Illini find some spare time

Friday, April 1, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- About a half-hour outside St. Louis, the Illinois team bus swung off the road and pulled into a bowling alley.

For about an hour, the coaches and players indulged in one of their favorite pastimes, bowling a few games, eating pizza and chilling out -- the same thing they do many weekends back in Champaign. Then, after signing some autographs, it was back on the bus.

This is, after all, a business trip.

The Illini began planning -- no, make that packing -- for this little road trip months ago. Reaching the Final Four may be something of a relief, but they know there's still a long way to go.

"It's a little bit of pressure off our backs, because everyone was expecting us to get to the Final Four," guard Deron Williams said. "And even us, we expected to get to the Final Four, and if we didn't, it would have been disappointing. But we still want to win the national championship, and it will be a disappointment if we don't win that."

North Carolina has the pedigree, Michigan State has experience and Louisville has one of the best coaches in the game. But Illinois (36-1) might be the Final Four team with the most to lose.

Ranked No. 1 since Dec. 6, and undefeated until the last game of the regular season, the Illini have been living in a fishbowl for months. Fail to make the Final Four, and they'd be like so many other of those teams that toppled over just when they were on the verge of greatness.

Now that they're here, though, the expectations climb that much higher. Though they needed a furious rally against Arizona just to get to the Final Four, they know they'll still be seen as something of a disappointment if they're not playing for the national title Monday night.

"The last four or five weeks, it's been difficult to enjoy," coach Bruce Weber acknowledged. "It's more relief. Every time we get a win, it's been relief."

That's some pressure there. If there's a team equipped to handle it, though, it's the Illini.

The frenzy at the Final Four is the same type of thing they've been seeing for the last four months, with more media attention than most professional teams get. There isn't a question they haven't heard by now, and their answers are as polished as their pregame layup lines.

The other trappings of success are still a kick, though. On Thursday, when some fans waylaid Weber on his way to pick up the Rupp coach of the year award, he stuck around and chatted for a few minutes. When the Illini arrived back in Champaign early Sunday morning to find a throng of fans waiting, Williams and Dee Brown slapped every hand they saw.

"You still have to stay focused, stay humble knowing that anything can happen," Brown said. "We can easily go down there and lose and the season could be over, so you know, just stay humble, appreciate how people feel toward you, appreciate how people support you."

Added Jack Ingram, "Going to the Final Four and just being able to bring the fans and the city, all this, they've waited so long for it. It's just been great. We're really going to enjoy it, and I hope everyone else does too."

This is Illinois' first trip to the Final Four since 1989, so Weber called a few of his coaching buddies to see if they had any suggestions on how to approach it. Should he lock his team up? Or was it better to let them soak the whole thing in?

"For the most part, everybody said, 'Let them enjoy the experience. It goes too fast,"' Weber said. "It could be gone in one game. Then all of a sudden, it's over, and the kids haven't gotten a taste of it."

Besides, no one has to remind the Illini how much is at stake. They've been planning all along to end their season with just this kind of road trip, and they're determined to keep the adventure rolling as long as they can.

"We've said 'national champs' every day in practice since the start of the year," Ingram said. "It's one of those things that we wanted to get to St. Louis to validate our season a little bit, but we haven't been ranked No. 1 just so we can get to the Final Four. That hasn't been our outlook at all."

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