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Illini Pride March 24, 2013

We’re a strange bunch. I think the best way to describe us is to use something my Maryland-fan friend said to me during the 2005 Final Four in St. Louis. “I knew Illinois was a basketball school, but I never knew that Illinois was THIS MUCH of a basketball school”.

He had no idea.

We showed up for the shootaround in the Edward Jones Dome like no fanbase has ever showed up for a Final Four shootaround. We take our “best team to never win it all” VERY seriously. Before this season, I believe we were 17th on the list of all-time NCAA Tournament wins. And the 16 teams in front of us all have at least one championship. Most of us know this stat off the top of our heads.

We also wear a lot of orange around the office on gamedays. And we talk about this team all over the internet. And we follow recruiting incredibly closely. And our student section invades another arena every year. And all of our friends around us look at us funny. “I know Illinois is a basketball school, but I’m surprised it’s this obsessive. You guys have never won a title, yet you act like Kansas fans or something. Why is the Illini fanbase so… aggressive?”

My answer: Illini Pride. What’s that?

We just lost in heartbreaking fashion in the Round of 32. With our first Sweet 16 in eight years in sight, Miami pulled away at the end and our seniors’ careers are finished. Miami’s final-minute surge was assisted by a horrible call from one of the officials, sending Twitter into a national referendum on how one bad call can influence an important game (and how deflections out-of-bounds should be reviewable). And all I can feel is pride.

I’m so incredibly proud to be an Illini fan at this moment that I can’t type fast enough. I’m like the parent of a newborn who wants to tell people about it in the hallway. My guys – my GUYS – fought like warriors tonight against a top-5 team. Miami made three surges, and we fought right back. When Brandon put down that double-pump dunk, I thought my chest was going to burst. MY GUYS, giving their absolute best.

And what did you hear throughout the arena during the game? “I-L-L… I-N-I”. Who was the only team to sell out their allotment of tickets in Austin? Illinois. What non-elite program can match our history of fanbase mobilization? None.

I have a good friend who went to North Carolina. His take after the 2005 title game was to needle me with a “ho-hum, another title” reaction (all in good fun – this guy doesn’t have a spiteful bone in his body). My comeback was pointing to the celebrations. As I remember the numbers, UNC had a “we won” celebration and 14,000 people showed up. Illinois lost, and 30,000 people showed up at Memorial Stadium.

Think about that for a second. It’s almost embarrassing, isn’t it? We had 30,000 people show up in the football stadium to celebrate a loss? Who does that?

Illini fans do that. This is our thing. It defines us, this Illini Pride. Our fandom is personal. Our players are Brandon and DJ, not Paul and Richardson. When we see effort and determination – toughness and togetherness – we fall in love.

Please note that I’m not describing blind loyalty. One only had to follow Illini fans thoughts and emotions last spring to know that that majority of us just won’t stand for a program headed south. This is not Kumbaya around the campfire no matter what happens. We care and we care deeply about getting that elusive title.

But we’re also fiercely loyal to our teams that give their all and max out their talent. Almost annoyingly loyal. Show-up-at-airports loyal. Ask-for-autographs loyal. Remember how the 2005 Illini went to watch a movie in Chicago during the Big Ten tournament and the theater snuck them in the side door because they were like rock stars with throngs of fans trying to get close to them? Yeah, that’s what will happen to DJ and Brandon and Tyler when they emerge from the tunnel tonight in Austin. These are our guys.

Man, it was hard to type that for the final time. My heart goes out to DJ and Brandon and Tyler (and Sam) right now. It’s all over for them. That has to be such and incredibly empty feeling.

But I hope they know what they provided this year. I really hope they understand what it meant to us. I’ll – we’ll – remember this season for a long, long time. The Season That Brought Illinois Basketball Back. Redemption for Tyler and DJ. Highlight reels from Brandon. Three guys that had to face so much adversity last season – a 3-12 finish and a coach getting fired – and they sent us out on top.

On top? Did I just say “on top” after a Round Of 32 loss? Yes I did. My feelings are stunningly positive right now. I’m sure I’ll wake up with that familiar “man, SO CLOSE” twinge tomorrow morning, but for now, all I can think is that my team gave 100% effort and came up just short against a top-5 team. I can’t really ever get angry at that. In fact, I’m beaming with pride.

