Illini Hoops All-Decade team

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By Paul M. Banks & Paul Schmidt of  The Sports Bank and Joe Kutsunis of Hail to the Orange, “Home of the Blogging Illini”

When putting together an All Decade Team, our first effort was Nick Smith, at guard, forward, and center. Nick Smith all the way baby. So obviously someone spiked our Egg Nog with opium or something. Eventually we decided to take the job seriously and put this together; a collection of our favorite memories surrounding the players the three of us deemed all decade.

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Illini Ink Top 10 Recruiting Class

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By Paul M. Banks

In case you missed it, today was “National Signing Day” for basketball. I totally understand if it’s not on our your radar, because it’s the day that we “officially” learn what we’ve already known for months, and sometimes years. We pretty much know where all the top recruits are going, but this is the day it becomes a contract. It just puts the notoriously gray area that is the world of recruiting into black and white, with some concrete headlines. And with the University of Illinois’ incoming class, those headlines are very happy ones.

Today’s group, the class of 2014 officially silences the critics who said Bruce Weber can’t recruit. It further validates the exceptional contributions that Assistant Jerrance Howard brings to the recruiting table. It’s matter of redemption from the whole Eric “Basketball Judas” Gordon saga. Without further ado, I turns things over to SID Derrick Burson and company, here’s the official press release.Illinois
Richmond, Head and Leonard Officially Join Fighting Illini

Champaign, Ill.-Illinois head coach Bruce Weber announced today the signing of three student-athletes to national letters of intent in Jereme Richmond, Crandall Head and Meyers Leonard. The Recruiting Services Consensus Index lists all three players in the Top 75, giving the Fighting Illini the No. 4 class in the nation by ESPNU, No. 6 nationally by Scout.com and No. 10 nationally by Rivals.com.

“We are thrilled to officially welcome Jereme, Crandall and Meyers to the Fighting Illini family,” Weber said. “They are three outstanding young men who have been committed to us for a long time. They are all tremendously talented players, extremely athletic, with the ability to play a mixture of positions. We are pleased to bring in three in-state products who are the top three seniors in the state of Illinois.”

Richmond, a 6-8 wing from Waukegan, Ill., famously made a verbal commitment to the Illini program three years ago before ever playing a high school game. He is a consensus top-25 recruit who was named Chicago Sun-Times and Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette Player of the Year last season after leading Waukegan to a record of 26-5 and runner-up finish at the IHSA Class 4A State Tournament. Richmond averaged 20.1 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.3 blocks as a junior, and kept Waukegan on its path to Peoria by hitting a half court shot at the buzzer in a sectional final victory over Warren Township High School and future UI teammate, Brandon Paul. Richmond’s coach at Waukegan is Ron Ashlaw. He is a member of the Mac Irvin Fire AAU program, coached by Mike Irvin.

Head, a 6-4 guard from Matteson, Ill., attends Rich South High School, coached by Scot Ritter. He is the younger brother of former Illini All-American guard Luther Head, currently a member of the Indiana Pacers. Head is a consensus top-75 recruit who earned first-team All-State honors for Class 3A by the Associated Press after averaging 21 points, seven rebounds and four steals last season at Chicago Crane High School, under the direction of coach Tim Anderson. Head recently underwent knee surgery to repair a torn ACL and is sidelined indefinitely. Head also is a member of the Mac Irvin Fire AAU program.

Leonard is a 7-0 center at Robinson High School. He is a consensus top-50 recruit who averaged 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks as a junior. Leonard won the IHSA Class 2A dunk contest and was an All-Apollo Conference selection, leading Robinson to a 21-8 record, conference title and IHSA Class 2A sectional appearance. His coach at Robinson is Bob Coffman. Like Richmond and Head, Leonard also is a member of the Mac Irvin Fire AAU program.
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JEREME RICHMOND
Wing
6-8, 195
Hometown: Waukegan, Ill.
High School/Coach: Waukegan/Ron Ashlaw
AAU Program/Coach: Mac Irvin Fire/Mike Irvin
Rising Stars/Brian Davis

