The Runners-Up: 2005 Illinois Fighting Illini

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The sports world is dormant right now, and that’s brutal for all sports fans. What I am missing the most is the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament. Instead of March Madness, it is March Sadness this year. With nothing new to watch, I have been watching classic March Madness games, and I came up with the idea for this series called “The Runners-Up,” where I take a deeper look into the teams that came up just short. 

This series will highlight some of the best teams in the last 20 years who made it to the National Championship game but lost. A different bounce here or there and these teams may have gone down in history, but instead they had to settle for the silver medal. This series serves to give some of those teams — which may have been forgotten — the recognition they deserve. I already have a few ideas in mind, but if anyone has any tournament runners-up they would like me to cover, shoot me an email. I hope you enjoy!

The 2005 Illinois basketball team certainly has to be in the conversation for one of the best teams to not win a National Championship, and boy, did it come close. The Fighting Illini finished 37-2, tying the all-time record for wins in a season at the time (later surpassed by Kentucky in 2012).

This was a special team highlighted by three consensus All-Americans: Dee Brown (first team), Deron Williams (second team) and Luther Head (second team). Williams is the most recognizable name out of the three due to having the most successful NBA career, but that season, they were a three-headed monster.

Head led the team in scoring with 15.9 points per game, with Brown and Williams not too far behind at 13.3 and 12.5 points per game, respectively. All three were terrific high volume 3-point shooters. Brown shot over 43% from beyond the arc, Head shot 41% and Williams shot over 36%.


A promotional image from the 2004-05Fighting Illini men's basketball season featuring Dee Brown, Luther Head, and Deron Williams.  Photo in the    public domain

A promotional image from the 2004-05Fighting Illini men’s basketball season featuring Dee Brown, Luther Head, and Deron Williams. Photo in the public domain

The team as a whole was remarkable at shooting from deep. They hit 39.2% of their 3-pointers and made the second most 3-point shots in the country that season with 344.

It wasn’t just the three All-Americans, though. Both Roger Powell and James Augustine played key roles on the team, averaging double-digit points. Augustine was the leading rebounder on the team with 7.6 per game, while Williams dished out 6.8 assists per game to lead the Illini. He actually led the nation in total assists that season with 264.

The team was led by Bruce Weber in his second year at Illinois. As a successful head coach with 474 wins under his belt now at three different schools, this was his best year. He was named the National Coach of the Year and went to his only Final Four. He would stay at Illinois until 2012, when he went to Kansas State and where he presently coaches.

We really don’t think of Illinois as a great basketball school, and that’s because they haven’t made it past the first weekend of the tournament since this magical run. They haven’t even made the tournament at all since 2013, but they were in a position to do so this season, had the tournament been played.

That 2005 run was crazy, though. 

Illinois began the season by rattling off 29 straight wins. They were the No. 1-ranked team in the country from Dec. 7 onward. They almost had a perfect regular season, but they were upset by Ohio State in the regular season finale. However, that would not prove to be a big trip-up, as the Illini rolled through the Big 10 Tournament with an average margin of victory of 12 points in the three games.

Then, they made it through the first three rounds of the National Tournament without much trouble, beating Fairleigh Dickinson, Nevada and Milwaukee all by at least 12 points. Then came the memorable Elite 8 battle with Arizona.


Bill Murray and his son Homer cheering for the Illinois Fighting Illini men's basketball team at the 2005 Men's NCAA Final Four in St. Louis.  Photo in the    public domain.

Bill Murray and his son Homer cheering for the Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball team at the 2005 Men’s NCAA Final Four in St. Louis. Photo in the public domain.

Arizona was also a really good team that season, led by All-American Salim Stoudimire and future NBA champion Channing Frye. The game was a back-and-forth battle in the first 30 minutes before Arizona built up a commanding 15-point lead with under four minutes to play.

But Illinois showed its resilience by chipping away with lockdown defense and big shots. No shot was bigger than Williams’ three to tie the game with 38 seconds left. The game went to overtime, where Illinois won 90-89. It was and still remains one of the best comebacks in March Madness history. 

Then, after beating Louisville handily in the Final Four, the Illini came up against North Carolina in the National Championship as underdogs, which is hard to imagine for a team that was 37-1. But North Carolina, led by Sean May and Raymond Felton, was legit.

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These guys grew together as players, they were experienced, they had incredible chemistry and they almost went all the way.

May bullied the Illini frontcourt with 26 points, and the Tar Heels built a 15-point second half lead, but once again, Illinois refused to go down easily. They fought back to tie the game at 70 on a Head 3-pointer with two minutes left. They had multiple opportunities to take the lead, but the team that lived by the three all season ended up dying by it. Williams and Head both got open looks late but failed to hit them, while Felton made his free throws to give UNC the 75-70 victory. It was Roy Williams’ first National Championship after two losses in the big game while at Kansas.

Despite the loss, this Illinois team should not be forgotten. The coolest thing about this team for me is that all five of the starters who started all 39 games (Williams, Head, Brown, Powell and Augustine) were all upperclassmen, either juniors or seniors. It’s very telling of the era of college basketball because you would never see a team like that today. There were no hotshot one-and-dones on this team. These guys grew together as players, they were experienced, they had incredible chemistry and they almost went all the way.

The key word there is “almost,” which is why they are the first of my “Runners-Up” series.


Danny Barletta is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at daniel.barletta@uconn.edu. He tweets @dbars_12.

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