| March 27, 2005
ROSEMONT, Ill. (AP) -- Deron Williams looked up at the
scoreboard, frowned and shook his head.
Down 15 with only four minutes to go, Illinois' season of triumph
was about to slip away. All those victories, that near-perfect
record, a path to the Final Four that seemed tailor-made for the
Illini -- none of it would matter. They'd be just another one of
those teams that had teetered on the verge of greatness.
And that wasn't good enough. Not even close.
``I just said not to
give up,'' Williams said. ``That's what I said on the court. We've
just got to keep fighting.''
Led by Williams, Illinois (36-1) mounted a furious comeback that
is sure to become an NCAA tournament classic. Williams scored 14 of
his 22 points in the last four minutes of regulation and overtime,
and Luther Head made huge plays offensively and defensively as
Illinois forced OT and then hung on to beat Arizona 80-79 and
advance to the Final Four.
Fighting Illini, indeed.
``It's incredible,'' Roger Powell Jr. said. ``We were meant to be
in St. Louis.''
And this is the kind of victory that could propel them to a
``Coaches have told me, to win the national championship you've
got to win a close game, make a big shot,'' Illinois coach Bruce
Weber said. ``Well, we did it today.''
Though the Illini spent 15 straight weeks at No. 1 and were
challenged plenty, they were never really threatened. They lost one
game, the regular-season finale, and it took a last-second shot.
They led a ridiculous amount, some 90 percent of their games, and
never trailed by double digits until Saturday night.
But when it comes to winning a national championship, being good
isn't enough. Teams need mental toughness, the grit to hang in there
when things get bleak. Louisville proved it has it, coming from 20
points down to beat West Virginia and earn a spot in the Final Four
Now everyone knows the Illini have it, too.
``We've had a goal, a dream to make it to St. Louis,'' Williams
said. ``I wasn't going to let (losing) happen.''
Williams is the most gifted player on the team, a rare blend of
power, shooting skill, tenacious defense and uncanny vision. He can
easily go off for 20-plus points a game, as he did in the Chicago
Regional. He was 5-of-9 from 3-point range Saturday night, and he
scored 21 on 8-of-12 shooting in Thursday night's semifinal.
But with an ability to see the entire floor and envision plays
before they unfold, the point guard is just as content to make his
teammates look good. He's averaging 6.7 assists a game, and had 10
on Saturday night.
``I've won some awards this year and he's come up to me a couple
of times and congratulated me and I've told him, 'I win because of
you.' He's been our foundation,'' Weber said.
``Those shots down the stretch, we could have panicked. That's
where Deron comes in. He's got a great feel for the game and he
It was Williams who yelled for his teammates to huddle up when
all seemed lost, telling them they weren't done yet. And it was
Williams who put on a shooting clinic that destroyed the Wildcats'
After Arizona took its 15-point lead -- the largest deficit
Illinois has faced all year -- Williams started the rally with a
3-pointer. After a pair of Arizona free throws, he found Head, who
made a 3.
He bulldozed his way inside for a layup that cut the lead to six,
then fed Head for another 3. After Jack Ingram poked the ball away
from Salim Stoudamire, Williams raced down the court and popped up
one more 3-pointer.
Just like that, the game was tied at 80.
Williams was at it again in overtime, having a hand in three of
Illinois' four baskets. He made two more 3-pointers, and had an
assist on a layup by Powell. He also kept up his pressure on
Stoudamire, who never got a chance at last-second heroics because he
couldn't get open.
Flustered by Illinois' pressure, the only shot Arizona got was a
3-pointer by Hassan Adams that never had a chance.
``Instead of looking at what went wrong with Arizona, I think
you've got to give those kids from Illinois a tremendous amount of
praise,'' Arizona coach Lute Olson said. ``They did a great job.''
And when it was finally over, the Illinois players let out
screams of elation and relief. They piled together in the middle of
the floor for a group hug, then gleefully put on the T-shirts and
hats that let everyone know they were going to the Final Four.
Just as they promised.
``There was definitely a lot of pressure on us. We made that
pressure because we set a goal of getting to the Final Four this
year,'' Williams said. ``We were able to get it done. We were able
to fight back. That makes it that much more special.''
Big Ten rebounds
Popular belief held that the Big Ten Conference was down. So much
for that theory.
Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin restored honor to the
league with their deep runs in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
All three advanced to the Elite Eight, which gave the Big Ten the
most remaining teams of any conference in the country.
And if Illinois defeats Louisville and Michigan State upsets
North Carolina at the Final Four on Saturday, two Big Ten teams
would meet in the championship game.
