Horner, Pierre Pierce, and Adam Haluska had put up numbers that may allow themselves to declare they had the best backcourt in the country, Illinois fans declared him a raving lunatic without looking at what he said.

Heck, when anyone said anything that could be deemed along the lines of Illinois is not the number one team in the country, the Illini fans pounced. I got sick of reading about how so and so author was disrespecting Illinois for giving their opinion on college basketball. I got so sick of reading and discussing things like that, I dreaded reading a board that was devoted to my favorite sports team, the Fighting Illini Men's Basketball team.

Then I realized something pretty simple, no one person was going to take away from my excitement in this basketball team. No one person was going to make me dislike reading about this basketball team. I would wade through and find actual conversation and discussion, and reading the basketball board became a less daunting task. If they wanted to take every slight and fight the battle, it was their choice, but I was enjoying the ride, "East Coast and ESPN Bias" be damned.

Now, I was back to watching basketball as Illinois went on to defeat Indiana in Champaign on Super Bowl Sunday, further showing that this team was not perfect, and might not finish the season perfect. It was a perfect day for the Illini - New England Patriots comparisons to happen, and I knew they would. It was the day the rest of the country would start to take notice of what would be a theme for the rest of the season up to and through the National Championship Game, "Team vs. Talent."

I watched as Illinois struggled to defeat Michigan, and almost lost was it not for a Big Ten Player of the Year Award clinching performance by Dee Brown.

I watched as Illinois dispatched Bo Ryan and his Badgers for the second time this season in Champaign.

I watched as Illinois rolled over Penn State in another laugher.

I watched as Illinois once again struggled to defeat Iowa thanks to Steve Alford following the same game plan again, a game plan that was ignored by and large by all opposing coaches for some unknown reason.

I watched a demolition of Northwestern that made Valparaiso not feel so bad about their encounter with Illinois in December.

I watched Illinois get back on track with a second straight dominant defeat over a lesser opponent, this time Purdue. I watched as Bruce Weber thanked Gene Keady for his time as a mentor and friend before the game by providing him with gifts. I watched as Illinois fans cheered Gene Keady in his final appearance on the Assembly Hall court as an opposing coach, thanking him for not hiding Brian Cardinal, Brad Miller, and Glen Robinson in someone else's uniform for one more win in Champaign over the Fighting Illini.

There was one game left to finish the perfect season for the Illini, a trip to Ohio State. I was unable to watch this game outside of the final play due to something much more important with no relevance to sports whatsoever. I did not get upset when I saw the final seconds, nor did I think it was a "good thing" Illinois lost, but I knew it did not matter as the Road to St. Louis was still paved in orange through Indianapolis and Chicago.

I watched the Big Ten Tournament, and saw Illinois further stamp itself as the dominant team in the Big Ten with wins over Northwestern, Minnesota, and Wisconsin all the while dealing with the death of Bruce Weber's mother on Friday afternoon.

I admit to watching the conference tournaments on ESPN Friday night and thinking to myself as Erin Andrews talked about whether or not Bruce Weber would coach the team on Saturday and Sunday between games and thinking to myself, "Illinois has made it." Sure, it was a selfish thought, and I cannot fathom what Bruce Weber and his family was going through, but it all came back to one thing for me, the Fighting Illini basketball team.

If the Fighting Illini had not grabbed the nation's attention thanks to their near perfect season, this story probably would have been relegated to a ten second blurb on Sports Center and College Hoops Tonight, but that was not the case. The Illini were the story of college basketball, and this further cemented that fact. The Illini and Bruce Weber now became the sentimental favorite among many.

The prelude to March Madness was over. Illinois was sitting in the Chicago regional with only, in my mind, Oklahoma State or Arizona sitting between them and the Final Four.

My trip to Vegas was set for the first round, and it was time once again to immerse myself in the NCAA Tournament ignoring everything else in the outside world. If it did not involve basketball, it was not worth dealing with.

Illinois got by Fairleigh Dickinson in a game that was closer than the whole world expected. Illinois then defeated Nevada by 12, much to the joy of those watching the game in Nefertiti's Lounge in the Luxor considering the Illini covered the 11.5 point spread. The Illini reached the Sweet 16 for the second straight season, and fourth time in the last five years, but the one thing I did not want to see was in front of the Illini, the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.

It was not that I thought the Illini could not beat UWM, it was that I did not need any bad memories of the Illinois basketball program to be brought up during this wonderful season. Bruce Pearl, Jimmy Collins, and Deon Thomas were the story of the Regional Semifinal in the Chicago Regional, not Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head, Roger Powell, Jr., James Augustine, and the rest of Bruce Weber's team.

Dredging up the Deon Thomas scandal just reminded me of how close the Illini were, and how quickly a program can fall. It made me want the National Championship more than ever, as a fan. No longer did I want to say Illinois had it all in place for a rise to dominance in college basketball, but not for "insert the blank here". I wanted to say it: Illinois was the best in college basketball even if it was for just one season.

