April 1, 2005

Expect Illinois to Succeed

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Having grown up in St. Louis, a city just across the river from the Land of Lincoln, it’s hard for me to root for Illinois. The Fighting Illini and the Missouri Tigers hate each other, and the battle line between the schools is as wide and deep as the mighty Mississippi, which runs between the states. And, for two hours a year, when Mizzou meets its foe on the basketball court, that divide becomes tangible, as fans and even some families pledge allegiance along state lines.

Anyone on the western side of the river can tell you, though, that cheering for the Tigers can be gut-wrenching. Mizzou always puts up a good fight, but the Illini usually find a way to put up more points. This year, the Tigers lost again, 70-64, but their defeat comes with at least a little consolation: they kept it close with the best team in the country. Illinois is going all the way.

It might not take an act of God to stop the Illini from winning the Final Four, but Louisville, Michigan State, and North Carolina may need to cash in a few prayers to beat this Midwestern powerhouse.

The orange and blue’s dynamic and balanced team has lofted the school to No. 1 in national rankings for a majority of the season. Head coach Bruce Weber’s game plan has guided the team to a 36-1 record. And the team’s two standout players, junior guards Dee Brown and Deron Williams, both made the All-America team. Brown is also in the running for the Wooden Award, given to the nation’s top college player.

The question about the Fighting Illini isn’t how they will win the tournament. If anything, it’s how can they lose? Maybe the Tribe will botch a chance at clinching the title, like it did against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Maybe it’ll let a team get too close and lose — a fate the team nearly endured when it squeaked by Arizona in its Elite Eight comeback win. But the Illini’s 54-43 shortcoming against Wisconsin may have been a fluke: Illinois had pounded the Badgers, 76-65, and, 70-59, during the regular season. And its game against Arizona wasn’t a scare, but a display of grit and composure. Add to that a season’s worth of wins against top teams like Gonzaga (89-72), Wake Forest (91-73), and, most notably, Michigan State (81-68), and Illinois looks like a prom king at the big dance.

The rest of the field can’t say the same. The Spartans find themselves in the Final Four with the Illinois monkey on their backs, and North Carolina barely beat Wisconsin. As for Louisville, look no further than the Illini’s mascot: he could use a few Cardinal plumes in his headdress.

Owen Bochner, Kyle Sheahen, and Chris Mascaro may try to woo your vote, but they just picked teams out of a hat and don’t know what they’re talking about anyway. The only hoops Owen’s ever seen are earrings on Long Gisland girls. Sheahen grew up in the O.C., where ‘rims’ are only found on cars. And Mascaro ‘May be Tall,’ but the Illini are just too big for this little guy to handle.

So pat the Buddha’s belly, dream of Genie, pick four-leaf clover, cross the rainbow, shake the magic eight ball — anything you want. All the hocus-pocus in these charms can’t equal the magic of this Illinois team. Go Illini!

Everett Hullverson is a former Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Chew on This appears alternate Fridays.

Archived article by Everett Hullverson