"That would be the best of both worlds," Iowa coach Steve Alford
said. "Our league has proven that we get it done year in and year
out, and this is another case."
Alford and coaches around the Big Ten said Monday they're proud
of the league and that it was unjustifiably maligned because of last
season, when only three teams made the NCAA tournament. Five were
awarded appearances this year, but that success is more the norm
than an aberration.
This is the fourth time since 1992 that the Final Four includes
two Big Ten teams. No other conference can match that total. In the
past eight years, the Big Ten and Big East are tied atop the nation
with 20 teams reaching the Sweet 16.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said he's not surprised Illinois and
Michigan State advanced to the Final Four because of their talent
and the matchups they drew along the way.
"That's the crazy thing about this conference argument we get
into every year," Bilas said. "Nobody knows what it means to be the
best conference. Is it the best top to bottom, or who's got the
strongest teams at the top? The truth is, it doesn't mean anything.
They don't hand out a banner for that.
"The teams at the top of the Big Ten have
been really competitive all year long. I don't think anybody
could reasonably argue with
Who will win the national championship is anybody's guess. Bilas
said he believes any of the four teams is capable.
Illinois (36-1) is the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament and
will play fourth-seeded Louisville (33-4). Fifth-seeded Michigan
State (26-6) will play top-seeded North Carolina (31-4).
Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan State receive much of the credit
for the Big Ten's success this season. Wisconsin lost a close game
to North Carolina in the regional final. Illinois rallied from a
15-point deficit late in the regional final to stun third-seeded
Arizona in overtime. And Michigan State sent No. 1-seeded Duke home,
then two days later knocked off second-seeded Kentucky in double
overtime to get to the Final Four.
Other teams made the Big Ten a deeper conference than some
experts predicted. Iowa and Minnesota also made the NCAA tournament,
though both lost in the first round.
Ohio State was considered worthy of the tournament but was
ineligible because of a self-imposed penalty for alleged NCAA rules
violations under former coach Jim O'Brien. Iowa was ranked as high
as No. 14 in the nation in January.
"We had some teams have bad luck," Purdue coach Gene Keady said.
"Ohio State was ineligible. Iowa had their leading scorer in
trouble. We had our leading scorer hurt his knee. But the whole
league is better.
"I'm not sure (television analysts) Dick
Vitale and Digger Phelps thought we were. That's why they're
not coaching anymore."
Iowa defeated two of the Final Four teams, Louisville and
Michigan State, and has played all four this season. Alford said he
thinks Illinois and Michigan State have a good chance to win their
Michigan State is one of the deepest teams in the country; eight
Spartans play an average of at least 10 minutes, and two others are
just below that mark. Illinois guards Dee Brown, Luther Head and
Deron Williams can take over a game, as they showed in rallying past
"They're great teams," Alford said. "They're
senior-laden with a lot of upperclassmen. Those are the two most
experienced teams in
our league. Those kids just got better. Both of those teams have
been incredibly consistent all year long."
Each game, Alford said, could come down to a single matchup.
Michigan State freshman point guard Drew Neitzel must be able to
hold his own against North Carolina junior Raymond Felton, a
first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection. Illinois senior
forward Roger Powell Jr. will match his skills against Louisville
freshman forward Juan Diego Palacios.
Bilas agreed that those matchups are key, given that the teams'
best players essentially should match one another. But he added that
Michigan State big man Paul Davis must find a way to contain North
Carolina's Sean May, selected a first-team All-American by ESPN.com.
"You've got some great matchups, and I think they can go either
way," Alford said. "I think Illinois is hard to beat, and proved
it again when they were down and out in the regional final and came
back. I do think the pressure is off Michigan State. I think their
seniors had pressure to do what their predecessors had done."
Louisville and Michigan State will be the most relaxed teams,
Alford said, because they're the lower-seeded teams and, as such,
No matter what happens, though, the Big Ten has reclaimed its
"We're very excited and proud, especially since there was so much
talk about our league not doing well and being down," Michigan coach
Tommy Amaker said. "Funny how that's not necessarily the chatter
right now, and with good reason."
Illini have embraced their chief
Bruce Weber allowed a few tears to fall after his Illinois team
staged one of the great comebacks in NCAA Tournament history and
claimed its place in the Final Four.
You can be sure it wasn't the first time he cried this month.
But it was the best.
In early March, Weber mourned the passing of his mother, Dawn, a
dedicated basketball fan who raised more than one accomplished
In late March, he was celebrating Illinois' first appearance in
the Final Four since 1989.