On Thursday night, I told my friend to spend whatever money it would take to get me a seat in the arena for Saturday. There was no doubt in my mind that Illinois would win that game, and I told him money was not an option for a ticket to Saturday's Regional Final. I did not go down to San Antonio in 2001, but there was no way I was missing 2005 in Rosemont.

Saturday approached, and I was nervous as a fan for the first time all season. I thought this might be the day my dream ends. All logic and reasoning pointed me to the fact that Illinois would win this game, but my heart, conditioned to being let down by sports teams, especially the two I hold dearest, Illinois basketball and the Cubs, thought Saturday afternoon would be another let down.

Illinois went into the half up two. I took a seat down in the 100 level, down from my 200 Level seat that I had procured through my friend, ready to cheer on the Illini to the Final Four. The second half did not go the Illini's way. With about five and a half minutes left, I tapped my friend on the shoulder and told him I was going back to my seat in the 200 level.

I used the bathroom before heading up the stairs, all the while thinking: "This season cannot end like this. Not with this group of guys. They have played so tough and hard that they could not go out like this."

I got back up to my seat during the under 4:00 TV timeout, and I could not move. I saw another friend as I was walking back to my seat and mocked like I was shooting myself in the head. I gave up, I thought the season was over, and I needed time to digest it. I sat down in my seat and just put my head in my hands and stewed.

As I was stewing, I received a text message from a friend that said exactly what I was thinking. While it is vulgar, it perfectly summed up how I was feeling, and obviously how my friend was feeling. So, here it is unedited: "I dont wanna be a fan anymore. Its just too hard. Here is the kick in the balls i have been waiting for all year. Fuck them, i have had enough."

The crowd cheered. I continued to stew knowing I had already had enough.

The crowd cheered louder. I continued to stew, not knowing what was going on.

The crowd cheered louder. I continued to stew, not knowing what exactly was happening.

The crowd cheered louder than I have ever heard a crowd cheer. I turned to the person sitting next to me, and asked what was happening. She told me that Illinois was coming back and they were only down five.

The crowd cheered louder than I have ever heard a crowd cheer, even louder than just two seconds ago. Illinois was down three. I continued to stew, thinking just as my friend had text messaged me earlier in the evening, "This was the kick in the balls I have been waiting for all season."

The crowd cheered louder than I have ever heard a crowd cheer, even louder than two seconds ago. Thje person behind me was hitting me on the head telling me Illinois just tied the game. The girl next to me verified it. I continued to stew, now, more because I was sitting in this position all the while Illinois made the comeback, so I can't move now.

The Illini and Wildcats were going to overtime! I don't know how it happened, and I still have yet to watch the final three minutes of the game, but I will. Pessimism still crept into my mind, could they lose this game?

No, they couldn't. Despite his cramping up, Deron Williams led the Illini in overtime, both offensively and defensively. He hit two three pointers in overtime, and played the crucial defense on Hassan Adams in the final possession of the game.

After the final buzzer sounded, all I can remember is joy.

I saw Dave Weber run onto the court and give his brother a big bear hug.

I saw player's parents tearing up from what they just saw their flesh and blood do.

I saw fans realizing they were one step closer a dream that they have held since the days of TJ Wheeler, Andy Kaufman, Kevin Turner, Brian Johnson, Ken Norman, Eddie Johnson, Andy Phillip, Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill, Marcus Liberty, Jens Kujawa, and many more players throughout the history of Illinois basketball.

The Fighting Illini just did the improbable, and the amazing.

I thought a team that wins that game has to win the National Championship, it is just destined to be.

My cell phone was going off like mad.

"Oh my fucking god"

"Oh my god"

Voice mails and text messages from people that were either congratulating me as a fan, or just in shock over what they saw.

"I wrote us off. This place was unreal"

"Bo-freaking-ya! Unbelieveable, im still in shock"

And they kept coming for what seemed like hours. I left the Allstate Arena still in shock over what I saw, but knowing that no one could take away this feeling from me as a fan.

Then I walked into a bar for a friend's birthday party. Every Illinois fan had the biggest shit-eating grin on their face. When the highlights showed on the TV on either ESPN News or ESPN, the bar stopped moving and Illinois fans stared at the screen in disbelief. No one could gather what they saw, but they knew one thing: St. Louis here were come.

A sea of orange was about to take over St. Louis, and I was about to be a member of it. This year I would not have an exchange at the Final Four after bumping into a Big Ten coach like I did in 2002 when he sees my Illinois shirt and says, "You guys should have been here." Illinois is here, and Illinois are a team of destiny, or so I thought.

Saturday night in St. Louis was just the precursor to something big, I could feel it. Louisville was no match for the Illini as Illinois only trailed once at 33-31 and thanks to Roger Powell, Jr. and Luther Head went on to a 72-57 victory.

All signs were pointing to a match up with North Carolina, a game that I had wanted to see all season. I can admit it now, I wanted North Carolina to beat Michigan State because as a fan, I wanted to beat the best in the Championship game, and to me that was North Carolina.