Notes: Consensus national top-25 recruit (No. 18 on rscihoops.com) … Averaged 20.1 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.3 blocks as a junior … Led Waukegan to state runner-up finish in IHSA Class 4A … Ranked No. 16 nationally by Scout, No. 17 by both ESPNU and Hoopmasters, No. 18 by All Star Report, No. 21 by Prep Stars and No. 36 by Rivals … Chicago Sun-Times and Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette Player of the Year in 2009 … Consensus first-team All-State selection by the Associated Press, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette and Illinois Basketball Coaches Association in 2009.

Weber on Richmond: “Jereme is extremely talented and so versatile that he can play practically any position on the floor. He’s a team-first player who makes everyone around him better and that was evident in the way he led Waukegan all the way to the state title game last year. Jereme has tremendous feel and knowledge for the game, and his best attribute of all might be his passing. He has excellent court vision. We’ve obviously been close to Jereme and the Richmond family for a number of years. We appreciate their loyalty and the commitment they’ve made to our program and university. I know Coach Ashlaw has been impressed with the growth and improvement Jereme has made, and they have big goals for his senior season.”
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CRANDALL HEAD
Guard
6-4, 180
Hometown: Matteson, Ill.
High School/Coach: Rich South/Scot Ritter
AAU Program/Coach: Mac Irvin Fire/Mike Irvin

Notes: Consensus national top-75 recruit (No. 59 on rscihoops.com) … Averaged 21 points, seven rebounds and four steals as a junior … Ranked No. 42 nationally by All Star Report, No. 53 by Hoopmasters, No. 59 by both Scout and Prep Stars and No. 73 by ESPNU … First-team All-State selection by the Associated Press and Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette in 2009 … Second-team All-State by the Chicago Sun-Times … Special mention All-State by the Chicago Tribune … Fourth-team All-State by the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association.

Weber on Head: “Crandall has been around us since he was in middle school, watching the success of his brother and our program during the Final Four run in 2005. So we’ve had a great relationship with him and his family through the years and are happy that Crandall also will be wearing that No. 4 Illini jersey. He has a lot of physical attributes that are similar to Luther, as he is extremely athletic and versatile with great jumping ability and is able to get to the basket. He has some rehab work ahead of him and needs to take his time and get fully healed. Sitting out will be a challenge because Crandall loves to play. ”

MEYERS LEONARD
Center
7-0, 215
Hometown: Robinson, Ill.
High School/Coach: Robinson/Bob Coffman
AAU Program/Coach: Mac Irvin Fire/Mike Irvin
Team Ramey/Terrell Ramey

Notes: Consensus national top-50 recruit (No. 36 on rscihoops.com) …  Averaged 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks as a junior … Ranked No. 39 nationally by both Rivals and Scout, No. 44 by All Star Report, No. 47 by Hoopmasters, No. 51 by Prep Stars and No. 52 by ESPNU … Special mention All-State by the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette and Illinois Basketball Coaches Association in 2009.

Weber on Leonard: “I rarely have seen athleticism and mobility from a 7-footer like Meyers has. The progress he’s made over the last two years has been impressive. He reminds our staff of James Augustine with that same ability to run the floor as a big man. He began his high school career as a guard but had an incredible growth spurt and then transitioned to center. I’ve known Coach Coffman for a long time. He does a great job and feels that Meyers has the ability to help Robinson contend for a state title this season.”

What were the best teams to NOT win a championship?

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2007 New England Patriots

By Paul M. Banks

This team was not playing football. They were pure transcendence. Watching them roll to the first and only 16-0 season in NFL history. And to do it with the distraction of Spygate hanging over them just made it all the more special. They set records for TDs, points, pretty much every offensive record you can think of. And it’s fitting that the specific points which put them over the top for big milestones, was a Tom Brady to Randy Moss touchdown toss. Because Brady and Moss also set records for TD passes and TD receptions. And their offensive line played like the greatest unit in history for the first 10 weeks; in the Super Bowl not so much.

