Potomac's Rolan Roberts and his Southern Illinois teammates, after losing in the Missouri Valley Conference finals to Creighton, had to hope for an at-large bid into the 2002 tournament.
"Man, we were sweating it out," recalled Roberts, who recently joined a team in France after playing in Turkey and in the Dominican Republic. "In the back of my mind I knew we were in because we beat some pretty decent teams. [CBS] had cameras and everything there. I didn't even jump up when they announced it.
"They were happy just to be there. I wanted to win a couple games maybe. That was my mind-set throughout the season -- once we get there, we have to do that."
The 11th-seeded Salukis toppled sixth seed Texas Tech and third seed Georgia in the East regional in Chicago, teams fronted by coaches -- Bobby Knight and Jim Harrick -- who had won national titles with other programs.
Despite such a low seeding, Southern Illinois had the luxury of playing in its home state at the United Center, though it was not the only attraction.
"When [Knight] came out, the crowd went crazy," said Roberts, the 1996 All-Met Player of the Year. "It was really funny, just the whole tournament thing. All my guys were really fired up because they wanted to [play at] Indiana. So you had Bobby Knight coming into Illinois and all the old Indiana fans, and all the Southern Illinois fans who hate Indiana. It was a great atmosphere."
Roberts, who was late to a practice and was dropped from the starting lineup for the first time in three years, roused the partisan crowd with about nine minutes left against Texas Tech when he blocked a shot into the seats and stole a pass to start a fast break he punctuated with an alley-oop dunk to run the Salukis' lead to 15.
Roberts finished with 12 points and five blocks in a 76-68 win, Southern Illinois's first in the tournament since 1977 and perhaps its most significant postseason victory since Walt Frazier led the team to the NIT title in 1967.
In the Salukis' second-round game, they fell behind Georgia by 19 in the first half but clawed their way back, with chants of "S-I-U! S-I-U!" ringing in their ears. Roberts was intentionally fouled with 14 seconds to play and his team up two. To that point, the 41 percent free throw shooter was 0 for 6 from the line and, truth be told, didn't want to be there again. He was relieved to make the second of his two attempts to help ensure a 77-75 victory. The Salukis committed just five turnovers, which helped compensate for being out-rebounded by 18.
"I was like, 'I've got to make one, or I wouldn't be able to live with myself,' " Roberts said. "I wouldn't be talking to you right now if we had lost that game."
Roberts transferred to Southern Illinois after he was suspended by Virginia Tech following his junior year. With only one year of eligibility left, he wanted to find a place where he could continue to start, but on a team that was talented enough to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
"It kind of worked out a lot better than I thought it would," said Roberts, a first-team all-MVC selection whose team eventually fell to Connecticut, another opponent guided by a championship coach (Jim Calhoun) at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse.
"It was a really fulfilling moment in my life. I'd played for three years at Tech and never got to the tournament, and going through what I went through, my personal experiences and problems. I was very happy with the way things ended up. It was amazing doing it on that big of a stage."
-- Preston Williams