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Illinois still has right stuff for national title


March 6, 2005
There must have been some shocked people in Champaign, Ill., after previously undefeated Illinois was upset 65-64 Sunday by Ohio State.

As I noted a couple weeks ago, Sunday's game at Columbus was dangerous for Illinois. You know Ohio State circled this game against the No. 1 team in America on its calendar.

The bottom line is, winning back-to-back Big Ten titles is impressive.
The Buckeyes played inspired basketball at home as they ended Illinois' perfect season. For coach Thad Matta's team, this was their national championship game, since they're ineligible for the NCAA Tournament.

And remember, Matta was the coach at Xavier when the Musketeers ended St. Joseph's perfect season in the Atlantic 10 tournament last year.

Ohio State has made some strides trying to get back to respectability. Give Matta credit for doing a solid job in difficult circumstances. This proud program has won 19 games this season, finishing .500 in league play (19-11, 8-8 Big Ten).

Matta had his kids primed and ready. The Buckeyes fought hard after falling behind by 12 points, showing a lot of guts.

Junior forward Matt Sylvester, who entered Sunday averaging less than eight points per game, came through with 25 points, but none bigger than the game-winning trifecta with five ticks left on the clock. Sylvester and junior forward Terence Dials combined for 46 of Ohio State's 65 points.

Illinois (29-1, 15-1 Big Ten) saw its Big Three of Luther Head, Deron Williams and Dee Brown hit just 7-of-27 shots from the field. Williams made just 1-of-7 attempts. Those guards have been phenomenal all season long, but at Columbus they didn't get the job done.

The Fighting Illini have enjoyed a terrific season, and nobody can take that away. The bottom line is, winning back-to-back Big Ten titles is impressive. Coach Bruce Weber has to be mighty proud.

Now it's time to prepare for the second season, the Big Ten championship. The focus has to shift from this loss to the first game against the Northwestern-Michigan winner in the Big Ten quarterfinals.

Illinois has a three-goal plan -- win the Big Ten regular-season championship (done), then the conference tournament, followed by the NCAA championship.

Can Illinois make a big run, going from Indianapolis in the opening round of the NCAAs to Chicago's Allstate Arena for the regionals and then to St. Louis for the Final Four? Weber's team is capable of responding despite Sunday's loss. But they can't shoot the rock the way they did against the Buckeyes.

Something tells me these kids, who are mentally tough winners, will find a way to march on to challenge for a national championship.

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.

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