The big boys up front got dominated, and eventually the Pats were  done in by a lucky catch made by some guy who was obscure, he probably hadn’t even heard of himself prior to his ridiculously unlikely grab. That was followed up the secondary failing to cover a dumb-ass who wore sweat pants to a night club and shot himself.  And they lost to a QB who is still Peyton’s little brother in my mind, and this off-season became the most overpaid QB in NFL history. The greatest tragedy about their loss, is not the fact that they lost, it’s who they lost to. You can say that about any team on this list, but this case is especially true. The 2007 Patriots were the first team to ever go 18-0, and they did it by absolutely DESTROYING opponents. But that 18-1 is still 18-1, no matter how many records they hold. As much as I love to pick on ESPN’s whoring of east coast and Boston teams in their coverage- here was one case where the hype was deserved.

A final note of coincidence, that first Patriots championship team from 2001 may have actually been the WORST team to ever win a championship in any sport. So perhaps its karmic balance

2001 Seattle Mariners

By Jake McCormick

Remember when Lou Piniella was managing a 100+ win team only to watch them choke it away in the playoffs? I’m talking, of course, about the best baseball team to never win a World Series: The 2001 Seattle Mariners. And for the record, choke is probably too strong a word considering it was against the New York Yankees of that year.

Despite losing Alex Rodriguez, the Mariners set an American League record with 116 wins in a season. Seattle led the league in runs scored behind Bret Boone’s 37 home runs and 141 RBIs, Edgar Martinez and Mike Cameron’s 100+ RBIs, and some rookie named Ichiro Suzuki’s .350 batting average and 56 stolen bases. Martinez, Suzuki, Boone, and first baseman John Olerud each hit above .300, and Cameron chipped in with 25 home runs and 110 RBIs. Ichiro won the MVP and Rookie of the Year awards, and proved how important a great lead-off hitter can be to a team’s success. Overall, this was a lineup that could slap singles, hit for power, steal bases, and flash the leather when necessary.

bretbooneThe 2001 Mariners also led the American League in ERA, behind stellar years from Jamie Moyer, Freddy Garcia, and Aaron Sele, who all registered ERAs under 4.00 and tallied 20, 18, and 15 wins respectively. Kaz Sasaki and Ryan Franklin held up the back end of the bullpen, as Sasaki had 45 saves in 52 opportunities and had a 3.24 ERA. Imagine if the 2009 Ryan Franklin had transferred his stats to a team that had 116 wins and seven blown saves.

To be fair, the Mariners ran into a red hot New York Yankee team in 2001, so I wouldn’t say they choked terribly. But when you start a season 20-5 and go on consistent winning streaks as the dog days of summer wear on, it’s hard to respond to adversity when it comes from a veteran postseason team. It’s hard enough to win 90 games in a full MLB season, so there is definitely something to be said about a team that manages to set a single season record in that category in the day and age of free agency.

2005 Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team

By Paul Schmidt

Growing up in a household of Cubs fans, it sort of felt like I was never going to get to see a world champion, or a national champion at the college level. Sure, we had the Bulls here in Chicago, and that was, quite simply, nothing that we will ever see again, but it’s become clear to me over the years that I was never that big of a Bulls fan — just a fan of Michael Jordan and all the winning that came with it.

2005-illinoisThe 2004-2005 Illinois men’s basketball team aimed to change all of that. Well, probably not FOR me, but it certainly felt like it…

All 5 players in the starting lineup played in the NBA, and the team was friendly and approachable, led by the smile of Dee Brown, a PR department’s wet dream.

The season featured several special moments, and I can remember all of them vividly. The prime-time ESPN game against No. 1 Wake Forest (the rout that led to the No. 1 ranking for a majority of the season, simply priceless). The heartbreak — although an unsurprising one — of a loss at an on-probation Ohio State (I hate you Matt Sylvester).

The run through the NCAA tournament – including a WILDLY amusing second round game, while in Las Vegas with friends, being unable to figure out why everyone in the bar we were in was looking at me with such hatred, until I realized we were beating Nevada and we were IN Nevada – was unbelievable.

