A new series at BTPowerhouse, Almost Glory will take a closer peek at one team from each Big Ten program’s past, every week leading up to the opening of the 2016-2017 college basketball season. We’ll stay away from the famous historical teams (if we can) to look at a successful squad that came up just a little short. First up: the 2000-2001 Illinois Fighting Illini.
Coach: Bill Self
Record: 27-8 (13-3 in the Big Ten)
Big Ten Regular Season Co-Champions
Highest National Ranking: #3
G Frank Williams, Sophomore, 14.9 PPG, 4.4 AST, 3.7 REB
F Marcus Griffin, Senior, 11.3 PPG, 6.0 REB
F Brian Cook, Sophomore, 11.2 PPG, 6.1 REB
After Lon Kruger abruptly left Champaign to coach the Atlanta Hawks, Bill Self nearly took the Illini to the Final Four. Highly ranked to start the season, they nevertheless went toe to toe with defending national champion, Michigan State, for a share of the Big Ten Conference title. They even pummeled Sparty handily at home in their only meeting.
Sophomore Frank Williams, an electric playmaker, rose to the new challenge of offensive leadership, snagging the Big Ten Player of the Year honors playing alongside high school teammates Marcus Griffin and Sergio McClain. "The Peoria 3", as they were called, a cute piece of branding that played off Michigan State’s "Flintstones" from the year before.
They didn’t have the same flash as the 1989 or 2005 squad, but they were deep, experienced, and physical, an extraordinary rebounding team that could even step out and knock down a few shots from long range. Fellow sophomore (and future Big Ten POY himself) Brian Cook emerged alongside Williams, showcasing a deft outside stroke and skill around the rim.
A bruising non-conference schedule saw them match-up against every single eventual member of that year’s Final Four (Arizona twice, Maryland, Duke, and Michigan State). They barnstormed through the Big Ten, walloping some of the conference’s lesser competition and eking out a one-point victory at home against Wisconsin thanks to a beautiful lob and shoot from Sean Harrington and Marcus Griffin. Even a loss in the conference tournament semifinals couldn’t stop them from earning the school’s first #1 seed since the 1989 "Flying Illini". Not bad work for a squad without a single future NBA starter.
Alas, the magic wouldn’t last. In the rubber match against Arizona with a trip to Final Four at stake, the Wildcats jumped out to an early double digit lead thanks to Gilbert Arenas 16 points in the game’s first eleven minutes. The Illini clawed back, briefly taking the lead on a Robert Archibald bucket, but Loren Woods put Arizona up for good with six minutes left. A Jason Gardner three pushed the lead to 6 and they hung on for an 87-81 win.
Archibald busted out for a career-high 25 points off the bench, in one of those enthusiastic performances from an unheralded player that makes March Madness so compelling. Cory Bradford added 22 points on six 3’s. But Williams was dreadful, going just 3-15 from the field a few days after for 30 against Kansas. Six Illini players fouled out and while they managed to keep it close, Arizona was just too much. That team was loaded with talent, from the diminutive Gardner to the long and lanky Woods, a young Arenas, fired-up Richard Jefferson, and still green Luke Walton.
That proved to be the high point in Self’s Illinois coaching career. The following season they returned the same core only to be vanquished in the Sweet Sixteen by Kansas. The year after that, a disappointing exit to Notre Dame. And then Self was gone, pursuing the glory of the Kansas coaching vacancy. The brilliant trio of guards he’d recruited (Dee Brown, Luther Head, Deron Williams) would eventually come up just eight points short of an undefeated season in 2005.
Illinois as a program has spiraled downward ever since, a deluge of mediocre seasons and early round tourney exits. With the reemergence of Indiana and the addition of Maryland, it’s a long road to climb to return to their almost-glory days.