Besides the Fab Five back in the early 90’s, the Fighting Illini team back in the 2004-2005 season may be the best college team to never win a title. The team featured three guards with loads of talent, with the three-headed monster of Luther Head, Deron Williams, and Dee Brown. The team chemistry that Illinois had that year led them to the best record in school history, with only one loss coming into the NCAA Tournament.
That loss came in the final game before the conference tournament at Ohio State. The Buckeyes rallied to win 65-64 in a hard fought matchup. Since that Fighting Illini team, no team has come close in being undefeated in regular season play.
The trail to being number one began in Assembly Hall in mid-November when Illinois started the season as the number six team in the country. Within the first three weeks, the Illini bolted up the ranking to number one after victories over two ranked opponents. The win against then number one team, Wake Forest, set the tone for the season during the ACC/Big Ten tournament. Illinois owned the court that night and won handsomely, 91-73.
Illinois rolled over opponents time and time again until they took on a veteran North Carolina team in St. Louis for the National Title. It turned out to be one of the best college basketball games in the past ten years. The Tar Heels set the tone early with its fast-paced offense and went into halftime with a sizeable lead. That lead grew in the second half, but the Fighting Illini charged back to make the game interesting, somehow mounting a comeback to make it 70-70. But May, Felton, and company were resilient that night and won 75-70.
Senior guard Luther Head and junior Deron Williams entered the upcoming NBA Draft, and it was the end of a historic run. So, what has happened to the members of that determined bunch of young men of the Orange Crush?
Well, Deron Williams has had as successful of a NBA career as could have been imagined. He was drafted third overall in the 2005 Draft. The 26-year-old has been a two-time All-Star and has won Olympic gold as an important asset in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Williams has been hailed a perennial top-five point guard each of the past three of four seasons because of his amazing passing ability and his quick shooting stroke.
This past season, Williams was traded out of Utah because the Jazz front office was not confident that Williams would re-sign with the team. In his short stay so far with the New Jersey Nets, Williams has put up his best assist numbers of his career and is still a budding superstar.
Head was the other member of that Illinois team in the 2005 Draft. Head was drafted 24th overall to the Houston Rockets. In his rookie season, he made rookie second-team. He then proved to be a valuable asset to the Rockets in the next few seasons. During his stay in Houston, he was remembered for two things: being clutch and his performance April 9, 2007. In that April contest, Head had 30 points including seven threes.
Since his days as a Rocket, Head has played for three teams in three different season: the Heat, Pacers, and Kings. He was waived by the Kings in mid-March and will be looking for a new team in the upcoming season.
The third captain of the Illinois team in 2005 was little Dee Brown. After Williams left for the pros, Brown was able to move back from shooting guard to his original position at point. He, along with James Augustine led the Illini to a 26-7 record and was personally named as a second-team All American. Brown was selected 46th in the 2006 Draft by the Jazz. He was able to play with Williams and also Roger Powell, who signed with the team as an undrafted free agent. That reunion didn’t last long as Brown rarely got minutes for Utah.
Brown spent the next season with a club in Turkey, Galatasaray Café Crown, and later, he signed an offer sheet to become a Washington Wizard. He broke into the starting five briefly for the Wizards after Gilbert Arenas was injured but didn’t stay long in D.C.. After bouncing around in Phoenix and Dallas, Brown bounced around more overseas in Israel, Italy, China, and now Puerto Rico.
Roger Powell had a brief stint in the NBA before beginning a journey in the European basketball league. James Augustine played with the Orlando Magic for three seasons after being drafted in the second round of the 2006 Draft and also plays in Europe. All five starters for the 2005 Illinois team are still playing the game that they love.
The team will be remembered as a team that was so hard to guard because of the quickness and versatility.
I would like to hear from you. Do you think that this Illinois team is the best team in the past 20 years to not win NCAA title (excluding the Fab Five Michigan team)? The other teams that rank up there is the Duke team in 1999 and the Memphis team back a few years ago.