The win in the Elite 8, was quite simply the most unbelievable game that I have ever witnessed. I was stuck at work with the editor of the paper I was working for, and two other sportswriters. The TV was in “The Pit,” where staff meetings took place and the newsroom’s only television was, and when Deron Williams hit the three that would send the game to overtime, rallying the team from 15 points down in just 4 minutes, I jumped so high I hit my head on the ceiling, bit my tongue and fell down.

The rout of Louisville in the Final Four? It seemed inevitable.

Which made the 2005 NCAA Championship game all the worse.

It still remains the only sporting event I have attempted to record. After the first half, I debated whether I should even continue recording, but I didn’t want to miss a comeback, even though no team had ever come back to win from a deficit as big as the Illini were facing — 12 points.

They did, eventually, chip away, to tie it with under a minute remaining, which brought forth the most indelible image from that season.

Luther Head, for three…just a little bit long.

The shot was right on, dead center of the rim…but when it bounced harmlessly away, I went from standing with my arms in the air, to on my knees. Then curled in a little ball with my head in my hands. I called my boss at the newspaper, I called my family, all with the same theme: If it didn’t happen this season, it just never was going to, would it?

I’ll never understand why we took roughly 250 three-pointers that night, easily a season high. I’ll never understand why James Augustine picked THAT MOMENT to have the worst game of his career, fouling out while only playing nine minutes and getting busted out by Sean May when he was on the court.

All in all, I’ll never understand how this team didn’t bring home the big prize.

iverson2004 USA Men’s basketball Dream Team

By Mike Gallagher

Roster: Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Carlos Boozer, Carmelo Anthony, Stephon Marbury, Richard Jefferson, Lamar Odom, Emeka Okafor.

Resume: The 2004 men’s team was graced with some of the most athletic players the NBA has ever seen. LeBron, Carmelo, and Wade have proven to be three of the best players in the league. Lebron and Carmelo were coming off 20+ a game rookie years.

Along with the athletes on the outside came muscle on the inside. Emeka Okafor has averaged 10+ rebounds a game every year he’s been in the league. Tim Duncan was second in MVP voting averaging 22 and 12 the season before the Olympics. Stoudemire was coming into his own after a 20 and 9 year, and was one of the most explosive big men the league had seen in recent memory.

Along with those two components, there was expected to be a level of consistency provided by veterans Stephon Marbury and Shawn Marion. Marbury was coming off a solid 20 and 9 year where he was second in the league in assists behind only Jason Kidd. Marion was a solid 19 and 10 guy every year, consistently underrated, and was expected to be one of the better defensive and rebounding presences on the squad.

Downfalls: This was by far the most inexperienced team the U.S. had put on the floor since pros were allowed in the competition in 1992. Seven of the twelve on the roster had three years or less of NBA experience. Wade, Lebron, and Carmelo were coming off their rookie year. Stoudemire and Boozer had two years under their belt. Jefferson had played three years, while Okafor hadn’t even played a game in the league. The veteran leadership and international experience needed to reel in the egos and bring more of a team style of play was not there.

The main difference between the 2008 team that took the gold medal and this 2004 team was that team style. To establish that atmosphere and demeanor on the court, you need a point guard that can run an offense and set others up in good positions to score. The 2008 team had Jason Kidd, Deron Williams, and Chris Paul, who all fit that mold. Not one person on the 2004 roster has that mantra. Marbury and Wade are the only ones you could consider point guards, and both are score first guys.

The perimeter game was non-existent and they shot themselves out of a few pool games as well as the semi-final game against Argentina. Especially early in their careers, James, Anthony, and Wade were not gifted outside shooters. All their guards were raw talents and athletic slashers. But not one person on the 2004 team ranked in the top 60 in the NBA in three-point shooting the year previous.

