Great seasons in college basketball are only validated by a trip to the final four. So it's easy to understand the jubilation shown by Illini fans after the remarkable comeback Saturday night. It was not only the joy of winning, but the relief of not watching another Illinois team fall short of expectations.
With four minutes left I had already started pondering how this team will be remembered. Overachievers? Chokers? A team that peaked too soon? But those questions will never have to be answered after a 4 minute run that remains too good to be true.
But for some reason, I can’t seem to fully share in the unbridled joy being displayed by players, coaches, fans and sportswriters. There is just something unsatisfying about how this game was won.
First, I need to say that this was not one of the "greatest college basketball games ever played", a statement made by more than one sportswriter in the past few days. Come on, was it really that great watching the Illini get their asses handed to them for most of the second half? I’ll give you that it was one of the greatest comebacks in tourney history. But game? I would never want to sit through the first 36 minutes again, that’s for sure.
Second, Illinois got beat in this game in every way except on the scoreboard. They were outplayed, outsmarted, and outcoached. A huge reason they are advancing to the final four is sheer luck. I know every team needs a few breaks to advance in the tourney. But if someone had scripted this ending for a movie the audience would walk out saying “bullshit”.
This is not to say that Illinois didn’t play great the last four minutes or show a lot of heart. Indeed they did, and they should be proud. My only point is that they could have played great and showed a lot of heart and still lost by 8.
I would rather Illinois win their games in the fashion of the 1985 Bears - not the 2001 Bears. I want them to beat their opponents not luck out at the end.
Of course, they wouldn’t be the first team to receive a few fortunate bounces on the way to a championship. But if they lose to Louisville on Saturday, I can’t help but think how I will remember the 2005 Illini: a team that was lucky to make it to the final four.