So, they've been ranked No. 1 for 15 consecutive weeks, lost a grand total of one game by one point on the road, won a record-tying 37 times, yet find themselves underdogs entering Monday night's NCAA championship game.
"It's not a surprising thing," Illini guard Luther Head said Sunday afternoon. "People have been saying all year that North Carolina is better, that North Carolina has the most talented players."
Forward Roger Powell Jr. and Illinois expect to show everyone -- including favored North Carolina -- who's number one tonight.
(Peter Jones -- Reuters)
It doesn't surprise any of them, not Coach Bruce Weber, not the three all-American guards -- Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Head -- not the baby-faced center James Augustine, or the pleasant and sweet-shooting forward Roger Powell Jr. In fact, Weber virtually begged anybody who would listen to keep picking North Carolina, to keep telling his players on the eve of the title game how pretty good they are and how great the mighty Tar Heels of the ACC are.
"Keep doing it, yes," Weber said, smiling but only half-joking. "It's something that no doubt got us through December, January, maybe into February. . . . "
Weber recalled a conversation with Digger Phelps, the ESPN analyst and former Notre Dame coach who, like virtually everybody else, wondered early on about how good Illinois really was.
"He kept apologizing," Weber said. "I said, 'Hey, I love that you're a villain, keep doing it.' Deron said one time, 'That's their job, to make predictions. That's what they do.' But at the same time deep down, it gets the juices flowing a little bit. . . . We need a little adrenaline tomorrow; there's no doubt about it. If we don't have an edge, I don't know if we can win the game."
It's the best position a coach can be in, really: Underdog yet equal. Weber doesn't have to sell the position of "us-against-the-world" to his club; they feel it most days they take the court.
But it's probably a little silly that they're in such a position.
Imagine that North Carolina or Duke checked into the championship game at 37-1. Any chance the Tar Heels or Blue Devils would be underdogs to anybody?
"There's not a chance anybody would give one thought to either one of those teams at 37-1 losing," said Stephen Bardo, a key member of Illinois' 1989 Final Four team and now an analyst and reporter. "There are a number of reasons. They're a pass-the-ball, grind-you-down, no flash, nothing-above-the-rim team. They're not sexy. People still undersell them. They've developed an incredible determination and toughness, and it ain't cute. They've got the attitude of 'I'm going to beat you, and I may make you look bad in doing it.' And they can do it because they're better-conditioned and usually mentally tougher."
No glamour attaches itself to Illinois, which cannot be said of North Carolina, which along with Kentucky and Duke, is one of the handful of truly glamorous basketball programs in America. The Illini play like the Midwest, look like the Midwest, have a chip on their collective shoulder like the Midwest. Nine of the 12 Illinois players are from Illinois, many of those from in and around Chicago, the place known for being "the second city." They can play the rejection theme without having to act one bit.
Weber has lived it. He never had schools fighting over him the way they've fought over Roy Williams.
Asked if he interviewed for head coaching jobs during his 17 years assisting Gene Keady at Purdue, Weber said: "Have you ever seen the college Blue Book with all the schools? Pick a page, I probably interviewed with [all of] them. You think I'm joking? [I interviewed with] all of the MAC schools, a lot of them two times. I was young. I was the youngest assistant in the Big Ten for quite a while.
"The other thing I didn't do was network. I did my job. I had to do tickets and camps and travel plans, all this stuff. I didn't have time to be making calls. It was frustrating. But at the same time, I was happy. It was more other people kept saying, 'You got to leave.' I'd say, 'Why do I have to leave? I'm happy. I got a great job.' "
He's a corny guy with Midwestern sensibilities, a coach who passes out candy and gives out stars when his players do things that meet his approval. You can forget sometimes, there are corny guys like Weber, like his brother Dave Weber whose Glenbrook North team in suburban Chicago just won the Illinois high school championship with a team full of well-to-do and allegedly talent-challenged kids who were supposed to wilt in the face of the pressure from all the urban schools but didn't.
Illinois is one victory removed from a storybook ending, too, the kind that fits an underdog a little bit better. Of course, it's impossible not to wonder how this would all be playing out if the Illini had won that game in Columbus on March 6, the one they lost, 65-64, when Ohio State scored with five seconds left. Weber said Sunday that the college basketball season couldn't possibly finish any better than having Illinois vs. Carolina on Monday night.
Oh, but it could have . . . If only Illinois was still undefeated.
"It would have been nice," Weber said. "We wanted it. It wasn't one of our goals. The thing we did learn was that you have to play the whole 40 minutes. We led for 39 minutes 54 seconds. We didn't defend on the last play. I think it helped us in the Arizona game down the stretch. . . . In the long run, it got us focused again. You watch the film, and it's little things that slipped. All of a sudden they catch up with you, you know. We would have liked to be in the record book, but we still are. It's still a special season."