Jan. 21, 2005
People have asked me about the chances of Illinois challenging for an unbeaten season. It seems early to consider it, especially in mid-January with so much Big Ten conference play ahead. The Illini are 19-0 (5-0 Big Ten) after defeating Iowa 73-68 in overtime Thursday night.
Indiana was the last team to go undefeated and win the national championship (in 1976). That Indiana team went a perfect 32-0 and excelled in every way. Those Hoosiers had such incredible team chemistry and camaraderie. Players sacrificed for the greater good of the team.
Players knew their roles, starting with the catalyst, point guard Quinn Buckner. Scott May was a scorer deluxe, a real superstar as well as the ultimate team player. He's also the father of North Carolina center Sean May.
|Coach Bruce Weber won the Big Ten title in his first season at Illinois after five years at Southern Illinois.|
Bobby Wilkerson gave the Hoosiers size on the perimeter and played tremendous defense. Kent Benson provided offensive efficiency and a defensive presence in the paint. Tom Abernathy was a blender, fitting in and contributing in all aspects of the game.
The '76 Hoosiers were coached by Robert Montgomery Knight, and what a job he did. It was a special team.
Back to Illinois: The Illini have a premier backcourt — it doesn't get much better than Dee Brown and Deron Williams. That duo is up there with the best of them, including Wake Forest's Chris Paul and Justin Gray and North Carolina's Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants.
But Illinois is more than just a backcourt tandem. Luther Head and Roger Powell provide great athleticism. James Augustine has improved and provides solid inside play. The Illini have tremendous balance and are well-coached and well-schooled.
This team has bought into coach Bruce Weber's philosophy. It took just a short time for the Illini to adjust from the Bill Self era to the Weber regime. Self did a superb job, but Illinois is moving forward in a positive way. Last season, Weber's first at the helm, he became the third coach in Big Ten history to win an outright league title in his first season. Weber is my midseason coach of the year.
Illinois has at least a couple of games standing in the way of an undefeated season. A trip to Wisconsin on Tuesday will be difficult (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET). The Badgers are so tough at Madison. Coach Bo Ryan has done an outstanding job, and his team is always prepared.
A contest at Michigan State on Tuesday, Feb. 1 will be another big test (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET). A trip to the Izzone is tough for any team. Michigan State's Breslin Arena and Wisconsin's Kohl Center are two of the toughest places to play in America.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has to be smiling, because Illinois and Michigan State give the Big Ten two legitimate Final Four contenders. And the Spartans will get better and better.
The Spartans only get one shot against Illinois, while Wisconsin gets a home-and-home (the teams also play at Illinois on Saturday, Feb. 12). It will be interesting to see if Illinois can make a run at a perfect Big Ten season. Then we can talk about comparisons to the '76 Indiana team and perfection.
Just last season, both Stanford and Saint Joseph's came close to undefeated seasons. In fact, St. Joe's finished the regular season with an unblemished 27-0 record before falling to unranked Xavier in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament. Stanford was 26-0 heading into the last game of the regular season but was upset by Washington.
Weber doesn't want to hear about undefeated seasons — he wants to concentrate on one Big Ten game at a time.
In 1989, I remember labeling Illinois as the Flyin' Illini, with coach Lou Henson (or Loo Doo) guiding a super team: Kenny Battle, Marcus Liberty, Kendall Gill, Stephen Bardo, Lowell Hamilton. This year's team is special too — the Flyin Illini Part 2, baby! Illinois is an offensive machine that plays tough defense too.
The fans in Champaign in Orange Crush country have something to smile about. They should be excited about this edition. But Weber doesn't want to hear about undefeated seasons — he wants to concentrate on one Big Ten game at a time. His team doesn't want to become bulletin-board fodder. The bottom line is that he wants his program to be in position for a national championship.
Illinois is well on its way. This team looks like a favorite to get to the Final Four.
Dick Vitale coached the Pistons and the University of Detroit before broadcasting ESPN's first college basketball game in 1979. Send a question to Vitale for possible use on ESPNEWS.