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Illinois eyes (bus) ride to Final Four


March 16, 2005 | ESPN.com's NCAA Tournament coverage

I love this time of year, baby – the NCAA Tournament is the greatest three weeks in sports!

Dee Brown
After helping Illinois soar, Dee Brown has declared for the draft (but hasn't hired an agent).
The Vitale Bald Dome Index (VBDI) started to light up when I looked over the NCAA bracket. The overall top seed in the 65-team field is Illinois, and rightfully so.

The Fightin' Illini (32-1) had a phenomenal campaign, missing a perfect regular-season record in a one-point upset loss to Ohio State in the final game of the season. But the Illini recovered to win the Big Ten tournament, and they clearly have a lot to be proud of.

Hey, Illinois could be riding a bus all the way to the Final Four – no March Madness plane trips for these Illini! First stop, Indianapolis. Then a potential bus ride to Chicago, and finally to St. Louis for the Final Four.

Tim Bourret, the brilliant sports information director at Clemson, has pointed out that NC State (led by David Thompson) won the national championship in 1974 without ever getting on a plane. It was Raleigh, then Greensboro – where they celebrated!

I feel it's right to reward the Illini for their outstanding season.

Illinois is the No. 1 seed in the Chicago Regional, and you can make a case that Boston College (the No. 4 in that region) is the weakest of the No. 4 seeds. The Eagles slipped late in the season, going 4-4 in their last eight games after starting 20-0. Coach Al Skinner's team will fight hard, though.

Wow, Skinner and Illinois' Bruce Weber, my co-coaches of the year, could square off in the regional semifinals.

Weber has done an amazing job, and now he's also handling the adversity of the passing of his mother – and I send out my condolences to the entire Weber family. The pain and emotion he's feeling are so tough mentally.

It was so emotional when Weber decided to coach in the Big Ten tournament semifinals after his mother's death. He's a courageous guy to be on the sidelines in that situation. Your heart goes out to someone in that circumstance.

It's a big plus for Illinois to stay relatively close to home. That was one of the motivational factors for the Illini all season – they posted it in the locker room and talked about it. They went out and earned it.

Guard play is so important in the NCAA Tournament, and Illinois has three outstanding perimeter players: juniors Deron Williams and Dee Brown and senior Luther Head. When you have good guards, you can control tempo and handle pressure.

Junior James Augustine and senior Roger Powell do a nice job inside to round out the starting lineup.

Hey, Illinois could be riding a bus all the way to the Final Four.
Let me make this clear: I don't want to hear anybody say the Illini had a disappointing season if they get bumped out in the second round, the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, etc. Are you kidding me? That is the negativity that occurs with the NCAA Tournament.

I remember when Kansas finished 34-2 in 1997. The Jayhawks entered the tournament as a prohibitive favorite after going 32-1 in the regular season (the loss was a heartbreaker to Missouri on a last-second shot).

Unfortunately for Roy Williams and Co., Arizona pulled off the upset en route to a national championship by knocking off three No. 1 seeds. Everyone said Kansas couldn't win the big one.

Excuse me, but that was a great Jayhawks team that enjoyed a tremendous season, and all six seniors graduated. Some people get carried away with the "what have you done for me lately" mentality. If you have one bad game and you're eliminated, suddenly you're deemed a failure despite an incredible amount of success. I just don't buy that.

I feel that the Illini will advance from the Chicago Regional and reach 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.

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