Illini Season Demonstrates NCAA Potential

The Fighting Illini basketball team has a proud history. The 13th winningest program in NCAA history, the Illini are accustomed to competing in NCAA tournaments. They battled North Carolina in the 2005 NCAA Championship finals. And they had appeared in 8 straight tournaments before stumbling last year.

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They were not expected to be NCAA qualifiers this year either. Lacking superstars, they were slated for the second division in the Big 10. But the Illini players knew something no one else knew. They were driven to get rid of the bad taste in their mouths from last year's failure, and they worked diligently in the offseason to make something positive out of the 2008-09 season.

After acceptable wins in two exhibition tilts and their first two games of the season against weak foes, the Illini traveled to Vanderbilt for their first big road test. The 18-11 Commodores were a young team this year, but the 69-63 Illinois victory in overtime was a major surprise nonetheless. The win gave the young Illini some much needed confidence.

Illinois then competed in the South Padre Island Invitational, defeating decent Kent State and Tulsa teams for the championship. They did not play outstanding ball in either game, but they were able to get and maintain leads, something they struggled doing last year. That championship also helped strengthen confidence levels.

The Illini came within an eyelash of defeating an outstanding Clemson team in the Assembly Hall on their return from Texas. If they had reversed the two-point loss, they would have helped the Big 10 win its first ever Big 10/ACC Challenge. Clemson was too athletic and quick for the Illini as their big men had a field day inside and their guards penetrated at will to counter an Illinois advantage late in the game.

This team remained resilient. Four wins preceded a 75-59 blowout victory over the Missouri Tigers in St. Louis. This win later proved to be one of Illinois' best of the season as the Tigers continued to climb the polls afterward.

One more nonconference win gave the Illini a 12-1 mark going into the Big 10 season. Mighty Purdue was expected to dominate at home, but the Illini fought through adversity to pull out a 71-67 overtime victory. Unfortunately, the Illini appeared to leave their game at Purdue as they were flat at Michigan five days later.

Calvin Brock has matured into a solid contributor this season. (Getty Images)

Illinois stayed within 6 points at Michigan State, a moral victory at the time. And they had good wins at home over quality Ohio State and Wisconsin quintets. But for some inexplicable reason, the wheels came off at Minnesota. The Illini couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. After awhile, teamwork broke down as individuals panicked and started trying to win the game on their own. The 59-36 loss was a total embarrassment.

Two wins and a road loss to Wisconsin preceded a trip to Northwestern. The Wildcats took a big lead and kept it until late in the game when the Illini rallied. For the first time all year, Illinois found an ability to overcome a deficit, winning the game in the last seconds. The 60-59 result was their only lead of the game and gave them another boost of self-respect.

After two more wins, the Illini experienced their second aberration of the season. Penn State and Illinois both shot poorly at the Assembly Hall, their defenses dominating. The pathetically low scoring 38-33 loss became a national laughing stock and did damage to the Big 10's reputation.

Illinois played great in the rematch at Happy Valley, but Talor Battle's last second heroics gave PSU a surprising 64-63 victory. The game was lost, but the Illini could still hold their heads high as they played a great game in a hostile environment. It prepared them well for the upcoming tournaments.

Illinois played the year with a secret formula designed to motivate them. They wore practice t-shirts saying, "24 + 41 = 65." Coach Bruce Weber gave them goals of 24 victories and an average of 41 on their Matto Play Hard Chart.

The Play Hard Chart is named posthumously for former Illini guard Matt Heldman, the classic overachiever. Points are accumulated for hustle plays such as steals, deflections, taking charges, etc. Weber felt if the Illini could reach these two goals, they would make the 65 man NCAA field.

Illinois came within one of the victory goal. They didn't always average 41 on the Matto Chart, but they had a high of 48 one game and numerous games around 40. Hustle and teamwork can make up for a lack of athleticism, and Illinois proved it by making the NCAA Tournament.

It is hard to predict how the Illini will fare in the tourney. It depends on seedings, matchups and locales. If they get a favorable matchup and play close to home where their fans can support them, the Illini could win one or two games. But if they have to play an athletic team that can jump over them or out race them, the Illini could struggle. Of course, if they shoot like in the Minnesota and Penn State games, they will lose no matter what.

One way or the other, Illinois is in the tournament to win. They will give it their best effort. They are determined to prove their value, so anything is possible. No team should take the Illini lightly, or they could become embarrassed by the result.

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