"It's a dream come true," Weber says. "The
last two weeks have been very much up and down. I thought about
my mom and dad. I wish
they were here. They'd have been so proud."
Weber's orchestration of this team, directing it to a 36-1
record, has been brilliant. This is not a perfect squad. The Illini
talk boldly about their frontcourt not being a weakness, but in the
Chicago Regional final against Arizona, they allowed big man
Channing Frye to dominate them before taking over with a furious
comeback that erased a 15-point deficit in the last 4 minutes.
Weber had to design ways to cover for that smallish frontcourt
and to make the most of the advantage provided by the Illini's
backcourt of Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head.
The Illinois players did not immediately
embrace Weber when he took over for Bill Self before last season. "It took awhile, not
just for me but for a lot of the guys," reserve center Nick Smith
says. "Coach Self, he was one of those guys who'd put his arm around
you, ask about your girlfriend. When somebody comes in who is much
more like a teacher, it takes awhile."
Weber eventually reached the Illini. His
three-guard design resulted in Head, Brown and Williams all
being named first-team
All-Big Ten. Weber held the team together in a desperate situation
against Arizona. There was no grand design behind the Illinois
comeback. Weber ordered a man-to-man press – something that
would speed up and disturb Arizona's ballhandlers.
Coming out of a timeout with 45 seconds left and the Illini down
three points, Weber noticed the Wildcats had moved Frye forward to
provide an easy outlet for the inbounds pass. Weber frantically
waved center Jack Ingram forward to challenge Frye and sent Williams
deep to guard against a long pass.
Thus Ingram was in position to tip the ball away from Frye to
Head, and two passes later Williams tied the game with his
3-pointer. The Illini won in overtime.
Dawn Weber was not there to see it, just
as she was not there when her son David coached Glenbrook North
High to an Illinois state
championship days after her funeral. "He did his part," Bruce Weber
says. "Now we've got to do ours."
Illinois starting five
|G Luther Head, Sr.
||Once best known as an athletic finisher, Head
enters the Final Four as a shooter first. He's playing with an
injured hamstring that makes even layups a chore. Head excels
as a catch-and-shoot player and can score off of one quick
bounce. He has some point guard skills and moves the ball well
enough to pile up assists. |
|G Deron Williams, Jr.
||He's an excellent passer from the perimeter and
on the break, but he is inconsistent in creating plays on
penetration. His shooting can slump, but he's always
|G Dee Brown, Jr.
||His power and quickness can overwhelm opponents.
Brown often takes advantage of less gifted ballhandlers for
steals. He has NBA range but sometimes gets frustrated by
|F Roger Powell, Sr.
||Powell is tough and rebounds well in traffic but
occasionally struggles to finish against a big or athletic
defender. He has 3-point range but is less likely to use it in
close games. |
|C James Augustine, Jr.
||He's used to facing shorter players and is less
comfortable against opponents his size. He has good feet and
skills and excels against one-on-one coverage. |
||Coach Bruce Weber is reluctant to use reserves
other than big man Jack Ingram, who is tough and can shoot but
doesn't rebound well. Richard McBride is a big step down from
the top three guards. Springy forward Warren Carter has been
playing more. |
If somebody can
match their quickness, I would try to go get them and try to be
disciplined with my pressure and try to wear them down.
They share the ball and and pass the ball better than any team
I've ever coached against. You could have some real ego clashes;
they've only had one guy get 23 points or better. For them to put
all that stuff aside and just play, that means they've got the
mental toughness. That means they've got the demeanor. They can play
fullcourt or halfcourt. There's so little margin for error when you
play them. You have got to do everything right.
If they didn't have those guards – who wouldn't
want James Augustine? On a normal team, he'd be getting 15, 16,
20 points a
game because you'd go to him.
Webers turn sorrow into celebration of family, basketball
April 2, 2005
ST. LOUIS -- Sometime in the next few weeks, the Weber family will get
together and begin the healing.
For now, though, there is basketball.
The game is the thread that ties the Webers together, and never more so than
this last month. Instead of turning inward with grief over Dawn Weber's sudden
death, the Webers have taken comfort in basketball, watching one of her sons,
David, win a state high school championship while another, Bruce, leads his
team to the Final Four.
``We miss Mom tremendously,'' said Ron Weber, the oldest of Dawn's three
sons. ``I should be getting ready to take her down to St. Louis. But a real
good thing has been we've been able to get involved in the success of Illinois
and Glenbrook North. I guess that's kind of eased the pain a little bit.''