Saturday night after the game and Sunday were a blur. There was a lot of drinking, and a lot of partying. The Illini were one win away from the program's first National Championship, and Illinois fans truly believed this would be the year. How could it not be the year after that comeback against all odds in Chicago?

It was four hours until tip off, and we were tailgating just east of the Edward Jones Dome.

"I want this game so bad" was uttered by every member of the tailgating group.

"Is it 8:20 yet?" was also uttered by every body as they continually checked their cell phones and watches for the time, hoping that checking it more frequently would play a trick on the earth forcing it to rotate faster.

Time dragged on. Time continued to drag on. Time was still dragging on, and it was only 6:00.

You can assume how the time leading up to the game happened. Every five minutes seemed like an eternity.

Finally, the National Anthem was being played by the Illinois band and the game was ready to tip off.

Illinois scores the first two points.

North Carolina scores the next nine.

Illinois fights back.

Augustine grabs a seat on the bench due to fouls.

Sean May starts his best Bill Walton impersonation, and considering he was in St. Louis, it was only appropriate.

Illinois trailed by 13 at the half.

I knew it was not over.

It could not end this way. Last week proved to me that it would not end this way. The Illini would fight back.

The Illini fought back throughout the second half.

The Illini tied the game at 70.

The Illini had what seemed like an infinite number of shots missed that could have taken the lead when the score was 70-70 and 72-20. Then the Illini missed a three that could have tied the game at 73-70.

The buzzer sounded, and I stormed out of the Edward Jones Dome not wanting to watch the Tarheels celebrate. I was bitter. I was pissed. I missed One Shining Moment inside the dome hosting the Final Four for the first time in five years and I did not care.

That should have been Bruce Weber and his Fighting Illini cutting down the nets and celebrating.

That should have been the boys from Champaign, IL who captivated not only Central Illinois, but the entire state with a brand of basketball that screamed team.

There is only one thing that can sum up Monday night's National Championship game for me: Illinois got beat by North Carolina. The Illini had the chance to win the game, and if one of those attempts at the basket goes in when the score is 70-70, Illinois wins, but they didn't. This was the season those shots should have gone in, but they didn't.

The greatest season in Illinois basketball history ended one step short of immortality on the national stage, but this season will live forever in the annals of Illinois Basketball history. It was the 100th year, and it was the greatest year in the first 100, and a sign of what the next 100 years will be like for Fighting Illini basketball.

While I enjoyed the ride through the 2004-2005 basketball season for many different reasons I will always be thankful for a few key things …

Thank you Dee Brown for being the poster child of Illinois basketball. Your energy and enthusiasm created so many more Illinois fans than you can imagine. You along with your teammates have made more young children Illinois fans than anyone I have seen in a long time.

Thank you Jack Ingram for being the one person that would constantly do what I said you could not do. There was not a game that went by that I did not wonder how you did something. Then after you did it, there was not an opportunity that went by where I did not get "I told you so" e-mails from friends.

Thank you Deron Williams for sitting in the back ground when it came to press accolades and awards all the while being the rock that ran this team. You will be rewarded when you are named a lottery selection in 2005's NBA Draft. You went through three years at Illinois glad to play in the shadows of Dee Brown and Brian Cook and be the team's rock and point guard. Some fans may have overlooked you, the media may have overlooked you, but a point guard is judged by wins and your record at Illinois was 88-16, or an 84.6% winning percentage over three seasons. That is the true judge of a point guard.

Thank you James Augustine for accepting a role, for not wondering where your points would come from, and for scoring points when the Illini really needed them from you.

Thank you Roger Powell, Jr. for hitting almost every three pointer I screamed at you for taking.

Thank you Luther Head for being the silent assassin. The evolution of your game from a freshman that could only jump to a senior that could not jump any more, but could shoot with precision was a great thing to watch.

Thank you Rich McBride for playing defense and being a player that could give the Illini starting back court a five minute rest here and there. I know you were not making shots, but your contributions allowed Bruce Weber to rest his starters at key times.

Thank you Bruce Weber for being the coach of the Fighting Illini and for showing everyone what true strength was as you continued on coaching this team, your family, through the most difficult time in someone's life.

Thank you to the 2004-2005 Fighting Illini for the best season I have ever been a part of as a fan.

You guys were what made this year so special, not the 37-2 record.

Not the second straight Big Ten Championship.

Not the Big Ten Tournament Championship.

Not the trip to the Final Four.

It was watching Dee pass up an open shot to give it to Deron, who would pass up an open shot to find Luther in the corner for a shot that was so open it looked like he was in a three-point contest.

It was watching you celebrate what even you did not believe in Chicago. The joy on my face and the faces of Illini fans across the country was only surpassed by the joy we saw on your face as you cut down the nets.

It was watching Bruce Weber twirl the net around after the Chicago Regional Final was over.

Nothing can take these memories away, and nothing will.

No longer will Illinois fans wax poetically about the Flying Illini when remembering days gone past, they will talk about the Fighting Illini of 2004-2005 a team that had no nickname, they were just plain and simple the Fighting Illini from the University of Illinois.

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