For a while, the dream was a perfect season. When that went poof in the final game of the regular season, the question became: How would Illinois respond?
A Big Ten tournament championship later – overcoming the emotional loss of coach Bruce Weber's mother in the process – the NCAA selection committee rewarded the Illini with the top overall seed and arguably the easiest (and certainly the shortest) road to the Final Four.
"Hopefully we can do something special," guard Luther Head says.
At 32-1, regrouped from that late loss to Ohio State, refocused despite the death of Dawn Weber on Friday, it is difficult to imagine Illinois won't do something special.
Balanced and brilliant Illinois clearly is the team to beat in this region.
To make things even better for the orange and white, the first two rounds will be played in Indianapolis, less than a two-hour drive from Champaign. The regionals will take place just outside Chicago, also just a two-hour drive from campus.
The Final Four itself is in St. Louis, an easy bus ride.
Which means to beat the Illini you'll have to contend with more than just Deron Williams and Dee Brown. You'll have to deal with an energized Orange Crush fan base that will do all it can to help the cause.
Illinois has been the nation's most consistently excellent team this year because of its ability to seize games at critical times and put opponents away. Illinois' killer instinct has been the difference.
The challenges, of course, are there. Oklahoma State and Arizona are formidable. But No. 4 seed Boston College is unpredictable and, compared against some of the other regionals, there isn't the obvious showdown looming. At least on paper.
And if one pops up, Illinois has proven it knows how to respond.
1. Boston College
The Eagles started the season 20-0 and were eyeing a No. 1 seed. Then Al Skinner's club went 4-4 and vanished from the Big East tournament seemingly before it started. So are the Eagles a Final Four contender or just a final fraud?
Skinner is one of the most underrated coaches in the nation, mainly because of his understated nature. So sleeping on his clubs is easy, but not recommended. Regardless, BC enters this tournament with a ton to prove.
2. Eddie Sutton
The best coach not in the Hall of Fame will look to make another run to the Final Four. Sutton is an old warrior who has taken four different teams to the NCAA tournament and reached the Final Four three times, including last year with the Cowboys. He also has fought through tough times such as the 2001 plane crash at OSU and his firing at Kentucky after NCAA compliance issues. Through it all, he taught some of the most ferocious defense ever. Is this the year he wins it all?
3. Utah State
Last year the Aggies set a record they could have done without – they had the best record (25-3) of any team that didn't get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. In a bit of poetic justice, Utah State upset Pacific in the Big West title game on Saturday, bumping someone (likely a high-major club) off the bubble and stealing a bid. Now look out; in recent years, Stew Morrill's program has upset Ohio State and scared the heck out of Kansas. They just may make the most of a second chance.
Who Will Win?: Illinois.
Dark-horse Pick (sixth seed or worse): Southern Illinois.
The Salukis (26-7) ran away with the regular-season title in the Missouri Valley, which merely got three teams into the tournament. This club is experienced, talented and not just happy to be here.
Upset Special: UW Milwaukee over Alabama.
The Horizon League usually produces a Cinderella (Butler, Detroit, UW Green Bay), so a 24-5 regular season and tournament champion is, by definition, dangerous. Alabama has enough talent to make the Final Four but can't afford to overlook Bruce Pearl's up-tempo team.
Fun Potential Matchup: Oklahoma State vs. Arizona (Sweet 16).
Between them, Sutton and Lute Olson have a combined 1,517 victories and have been to seven Final Fours. Both have powerhouse teams here. Not bad for a couple guys old enough to collect social security.
Or If You Prefer …
Maybe picking teams based on ability isn't your cup of tea. Hey, we all know anything works in the tournament, so here are a few other factors to consider:
- Toughest Mascot: Southern Illinois Salukis (a dog that's been around since Egyptian times has to be tough).
- Coolest School Colors: Alabama crimson and white.
- Best Coach: Arizona's Lute Olson.
- Best Academic Reputation: Penn.
- Prettiest Campus: Utah State (love the mountain views).
- Best Home Court: Gallagher-Iba Arena (Oklahoma State).
- Best State Bird: Louisiana's Eastern Yellow Pelican (LSU, SE Louisiana).
- Best Alum: Hugh Hefner (Illinois).
Five Stars to Watch:
- Luther Head, Sr., G, Illinois: You could also pick either of his perimeter mates (Dee Brown, Deron Williams), but it is the development of Head from good to great this year that mirrored the same for the Illini.
- Salim Stoudamire, Sr., G, Arizona: The nation's best shooter can take over games at will. If you think outside touch is a lost art, check out this kid who hit 52.5 percent from the 3 and 90.6 from the line.
- Nick Fazekas, So., F, Nevada: Last year he helped as Kirk Snyder led the Wolf Pack to the Sweet 16. Now it is the 6-11 NBA prospect's (21.4 points, 9.4 rebounds) time to shine.
- John Lucas, Sr., G, Oklahoma State: The Cowboys' bid for a second consecutive Final Four relies on team defense, but Lucas gives them a serious burst of offense (18.0 ppg) from the perimeter.
- Brandon Bass, So., F, LSU: A beautiful combination of speed and strength, Bass is a load to deal with. He torched the SEC this season for 17.1 points and nine rebounds a game, and may be on the verge of becoming a household name.
- Because the Ivy League still does it the old (and best) way by eschewing a conference tournament, it easy to forget Penn finished the season on a 16-1 tear.
- Fairleigh Dickinson is best known in basketball circles for hosting the annual ABCD All-America camp. But the real reason to root for FDU is that the school's administration, in an era of knee-jerk firings, has shown admirable patience with head coach Tom Green, who has led the Knights for 22 years. Some seasons the team has been very good (this is its fourth NCAA appearance) but sometimes not so good (4-25 in 2001-02). But rather than fire a guy they know could coach, they waited and were rewarded. Good for them, and for Green.
- UAB scored perhaps the most dramatic upset of the NCAA tournament last year when it knocked off Kentucky in the second round. Coach Mike Anderson was a longtime assistant under Nolan Richardson at Arkansas, and the Blazers play a similar style.
- Proof of the newfound respect mid-major programs are getting can be found in the first-round matchup between Southern Illinois and Saint Mary's. That doesn't happen five years ago.
- UW Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl graduated from Boston College and is a disciple of former Eagle coach Tom Davis. He could possibly face his alma mater in the second round.