Bob Asmussen | Is basketball heaven in the cards for Illini? We'll know in four games

Mar. 28—CHAMPAIGN — On paper, the current Illinois men's basketball team shouldn't work.

The Illini don't have a true point guard. The center is unconventional. The No. 2 option spent the bulk of his career in the Missouri Valley Conference. One of the starters is on his third school. The best shooter off the bench can be streaky.

Not exactly a recipe for success.

But it is working. So well in fact that Brad Underwood's seventh Illinois team is two wins away from the program's first Final Four since 2005. And four wins away from basketball heaven ... cutting down the nets in Glendale, Ariz., just before the playing of "One Shining Moment" on TBS on April 8.

Illinois was so close in 2005. This season, and this team, remind me of that one.

I have been part of Illinois basketball coverage for 35 years at The News-Gazette (I came to C-U months after the Flyin' Illini, darn it).

This is the third time a trip to the Final Four seemed doable. Illinois went 1-1 in the earlier two, losing a classic/foul-plagued game to Arizona in the 2001 regional final in San Antonio.

Coached by Bill Self, the 2000-01 Illini finished with 27 wins. Only the NCAA runners-up (37) and the Flyin' Illini (31) had won more. Until now. Underwood's team enters Thursday's late-night showdown against Iowa State in Boston with 28 wins. Three away from Lou Henson's beloved 1988-89 team. Company you definitely want to keep.

Showing up

Illinois fans didn't know what to expect going into this season. But they were eager to find out. From early on, they filled State Farm Center. The place was stuffed for Big Ten games with ticket scalpers making a bundle on the home finale against Purdue.

The team offered promise and two stars. One expected, Terrence Shannon Jr., and one a surprise, Southern Illinois transfer Marcus Domask. Both deserved and earned All-Big Ten honors. At times, they've carried the team.

They are the top-two scorers for Illinois and at the top of every opponent's scouting report.

But Domask and Shannon have been blessed with oodles of help. At different times and in different ways. Big man Coleman Hawkins does a bit of everything, leading the team in steals, second in three-pointers, assists and rebounds and third in scoring. Guard Ty Rodgers, all 6-foot-6 of him, rebounds like a guy 6 inches taller. Transfer Quincy Guerrier leads the team in rebounds and is just short of averaging in double figures.

Super sub Dain Dainja, a crowd favorite since he transferred from Baylor, has been a revelation in recent weeks. Doubtful Illinois wins the Big Ten tournament title without his contributions. Or maybe even beats Morehead State.

The players don't seem to care who gets the credit, which I maintain is the key to success in any venture.

That connection manifests itself in extra passes being made to wider open teammates. No great explanation why it happened with this team but it seemed apparent early.

That connection made the team especially difficult to beat on the road. The players looked like they owned the Target Center in Minneapolis during the Big Ten tournament run. They were uber-comfortable at CHI Health Center in Omaha, Neb., where they played 60 great minutes after a slow first 20.

At TD Garden in Boston, Illinois is going to feel like the visitor. Oh sure, some Illini fans will be there Thursday. But they will be outnumbered by the Iowa State fan base, which has been waiting for this moment.

And the fans in the opener, especially the Connecticut side, won't be pulling for Illinois. The Huskies faithful realize the easier road to defending their national title doesn't include facing Shannon and Domask.

Running is fun

More accurately, scoring is fun. The current Illini have 3,044 points. Only one team in school history had more. If you guessed the Flyin' Illini, you are correctamundo (thanks Fonzie).

At 3,110 points, the 1988-89 team is only 66 ahead. At its current pace, this team is likely to break the record Thursday night.

The current Illini are a few points per game behind the Flyin' Illini, which averaged 86.4. And that isn't even the school record. Don Freeman, Skip Thoren, Tal Brody, Jim Dawson and pals averaged 92.2 for Harry Combes in the 1964-65 season.

The current Illinois team is a treat to watch, capable of long scoring runs, a string of breakaway dunks and distant makes from all over the court. There have more oohs and aahs this season than at any time in the last two decades. And not nearly as many groans.

The current team has rarely disappointed, especially at home.

The eight losses came against Marquette (by seven), at Tennessee (by seven), Purdue twice (by five and six) to Maryland (by nine, the lone clunker all season), at Northwestern (by five in OT), at Michigan State (by eight) and at Penn State (by one, blame Rec Hall).

Four of the losses came against teams that joined Illinois in the Sweet 16: Marquette, Tennessee and Purdue.

Illinois had nine wins against teams that reached the NCAA tournament. Nice work.

The best part? You don't get the sense its season is done. One game at a time, starting Thursday night in Boston, three miles from Fenway Park. Will Illinois hit a homer? Don't bet against it.

Four more wins and Champaign-Urbana will have a party they've been waiting for 119 seasons to deliver on.

You might want to head to the stores (grocery, liquor and fireworks). Just in case.