Illinois coach Bruce Weber was consensus National Coach Of The Year for the 2004-05 season, leading the Illini to the National Championship game. He reflects on that team.
"That was a unique group. I saw where they had the best teams of the decade of the 2000's. I saw another thing where they had the best teams in history. And we were listed in both of those.
"You think about it, we didn't even win the whole thing. We lost in the final. But we were two games from perfection, two plays probably from perfection. And I still have coaches (contacting him).
"I got a note from Bill Sharman, famous former coach. I don't think I've ever met him, but he wrote me a note on how much he appreciated the way our guys played and how they played the game right. When we played the Wooden Game, Coach (John) Wooden commented on our team."
Starters Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head, Roger Powell and James Augustine formed a unit that was greater than the sum of its parts. That team was respected nationally for the way it played the game and how it used teamwork and good chemistry to tear apart opposing teams. Weber wonders if another team can ever repeat that success.
"I don't know if you can ever duplicate it. You try. We're still coaching the same, but it's getting them to buy in, it's that chemistry. And they have to be good players. Those guys were good players.
"They were good, obviously Deron's great, but none of them needed to be stars. I think that was so important. Dee got a lot of the hype and attention, but they still were all kind of blue collar and accepted their roles even though they were very good players."
In this day and age, that is certainly a rarity. All five starters are still playing basketball for a career, and Williams is one of the NBA's top point guards. They put aside selfish goals for team goals. As a result, they played as one well-tuned organism on the floor.
Each was willing to give up the ball to an open teammate. And each made quality passes. In the home game with Northwestern that year, on one possession they made 13 straight passes before canning an open jumper. Wildcat players were worn out defending the play and shaking their heads in disbelief. Illini fans understood the definition of the word "team."
"We've had good teams on passing the ball, but never that good," Weber confides. "Part of it, they all could pass. They didn't mind passing.
"We went through that this year. I don't think they were selfish, they're just not good passers. I think it's part of what's happened in our game today. It's all dribbling, to the basket, dunks, long threes. That (passing) skill is kind of lost, not only in doing it but in wanting to do it. And feeling good about passing it to someone else to help your team win."
Illinois ran a true motion offense as envisioned by Weber in 2004-05. It is an offense that requires teamwork and good passing, but it also requires quality screening to free teammates for open looks. This past season, a combination of slender bodies, passive demeanors and general reluctance made many screens ineffective. That was quite a contrast to what happened previously.
"We accepted screening," Weber remembers. "I joked this year about football mentality. James Augustine played football, his dad was a football coach. He didn't care, he'd go screen. Roger would go screen. Even Deron and Luther and Dee. Dee was a football kid and would go screen. He didn't mind getting a body on him.
"So one, we had people so spread because we had so many people who could do things to spread the defense. But when we did screen it was effective because guys didn't mind putting bodies on people."
Half the game is on the defensive end. The 2004-05 team, which still has no special nickname, played excellent defense as well according to Weber.
"The other thing from that team that gets lost is how good a defensive team we were. You didn't notice it because we scored so much and won by so much.
"When you look at (opponent) scoring average, we weren't very good. Some veteran coaches will tell you it's not holding somebody to 45 points, it's your margin of victory that is the big thing. Obviously, we were very good with that."
If you have skilled players who are unselfish and willing to put team first, you have a chance to be special. The upcoming 2010-2011 season has a mixture of players who may have the overall talent to be special. Each will need to improve between now and then, and chemistry must be enhanced.
Weber has no illusions about recreating the magical team of six years ago. But he may be closer this year than any time since.
"I'm hoping we have a chance this year. One, we're gonna have some seniors, which is important. And then I think we have more skilled guys. I don't know if we can duplicate it obviously, but I do think we have a chance to be pretty good."
Part 4 of this 8 part series talks about the limited amount of time available for team practice and how that affects things like in-bounds plays and other parts of the game.