Illini Pride.

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20 Comments
taz March 25th, 2013

I don’t know if they will ever understand how much this season has meant. The year that made us all believe again. For me personally, I grew up as a bball fan first, Illini bball then Jordan’s bulls. For someone who is crazy about sports in general, crazy about bball in particular, and crazy about Illinois bball specifically, it has been tough to watch Bruce Weber destroy my first love. I will always remember these seniors as the guys that gave it back to me. So much pride, so much respect, so much love. Great post, Robert.

kgwasmyfavorite13 March 25th, 2013

“Our players are Brandon and DJ, not Paul and Richardson.”
This is how my 8 year-old daughter knows them. Once again, Robert, you have captured my emotions perfectly. Thanks for giving me an outlet. I don’t root for this team, I love these guys! Great post!

PittsburghNellie March 25th, 2013

I think I may be Sam’s biggest fan. I probably cheered for him more than any other player this season. Poor guy could do everything but score.
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Even though he was only an Illini for 1 year, i’m going to remember him for a long, long time

chief23 March 25th, 2013

It’s amazing how we are usually on the losing end of horrendous calls in the tournament: Arizona in ’01, Washington in ’06 and now last night…

Steve March 25th, 2013

They did it !
They put a bow on the season last night. Seriously, you knew that we were going down at some point. Yes, we can play with anyone. We showed that in Maui, we showed the Zags in the Kennel and we showed the Hoosiers that we can play with anyone. And we showed Miami and the nation last night. We can play with anybody. Heart and guts. Not the most skilled team, maybe, but guys who will find a way. And aren’t those the kind of guys you want to go to war with? Guys who will find a way.
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I’m also very proud of them for just refusing to talk about that inbounds play. You know the one I mean. They just said straightened their spine and said “Refs were good and they make the best calls they can, the way they see them.” One reporter said to TG “You know you can’t be suspended for a game for talking about it” and he “I’ll just be the bigger man”.
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Yeah, we went down . . . like 67 other teams will go down . . . but no one doubts that this is a fine basketball team. Deserved to be there.
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That’s what we asked for and OUR team, coaches, staff, they delivered.
Proud. Illini Proud.

TC80 March 25th, 2013

Well said as always Robert. So proud of this team. They showed fight and determination all year, and went down fighting against a very good team. I feel bad for DJ that he went out on a bad game, but all we have to do is look back at games like IU to remember how big he was for this team. So impressed with Groce – I have no doubt he’s the coach we need. The bad call at the end was unfortunate in that we should’ve had one more chance to tie it before being forced to foul, but that shouldn’t overshadow the fantastic game between both teams.
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Also, I really hope Nnanna’s play last night doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. He was absolutely incredible last night (12 pts, 12 reb – 7 off) against a very big Miami team. Some of those offensive rebounds were absolutely huge and he was busting his tail off. I can’t wait to see how he and Tracy continue to improve next year after the huge steps they took this year.

ATOillini March 25th, 2013

Never in my life have I slept that well after ANY Illini loss. It’s obvious from reading the various blogs that collectively Illini Nation feels the pride that you so eloquently discuss here. What a magnificent game plan from the coaches. What a fantastic lay it all out there effort from the players. Obviously just one or two “what ifs” or “if only’s” and we are into the Sweet 16. It didn’t happen, but this is life.
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Thanks Robert. You nailed it with this one. Any possibility we can make sure every top recruit reads it?

Lou-a-villini March 25th, 2013

R-O-B……..E-R-T Thank you!

CAIllini March 25th, 2013

Well said Robert!! I was sad last night for a period, but there was an underlying happiness as well. Your blog really reinforced how proud of the team I was, as always you show the human side of fandom & Illini sports better than anyone out there; keep it up!

These seniors could have folded a number of times this season, but kept fighting. I think the future looks very bright…..bright orange.

