A national crown elevates Illinois into the elite
ST. LOUIS A few members of the Illinois administration sat around Saturday night after the Illini beat Louisville in the national semifinals and talked about what it would mean if the Illini won the national championship Monday night.
They brought up that this was the 100th year of basketball at the school. They mentioned there has been a number of great Illini teams.
What they may not have specifically mentioned was that Illinois is one of only 15 Division I schools to have won 1,500 games and of the 13 ahead of the Illini (who have 1,519 wins all time), only five (St. John's, Temple, Penn, Notre Dame and Oregon State) don't have a national title.
"To be able to finish this puts you on a whole different level," Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther said. "We've had a terrific amount of attention throughout the year because of the [No. 1] ranking. But in the last game, you're on a world stage and people don't remember, I don't remember, the guys who finish second in these things. I only remember who gets the thing done. That's what we've got to get done."
Guenther isn't putting pressure on Weber and his charges. He's just being realistic. If Illinois beats North Carolina for the national championship at the Edward Jones Dome, the Illini will move to an elite level.
That's the last thing this program has to do to put itself on that pedestal. And in college hoops, its a large (and usually permanent) step. This isn't the NFL, where parity seemingly creates elite teams almost every season. College basketball national champions are not one-year wonders. There is validation in that.
"A national title puts a program into the elite class that a lot of schools don't get to," said North Carolina junior center Sean May, a student of the game and of the Final Four, given his father, Scott, played for Indiana in 1976, the last team to go through the season undefeated.
"Anytime a school wins a national championship they become part of something special," the younger May said.
This weekend has been mostly about Illinois here. Sure, the Tar Heels have their flock following them around, but St. Louis is more Illini country than anything else seemingly even Mizzou, which plays a game against its border-state rival every year in St. Louis. Orange has been the color of choice around the city. The passion for this team is strong as committed as any of the nation's top programs.
"The other day I was walking back from practice here and I signed one autograph and then one more and then there was all these people chasing me to the point where they had to stop traffic," second-year Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "Last year, they were chasing me but they were trying to get me out of town, so it's a much different scenario."
Weber is joking, of course, since the Illini's Sweet 16 exit against Duke in his first season with the school certainly wasn't egregious. This isn't a school that can even claim a series of near-misses. Saturday's win was its first in five national semifinal appearances. The last time Illinois even played in a Final Four was 1989. Before that? 1952.
"We always talk about getting Illinois to the elite level, but you can get to as many Final Fours as you like, you can win as many Big Ten titles as you want, but if you don't win that championship, then you can't be talked about in the same breath as Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and Carolina," said Illini radio analyst Stephen Bardo, a member of the Illini's last Final Four team. "This is a huge step toward the legitimacy of Illinois being an elite program.
In picking the national championship game on Monday night, I am thrilled that we have the two best teams squaring off. I still don't understand why college football can't get its act together and have a playoff to determine the best team on the field.
That said, North Carolina and Illinois should go toe-to-toe. Both teams are so talented and both coaches have done a great job getting their teams here.
I really feel the big names, the Mays, Feltons, Browns, Heads and on and on will negate each other. I feel guys like Roger Powell of the Illini and Jawad Williams of the Tar Heels could be pivotal players in this game.
Another key could be Marvin Williams off the bench for North Carolina. He should be a future lottery pick and he has struggled in the last two games. I really believe he will pick it up and come through in this contest.
I have a lot of respect for what Bruce Weber and Illinois have accomplished this season. In the end, I see a Maalox Masher going to the wire. I picked North Carolina after last year's Final Four and I am not going to change now.
North Carolina 79, Illinois 76.
"It would mean the world to the alumni, to the fans, to the ex-players [to win the title] and you'll see the emotion [Monday] since everyone and their mother will be here," Bardo said.
Bardo's coach, Lou Henson, has been here all weekend. Friday, he was sitting next to Weber at the U.S. Basketball Writers Association awards breakfast (where Weber received the USBWA Henry Iba Coach of the Year award) being honored for his service to the game and media after retiring from New Mexico State.
Henson was given a standing ovation by the mostly partisan Illini fans in the audience. Henson, who uses a walker after suffering viral encephalitis in the fall, beamed with pride and spoke glowingly about what Weber has done with his former program.
"Lou Henson is the face of this program and he represents Illinois, and for him to come back around for this helped him health-wise," said Bardo, who was with Henson when he returned for the 100-year celebration event in January in Champaign. "He looks better than he did during the reunion weekend."
The history of Illinois basketball is proud. But even some of the in-state Illini players knew growing up that the program didn't stack up to some of the better-known national schools.
Senior Luther Head, a native of Chicago, said, "we've been one of the top programs but we don't have the hardware."
Junior Dee Brown, who grew up in Maywood, Ill., said he had only really heard of Duke and North Carolina. He did know that Illinois was one of the best programs never to have won a national title. He said he pops his jersey with his fingers to show that Illinois is now one of the best.
"Hopefully winning a national championship would put the program up there," said junior James Augustine, who is from Mokena, Ill.
It's really close.
"When it got under two minutes in the game against Louisville, and it looked like they were backing off, a great feeling ran through my mind and body," Weber said. "When I got into the locker room, I said 'we're one of the two playing on the last day.' "
What this season has meant for the program already is palpable.
"Recruits are emailing me now and when I call them they actually pick up the phone so if we could win the national title it gives you that one extra thing to get over the hump to get this going," Weber said. "If we had lost to Arizona, then we were good but we didn't have that special season. We don't know if we'll [bring the championship] back, but I sure hope we do for our kids' sake and for the coaches and for everyone who made this a special year."
That said, Guenther is right. No one really remembers who comes in second. So on Monday night, Weber will be coaching for a title and for his program's ultimate validation but just as important, coaching for all the Illini fans, for past coaches like Henson, for his players, for retiring mentor Gene Keady, and certainly for his late parents, whom he loved so dearly.
He told his team that one of the last things his mother, who died during the Big Ten tournament, told him was that she had received so many flattering articles about him and his team and that she saw him on TV all the time and it was "just like a fairytale."
"I told the kids that," Weber said. "It would be great now if we added one more chapter and one more page so let's have a great ending to the story."
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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