To celebrate SLAM’s 30th anniversary, we’re spotlighting the 30 most influential men’s college teams from our past 30 years. Stats, records and chips aren’t the main factor here, it’s all about their contribution to the game’s cultural fabric.

For the next 30 days—Monday through Friday— we’ll be unveiling the full list here. We’ve also got an exclusive retro collegiate collection, out now, that pays homage to each squad’s threads. Shop here.

The early 2000s was a rough time for all but one basketball program in the Big Ten. 

This was when the Big Ten ran through them boys in Champaign, Illinois. Each year from ‘00 to ‘04, the Fighting Illini won either a Big Ten regular season championship or a Big Ten tournament championship. Their ‘04-’05 team brought it all together and won both, doing so in mesmerizing fashion. A reign of terror was brewing inside of Assembly Hall. 

They were any coach’s dream and any opponent’s nightmare; it starts with their incredible guard play.

Deron Williams (D-Will) was a prototypical 6-3 point guard, with a nasty handle, elite vision and a natural knack for buckets. He went on to become the third pick in the NBA draft, a three-time All-Star, two-time Olympic gold medalist and one of the best point guards in the League for some time. 

Dee Brown is an NCAA icon, remembered today for sporting fresh cornrows, an orange or white headband low on the brow and a long pair of shorts. He was 6 feet on a good day, but his blinding speed, defensive tenacity and swagger more than made up for what he lacked in size. He was a four-time All-Big Ten selection, two-time All-American, Big-Ten Defensive Player of the Year and Bob Cousy Award winner.

D-Will and Dee Brown are one of the most exciting backcourt pairings in college basketball since the turn of the century, but it was a third guard who led the ‘04-’05 Fighting Illini in scoring. That honor belongs to Luther Head, a senior, 6-3 shooting guard, who would eventually carve out a solid six-year career in the League.

Illinois approached the ‘04 basketball season with one thing on their mind. It was championship or bust–national championship or bust. They hit the ground running; there were no signs of a hangover from their disappointing Sweet Sixteen loss the season prior. Four games into the ‘04-’05 campaign, the Fighting Illini beat No. 24 Gonzaga by 17 points, putting the country on notice. The very next game, just a few days later they’d beat No. 1 Wake Forest by 18, putting any remaining doubt to rest.

They made it through the regular season almost unscathed, winning 29 games in a row before a small hiccup against Ohio State where they suffered a one-point loss, their only loss headed into the postseason. Illinois responded by dominating the Big Ten Tournament, sweeping the conference en route to a No. 1 overall seed in the Big Dance.

They got through their first three games of March Madness without breaking a sweat. But an Elite Eight matchup against No. 3 Arizona, led by then-future lottery pick Channing Frye, would define the makeup of this Illinois team. With only four minutes left in the second half and their season on the line, Illinois found themselves down 15 points. Unfamiliar territory, challenge accepted.

Illinois didn’t flinch; their confidence didn’t waver. They just stayed the course. They turned up the pressure on defense, created a few transition opportunities and hustle buckets, hit a few threes and boom… the game was headed to overtime. Carrying the momentum into the extra period, they clawed their way to the finish line and gutted out the victory, completing one of the memorable comebacks in the tournament’s recent history. Final score: 90-89. 

They’d go on to decisively defeat Louisville in the Final Four before eventually falling five points short, to a loaded North Carolina team, in the National Championship game. 

ST. LOUIS – APRIL 04: The Illinois Fighting Illini take the court during the final seconds against the North Carolina Tar Heels in the second half of the NCAA Men’s National Championship game at the Edward Jones Dome on April 4, 2005 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Illinois finished the ‘04-’05 season with a 37-2 record, which at the time tied the all-time NCAA record for the most wins in a season. An impressive 31 of their 37 victories were by 10 points or more. They finished the season ranked ninth in the nation in rebounding, eighth in defense, fourth in points scored, second in three-point field goals made and first in assists. Now, that’s a recipe for success. 
Despite losing and falling short of their ultimate season goal, the 04-’05 Illinois team is etched in modern college basketball history. When you think of the best teams to not win a national championship, that ‘04-’05 Illinois squad is at the top of the list. And they’re celebrated in Champaign as such.

Photos via Getty Images.


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