I-L-L….I-N-I

illiniranger March 25th, 2013

played their asses off that’s for sure. couldn’t buy a three. really, really proud of the lads last night.

mlp94595 March 25th, 2013

Still a lot of what-ifs going through my mind, but this is about as good as I can feel after a loss. The best comment I heard was after the game when Barkley said Illinois had a perfect game plan for Miami and said Groce could coach. He went further to say some guys can coach and some can’t, presumably meaning guys who can get great players but can’t win if they don’t have them. Could he mean Calipari? He wouldn’t name names.

Great post. I was very proud of our guys.

Illinigrad March 25th, 2013

Great post Robert.

I just always regret when the play of the players themselves does not decide the outcome, but rather is determined, at least partially, by very poor officiating. Regardless, with probably one made three by D. J. to put pressure on Miami and go up by more than two points, we win. You can’t fault the effort. There are so many great memories from the season and one trophy to boot from a place that is not too bad to visit.

GrogsBBQPepperoni March 25th, 2013

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Why oh why did we not foul the big moose at the end? Put him at the line!
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Oh well. Damn, that was a great game. Sweet driving dunks, awesome hustle, outrebounded a much bigger team. If only one of those second half threes would have rattled in and gone IN and not out, who knows. Stud point guards really can win the game. Pressey did it on Miizzou to us and Larkin last night. Those deep drives and the defense colllapses – man, that causes problems.
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Great year. The ship is righted. The recruits out there are taking notice. And by the way, gotta love how the Big Ten’s “#8″ team almost took out the ACC’s #1. What a conference this year!

EricCLoy March 25th, 2013

Remember when a one-year Illini head basketball coach left to take the vacant UCLA job? Gene Bartow?

No, it wouldn’t happen again.

IlliniAl March 25th, 2013

Typically with tourney games I am on edge but for some reason I was very calm and just enjoyed this game. Probably because I felt that Coach Groce would get the best out of this team. Plus it’s evident Coach Groce knows how to gameplan based on his teams strengths and the other teams weaknesses. You could just tell, by the post game press conference, that he really cares about the players on this team. The future is bright with Coach Groce. I think he is committed to this program.

GrogsBBQPepperoni March 25th, 2013

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Was listening to Lawrence Holmes (Chicagoland sports radio personality) who said he was behind the Illini bench for the BTT. He said he’s never seen a coach who operates in a more positive manner than Groce. Just good, positive comments but still constructive ones when guys came off the floor. Was really impressed with year one. As we all are.

PittsburghNellie March 25th, 2013

“Remember when a one-year Illini head basketball coach left to take the vacant UCLA job? Gene Bartow?
No, it wouldn’t happen again.”
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Bartow was fortunate that the internet/twitter wasn’t around when he was coaching. His image would be completely different.

Steve March 25th, 2013

Grogs,
On fouling the big guy, heard Groce asked about that and he surprised me with the promptness of his answer. He said something like “Well, yeah, in hindsight we really should have fouled him. But at the time he was pretty well boxed and I thought he looked unsteady on his feet and would travel. If he travels, we’re all high fiving each other. Instead, he keeps it together and passes out of it.”
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Here is what I think is interesting about that. Either it looked a bit different to him very close to the play than it did to me and so that is probably how it looked to the players.
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Or he is saying what makes his players look good and he has their back.
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Don’t know which, but either way I like it.
Of course, I like EVERYTHING about Coach Groce, so maybe I’m a bad judge.

mlp94595 March 25th, 2013

I just watched the non-foul play again. DJ was the first guy to the big guy when he got the ball, and maybe he didn’t want to foul out, even though there were only 22 seconds left. Nnanna got to him next, but the ball was already gone. That was our best chance of getting the ball and down by 3 or less.

Let’s hope the talk about UCLA is just idle speculation. I was there when Bartow left after one year. It was a sick feeling, and all Bartow could do was patronize us. Fortunately, we got Lou in his place, but Bartow did take UCLA to the final four before succumbing to the pressure of trying to measure up to Wooden.

GrogsBBQPepperoni March 26th, 2013

.
Yeah, hindsight is 20/20 on that foul play. And like the bad out-of-bounds call where there is no guarantee we score on that possession anyway, maybe the big guy would have drained both free throws, who knows.
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I can’t see Groce leaving Illinois right now. I mean sure, anything can happen, but I just can’t see it. If he was from the west coast, maybe, but he’s from around here. And he’s coaching in the premier college basketball conference.