Dawn Weber's children all left their hometown of Milwaukee, fanning out
across the Midwest. Ron is in northern Wisconsin, where he's a coach at Waupaca
High School; Bruce is in Champaign, Ill., after stops at Southern Illinois and
Purdue; David is a coach at Glenbrook North in suburban Chicago; and daughter
Jan is an educator in the Chicago area.
But Dawn Weber kept tabs on all of them, getting to games when she could and
catching up by phone and TV when she couldn't. When David and Bruce both had
games in Chicago on March 11, the 81-year-old widow eagerly made the trip
south, taking advantage of the rare opportunity to see two of her boys at work.
But when she went to the United Center to pick up her tickets for the Big
Ten tournament, Dawn Weber complained of chest pains. She was taken to a nearby
hospital, where doctors discovered a tear in her aorta below the heart.
Several hours into surgery, she died.
Despite their shock and grief, David and Bruce stayed with their teams. Dawn
Weber insisted upon it, telling Ron and Jan before she went into surgery that
she wanted her sons to keep coaching and not worry about her.
``We knew how important our lives and our careers were to my mom and my dad.
We knew we had to go on with it, and there's no doubt they would be so excited,
so proud,'' Bruce Weber said Friday, the same day he was honored as The
Associated Press coach of the year.
``They sacrificed so much for us to be where we are now. They wanted us to
have a better life. They wanted us to be teachers and coaches,'' he said. ``So
we're living their dream.''
And they're doing it just as Dawn and Louis would have wanted, as a family.
Ron and Jan and their families have made their brothers a priority these
last three weeks, getting to every Glenbrook North and Illinois game that they
When David's Glenbrook North team was in Peoria, playing for the Illinois
Class AA title, Bruce's team was in Indianapolis for its first- and
second-round games in the NCAA tournament. So Ron and his wife went to Peoria
for Friday night's quarterfinals, then drove to Indianapolis. Jan and her
family stayed behind in Peoria, calling Ron constantly with updates while he
filled her in on Illinois' games.
After David's team triumphed, he joined his siblings on the family caravan.
When Illinois advanced to the Final Four for the first time since 1989, all of
the Webers were on hand to celebrate with Bruce.
``I think us making it to the Final Four, even though you can't take away
from that loss, it's helped him get through it,'' guard Deron Williams said.
``It's helped him have a bright spot in his days.''
The Webers are together again in St. Louis, almost two dozen strong now.
Brothers, sister, nieces, nephews -- all reveling in Bruce and David's success.
And honoring Dawn Weber's legacy.
``In my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined this would happen to
us,'' David Weber said. ``It's allowed us to really celebrate the life my mom
had. It really made us realize how lucky we are as a family.''
Illinois' Weber AP coach of year
April 1, 2005
ST. LOUIS -- Bruce Weber, who led Illinois to its winningest season, was
an overwhelming choice Friday as The Associated Press national coach of the
It was just the latest reward for a spectacular season for Weber, in only
his second year at Champaign.
The Illini (36-1), who play Louisville in the national semifinals Saturday,
were ranked No. 1 the final 15 weeks of the season, and were unanimous six
Only two other Illinois teams, in 1952 and 1989, were ever ranked No. 1, and
both also reached the Final Four, but neither lasted on top more than a week
during the season.
Weber received 54 votes from the 72-member national media panel that selects
the weekly AP Top 25.
Mike Krzyzewski of Duke received six votes, while Al Skinner of Boston
College had five and Lorenzo Romar of Washington had four.
Weber succeeded Bill Self at Illinois two years ago and led the Illini to
their first outright Big Ten title in 52 years in his first season.
Weber coached Southern Illinois for five seasons, compiling a 103-54 record
and leading the Salukis to the NCAA tournament twice, before the Illinois job
opened when Self moved to Kansas. Weber was an assistant for 18 seasons to
Purdue's Gene Keady, the coach of the year in 1996.
Weber's 81-year-old mother, Dawn, died suddenly the day the Illini beat
Northwestern in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament. He didn't miss a
game as Illinois went on to win the conference title and then won four games as
the NCAA tournament's overall No. 1 seed. The Illini reached the Final Four
with a memorable 90-89 overtime victory over Arizona, a game in which they
trailed by 15 with 4 minutes left in regulation.
Weber is the first Illinois coach to win the award and the first from the
Big Ten since Tom Izzo of Michigan State in 1998. Izzo's Spartans also reached
the Final Four this season, setting up the possibility of an all-Big Ten
national championship game.