You know, normal, not particularly exciting, teams make the Final Four all the time. I can tell you nothing about, say, the 2017 South Carolina team, or the 2006 LSU team, or any number of random Louisvilles, or Ohio States, or Michigan States, to reach college basketball’s biggest stage. The NCAA Tournament can be aggressively random; some years, a VCU, or a Wichita State, or just some anonymous Oregon or Auburn team sneaks in, gives their fans a bit of a thrill, and then goes home. You don’t have to be an all-timer to make the Final Four. You just have to get hot at the right time.
But this is not how it has ever worked out for Illinois. In the last 70 years, the Illini have reached the Final Four twice, and both of these teams are legendary. That legendary status wasn’t retroactively applied: You knew while watching them when they happened that they were special. The 1988-89 Flying Illini were a sensation that entire season; I have friends here in Georgia, where I live, who have never even been to Illinois who still cheer for the Illini because of that team. And the 2004-05 Illini are widely considered one of the most purely enjoyable teams to watch in the history of the sport, a sprinting, frenetic smile of a team. Watching them made you feel like your feet were floating above the ground. The imaginary matchup of the teams have fueled Illini fan debates for nearly two decades. I once hosted Steve Bardo on my old podcast and asked him who would win between the ’89 and the ’05 teams. He was appalled by the question. “Who guards Kenny Battle on that team? Who guards Kendall Gill? Who guards Nick Anderson? Who guards me?” But I’m not sure how the ’89 team deals with Luther Head, Dee Brown and Deron Williams on the perimeter either … and Roger Powell is a matchup nightmare underneath. If I’m being honest with you, I’ve spent a higher percentage of my hours on this earth debating this question that I should admit aloud.
And both teams, famously, had soul-crushing losses in the Final Four, games that they could have won, probably should have won. The 13-year-old Will Leitch can’t believe Sean Higgins got that rebound. The 29-year-old Will Leitch can’t believe Luther Head missed that 3-pointer. I will think of those teams forever. And those are the teams, and no others, no Frank Williams, no Bruce Douglas, no Deon Thomas, no Andy Kaufmann, no Kiwane Garris, that made the Final Four. Only the legends.
Now, 16 years after the 2005 team, which was 16 years after the 1989 team, we have another legendary team. Hopes were through the roof for this team the second Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn announced they were returning, but for much of this year, the team was good, sometimes even great, but never transcendent. They were inconsistent, and frustrating: I still cannot believe they lost to freaking Missouri. And then, after the Ohio State and Maryland losses, something, at last clicked. There were wobbly moments, but Ayo hit his big shots, and Kofi dunked on fools, and the team became a version of its best self. But they didn’t become legends, I’d argue, until their final loss. That was when some goon from Michigan State broke Ayo’s nose, and Kofi (justifiably, but unhelpfully) groused about fouls all game, and Illinois looked like a team that had all the talent in the world, but was inconsistent and easily thrown off its game by a stray elbow. There was reason to believe, up to that point, that they might be paper tigers.
And then they became transcendent. The last seven victories, with the black-masked Ayo, with Kofi as 1992 Shaq, with the seniors DeMonte Williams and Trent Frazier making big play after big play, with Adam Miller becoming an unlikely defensive stopper, with Giorgi Bezhanishvili a consistent source of delight (even when he’s playing poorly!) and, perhaps most thrilling, Andre Curbelo becoming the sort of giddy, dance-around-the-room player that Illinois never has… they have been pure human joy, released unto the world. The Illini have become the sort of team that your friends, who have no connection to Illinois, discover and can’t believe how lucky you are to get to cheer for them. I watched every game both those 1988-89 Illini and those 2004-05 teams played. The last seven games have been just as joyous, and just as dominant. This Illinois team hasn’t been as good as those teams all season. But they have been over the last seven games. They have been as good at the exact time you want them to be.
This puts this team in a strange box, though, historically, to come 16 years after the last legendary Illini team and 16 years after the last one before that one. First off, it’s impossible now for this team not to feel like a disappointment if they don’t reach the Final Four, particularly now that they have become a trendy national championship pick. There are several roadblocks between now and then; I’m particularly nervous about that potential Cade Cunningham Sweet 16 matchup. If this team, not just because of its talent but because of The Whole 16 Year Business, falls short, it will feel wrong, an abrupt disjointing of history. It’ll feel like we got too excited.
But the other fear is borne of excitement. What if this is the team that does it? What if this is the one who erases Sean May, and Rumeal Robinson, and Austin Peay, and Dicky Beal? What if all the joy and pain of the past was leading up to this year, this pandemic year, the year where all that went away? In November, the great college basketball writer Matt Norlander ranked the top 25 programs in the sport’s history. Illinois was No. 15, the highest of any team without a title. It’s the one thing we’re missing. It’s the one thing that has kept this program, and this fanbase, on the outside looking in.
There might be no better chance than this. Brad Underwood clearly is the right fit for the program, this year and moving forward, but having a player like Ayo and a player like Kofi and all these upperclassmen and electric freshmen like Curbelo and Miller and the tournament being in Indianapolis and having it all go down right as we’re on our way out of a pandemic… you might just have the perfect set of circumstances. What if this is the year it was always supposed to happen? What if this is it?
I will live and die with this team over the next month, just like the rest of you. But mostly I’m just grateful. To have this team come along, at this moment, feels like an incredible gift. I do not know what will happen with this team in the tournament. But I feel blessed to get to witness it. And I will appreciate every second of it. We should appreciate every second of everything.
Top -eeded Illinois faces off against 16 seed Drexel in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday, March 19th at 12:15 p.m. CST on TBS.
Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, national columnist for MLB.com, a senior writer for Medium and the founder of Deadspin. He grew up in Mattoon and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1997. His novel “How Lucky” comes out from HarperCollins this May. Subscribe to his free weekly newsletter while you’re here.