The 2004-2005 Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball team may be one of the rare teams that is remembered more than the national champion from that year. The Illini won their first twenty-nine games of the season, with their first loss coming in their last regular season game against Ohio State on a last second shot by Matt Sylvester. From there, they won the Big Ten Conference tournament, and worked through the NCAA Tournament until eventually falling to the North Carolina Tar Heels in the championship game. But simple details do not do justice to the force that Illini team was, and anyone who watched them play would agree. The Fighting Illini were voted the best college basketball team to never win a title by Sports Illustrated readers. To this day, that team is my favorite in any sport I have ever watched, as they just brought that special something, a type of magic to the table that is impossible to replicate.
First of all, the Illini brought an unselfishness to the table that permeated throughout the team, similar to what Steve Nash brought to the Phoenix Suns in the mid to late 2000’s. That stemmed from starting three All-American guards in Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and Luther Head, who could all handle the ball and make the smart read in transition and in the half-court. The Illini led the NCAA in assists that year with 727 , and that three headed monster accounted for 591 of those. Nothing exemplified this unselfishness more than this fifteen pass possession against Northwestern that led to a wide open Dee Brown three pointer. Just look at that play again. Everyone touches the ball, and good looks at the basket are passed up in order to swing the ball for a better one. Deron Williams has a good look at a three with about ten seconds left on the shot clock, but instead passes it in to James Augustine, who makes the final pass to Brown. The chemistry between the starting five of Brown, Head, Williams, Roger Powell Jr., and James Augustine was on a whole other level, largely because they had already been playing with each other for two seasons.
The most “magical” moment of the season no doubt came in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, when the Illini faced the Arizona Wildcats. The Illini were awarded the overall number one seed for the tournament, and were able to play their Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games in Rosemont, Illinois, a mere two hours away from Champaign. Illinois fans came out in herds, and the Illini were essentially playing home games. With a raucous crowd in hand, the Illini were trailing the Wildcats 77-63 with 3:28 remaining in the game. With their season on the line, the Illini proceeded to go on an incredible run to tie the game. And they did it by playing their brand of basketball, applying pressure on and off the ball on defense, and finding open looks from three. The Illini forced four turnovers in the last three and a half minutes, scoring nine points off these turnovers. When Deron Williams tied the game at eighty with thirty-eight seconds left, the arena absolutely erupted. CBS cut to Bill Murray losing his mind in the stands, and that image lingers in my mind to this day. To me, that image encompasses what the Illini were all about. A group of 18-22 year olds played basketball with such a passion and contagious energy that you could not help but smile every time you watched them play, no matter your age or social status.