Friday, May 7, 2010

Flying Machine

College basketball teams that don’t win national titles are usually relegated to the dustbin of history, only to be remembered by partisan supporters. In order to be burned into the memories of hoops fans, several factors need to come into play for non-championship teams. A catchy nickname helps. So does an unconventional lineup. The two best examples of this are Michigan’s youthful “Fab Five” and Illinois’ “Flying Illini” squad of 1988-’89.

The Illinois team reached its summit in the 1989 NCAA tournament regional final against Syracuse at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. The Fighting Illini were trying to reach their first Final Four since the heyday of Johnny “Red” Kerr in 1952. Coach Lou Henson had cobbled together a homegrown rotation that went eight players deep. The hook was that all the players were between 6 feet 4 inches and 6-8. The Illini tried to win by out-running and out-leaping their opponents, so the “Flying Illini” was a natural moniker.

Sports Illustrated scribe Curry Kirkpatrick called them the “Positionless Clones.” For fans just getting acquainted to the Illinois players during the tournament, it must have been hard to distinguish between Kenny Battle, Nick Anderson and Stephen Bardo. They were just a blur of 6-6 dynamos skying in for a rebound or getting behind the zone for a dunk off a lob pass.

That’s what happened to Syracuse in the first few minutes of the regional final. Illinois “point guard” Kendall Gill jumped over the entire front line of Syracuse for an offensive rebound and put-back for the game’s first points. Battle ran the baseline against Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone and caught three alley-oop dunks in the first three minutes.

But Syracuse was as equipped as any other team to match Illinois’ athleticism. Freshman Billy Owens had a breakout tournament and was a legitimate third option behind leading scorers Derrick Coleman and Sherman Douglas. Stevie Thompson was probably the best leaper on the court that day, which is saying a lot with Illinois’ Battle and super-sub Marcus Liberty also on the airwaves. “The Flying Orangemen” just didn’t have the same cachet, however.

The Orangemen ran off 14 unanswered points, hitting 15 of their first 20 shots and eventually taking a 13-point lead with 6:47 left in the first half. Illinois battled back to get within 46-39 at intermission.

The Illini weren’t a team that could be bottled up for long. The second half was vintage “Flying Illini.” Battle kept soaring over the zone, so Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was forced to play man-to-man defense for long stretches. That played right into Illinois’ strengths.

As time has gone by, the “Flying Illini” now connotes a team that relied on dunk after dunk. In point of fact, the Illini’s prodigious leaping ability served them best on the glass. Every player crashed the boards, which was necessary as “center” Lowell Hamilton stood only 6-7. NBA fans probably best recall Anderson as a shooter, but he was a terror on the offensive glass in college. He had 24 points and 16 rebounds against Syracuse.

The Illini made 20 of their 27 field-goal attempts in the second half. Battle scored 28 points on 12-for-17 shooting for the game and teamed with Gill to slow down Douglas, the general of Syracuse’s attack. Gill finished with 18 points and had the two biggest offensive rebounds of the game — a put-back dunk that gave Illinois an 83-78 lead and a snare of Liberty’s missed free throw with 22 seconds left that set up two free throws by Battle for the final margin of 89-86.

Illinois was back in the promised land of the Final Four, where it faced Big Ten mate Michigan. The Illini had dominated the Wolverines in their two regular-season matchups, but Michigan rode the spark of interim coach Steve Fisher to an 83-81 victory. Ironically, the hard-rebounding Illini lost when Michigan’s Sean Higgins scored on a put-back over Anderson in the waning seconds.

So the “Flying Illini” didn’t get to hang a national championship banner. But the team had such an inimitable style that it is still held in reverence today.

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