One loss doesn't taint credentials

Originally Published: March 6, 2005
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Illinois is still the No. 1 team in the country.

The Illini still are the top seed in the NCAA Tournament and deserve every favored treatment along the way -- the first two rounds in Indianapolis and the top seed in the Chicago region en route to the Final Four in St. Louis -- on their campaign-like March bus tour around the Midwest.

Why?

Because one loss at Ohio State on Sunday in the Big Ten regular-season finale isn't enough to derail Illinois' rolling machine.

The Illini dominated the season, winning 29 straight games. They won the Big Ten title outright. They were 14-0 in non-conference games. During that stretch, the Illini crushed potential fellow No. 1 seed Wake Forest at home. They destroyed potential top-four seed Gonzaga in Indianapolis. And they easily dispatched Cincinnati, one of the top three teams in Conference USA, in Las Vegas.

Illinois also won at Arkansas in Little Rock. The Illini won at Georgetown. They beat Missouri in St. Louis. They beat Oregon when the Ducks were playing well.

During the Big Ten run, the Illini snapped Wisconsin's 38-game homecourt winning streak at the Kohl Center. The Illini won at Michigan State, when the Spartans felt they were primed to snap the Illini unbeaten string at the time. It wasn't close.

Iowa couldn't handle the Illini at home or on the road. Wisconsin couldn't last in Champaign. No one could anywhere, until the Buckeyes stunned Illinois Sunday afternoon in Columbus. Illinois coach Bruce Weber said after the game that the Illini accomplished the goals of winning the Big Ten, completing their non-conference season unblemished. He said the undefeated season snuck up on them. But it wasn't a goal.

It never is until a team gets into the NCAA Tournament unbeaten (see: UNLV in 1991). Once you're in the field without a loss then winning six more games becomes the goal along with an undefeated season.

Illinois' goal is still to win nine more games, three in the Big Ten and six in the NCAA Tournament. The Illini should still be the favorite entering the NCAA Tournament to accomplish their ultimate dream.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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