The failure of the U.S. to secure a takeover scorer on their roster proved to hurt them when players went cold. Iverson was not at his best during this tournament and it critically hurt the squad. There was no Kobe, Pierce, Shaq, Carter, or league leader in scoring, Mcgrady. When the team went cold, there was no superstar to stop the bleeding and the team had to try and shoot themselves out of slumps.

The Result: The U.S. went 3-2 in pool play, losing to Puerto Rico by 19 and Lithuania by 4. They made the knockout stage with that record where they defeated Spain, which ended up being their only loss. They then went on to the semi-final game against Argentina, which proved to be the end of their gold medal hopes. Spurs star Manu Ginobili got help from Carlos Delfino and Fabricio Oberto, and Argentina upset the U.S. 89-81. Argentina went on to win the gold as the U.S. proceeded to take the bronze by defeating Lithuania for the second time.

It was only the fourth time in the history of the Olympics the U.S. did not capture the gold.

twolves2004 Minnesota Timberwolves

By Andy Weise

As Brett Favre would say, “the pieces were in place.” My all-time disappointment team rivals the ’98 Minnesota Vikings. The 2003-04 Minnesota Timberwolves finished No. 1 overall in the Western Conference regular season standings. With a franchise record 58 wins, Kevin Garnett finally got the veteran help he sought in Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. Of course I’m a homer when it comes to this team but Garnett had lost out on the MVP title the year before to Tim Duncan, probably because Duncan had the better supporting cast. Garnett got his MVP in 03-04 and in MVP fashion, what is currently the greatest Timberwolves game to this date, Garnett put the team on his back in game seven of the Western Conference Semifinals and defeated the Kings 83-80. It was KG’s birthday and he was quoted a couple years later saying “I get goosebumps every time I think about that.” I do too, KG.

The T’Wolves would run into the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that featured four future hall of famers — Shaq, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. The Lakers wound up winning the series 4-2 but there was a huge difference in the series, Sam Cassell played over 5 minutes in only two of the games. While Garnett was the MVP of the team, Cassell was the leader on the floor. A point guard is instrumental to success and Cassell who had scored 40 points in a game in the first round and in the second round, was battling hip problems late in the season and in the end he couldn’t hold his own on the court.

The Lakers went on to lose to the Detroit Pistons but many Minnesotans feel the same way I do: If Sam Cassell is healthy in that Western Conference Finals, the Wolves win and face Detroit, a team they beat twice in the regular season. Some will forget too that backup point guard Troy Hudson was also hurt most of the season so against the Lakers, career journeyman Darrick Martin started and received plenty of playing time with KG as second option for point guard.

The Wolves have failed to get back into the playoffs since the loss to the Lakers in ’04 and the franchise has seen many players come and go since. What if’s are the only thing Wolves fans have these days, what if the Wolves would have won back in ’04?

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1998 Minnesota Vikings

By Peter Christian

Just thinking about what could have been with the 1998 Vikings is painful. Even 11 years later. They had everything. Possibly the greatest O-line in the modern era, the greatest receiving core in NFL history, a feisty defense that could come up with the biggest plays in the biggest moments and a quarterback that was taking hold of his second lease on his NFL career. They scored more points than any other team had before. They lost 1 game during the entire regular season. Even the kicker had his most efficient season of his 23 year career. Even the local Top 40 station recorded a parody of the then popular song “Miami” by Will Smith with the local DJ saying, “We’re going to Miami” in reference to the location of the Super Bowl.

Then….

The one missed kick of the entire season.

And….

Our head coach lost faith in the best offense in history.

I can replay that NFC Championship game in my head over and over and it always comes down to those two things.

They scored 556 points. They had 10 Pro Bowlers. They were only the 3rd team to go 15-1.

Yet they were the only one of those 3 teams to not win the Super Bowl, let alone not reach the Super Bowl.

Now they will simply get lumped in with the 2007 New England Patriots because the Pats broke their scoring record, had a better win-loss record and at least got to the Super Bowl.

But the one thing the Vikings have over the Patriots is that the reason they didn’t win a championship hinges on their own play rather than a play the other team made. I’m not sure if that is better or worse for the Vikings, but its what I’m hanging onto.

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