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Published: Monday, 1/31/2005

Illinois vying to stake out spot with elite

We don't know if Illinois will become the first team since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers to go through an entire college basketball season undefeated. All we know is, the unbeaten Illini will be ranked No. 1 for the ninth week in a row entering tomorrow night's Big Ten clash at Michigan State.

That's right. Illinois is ranked ahead of Kansas and Duke and Kentucky and North Carolina and defending national champion Connecticut.

Coach Bruce Weber's Illini are embarking upon the most-anticipated season in school history since the Illinois squad featuring first-round NBA draft picks Nick Anderson and Kendall Gill advanced to the Final Four in 1989.

Weber (with lots of help from former Illinois coach Bill Self) has assembled quite a cast.

Imagine walking down the street and finding a lottery ticket. Imagine discovering the bearer of the ticket is due to receive $30 million.

Hello, Bruce Weber.

Weber is winning with Self's players. Self, of course, is winning at Kansas with Roy Williams' players.

At the major-college level, where coaching changes are commonplace and inevitable, someone always wins with another coach's players.

Still, Weber is one lucky coach.

Senior guard Luther Head might be the Big Ten's best player. Junior guard Dee Brown might be the Big Ten's most exciting player. Junior guard Deron Williams never met an assist he didn't like. Junior center James Augustine has the size and the body to defend and rebound in the post. Senior forward Roger Powell Jr. is another talented veteran.

The Illini have the tools to contend for a conference title.

What they also have are the tools to do something that no lllinois basketball team has ever done - win an NCAA championship.

Illinois needs to win a national championship to be held to a higher standard.

There are no guarantees in college basketball.

One year you're Saint Joseph's, taking the country by storm. The next year you're Saint Joseph's, taking it on the chin.

Philadelphia's finest has gone from the penthouse to the outhouse.

Saint Joseph's was just visiting. The view was great. But the rent was too expensive.

Illinois wants to take up permanent residence with the elite programs in college basketball, joining the likes of Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, or even Indiana in its own conference.

All of those programs have won national championships.

Illinois is 21-0, 7-0 in the Big Ten.

With a longer regular-season schedule plus the expanded NCAA Tournament, Illinois could go 32-0 and not win a national championship.

There would still be more games to play, more opportunities to lose.

Granted, if Illinois seizes the moment by running the table in the Big Ten, grabbing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and ending the season cutting down the nets at the Final Four in St. Louis, the Illini's greatness would be assured.

Being a national-title contender should bring out the best in Weber's team.

We still don't know if Illinois can finish what it started this season. But it'll be interesting to see how long the Illini can maintain the No. 1 ranking in college basketball.



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