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PRINCE: Best Illini team ever still up for debate

PRINCE: Best Illini team ever still up for debate

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Few topics ensure a more lively discussion out of sports fans than a good "best ever" debate.

That was certainly the case for a group of men I recently overheard arguing which was the best basketball team ever assembled at Illinois: the 1989 Final Four team or the national runner-up team in 2005.

Having been lucky enough to watch both teams in action, I can tell you, it is not an easy choice.

However, after hearing this debate countless times over the last 15 years and talking with those who were there, I know which one I would pick.

The '89 season was special.

Illinois captured the eyes of not only Illinois fans, but the nation as well, with longtime ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale nicknaming the team the “Flyin' Illini.”

The team was loaded with athletes and its tallest players in the starting line-up were 6-foot-8. They were athletic, they could run, they could defend, they could shoot and anything that came off the rim, they felt like it was theirs.

Among the stars of that team was Kenny Battle, who ranks alongside the 2005 team's Dee Brown on the list of most popular Illini. Their will and effort on the left of the court was never second-guessed.

"I love the 2005 team," Battle said when asked about the debate. "I have told them that before. I'm not afraid to give credit because, at the end of the day, we're all Illini. Our era was tough. the Big Ten was loaded then — we had so many guys in the conference that got drafted that year; I don't think it was that way for them."

The Big Ten had seven players selected in the 1989 draft, and Illinois had two in the first round: Battle and Nick Anderson, who was selected 11th overall.

While the 2005 team also had two first-round picks in that year's draft — Deron Williams and Luther Head — they were the only Big Ten first-rounders, and the conference only had one second-rounder.

That '05 team, however, won 29 games in a row and was the talk of college basketball. An unbeaten title season seemed like a real possibility until it lost a road game at Ohio State on March 6, 65-64. This group will always be remembered for their comeback against Arizona, winning 90-89 in OT to advance them to the Final Four.

So which team has the edge?

A previous interview with '89 All-American guard Kendall Gill probably gave the best breakdown I have heard in this debate and made it easy for me to pick a winner.

"The 2005 team was amazing," Gill said, "but here's what I tell people: Break down each player by position. Who had the advantage? Nick Anderson was probably the best player in the country, Kenny Battle played at a level that may never be seen again at Illinois."

With that analogy, it would be difficult to argue the '05 team had more than one clear advantage, maybe two.

The definite one Deron Williams vs. Stephen Bardo. Williams was the third overall pick in the 2005 draft.

The only other possibility would be James Augustine vs. Lowell Hamilton; however, the only advantage there would be that Augustine could run like a guard.

That's why 1989 would get my vote for being the best team ever to play college basketball in Champaign.

Four attempts to reach players from the 2005 team to get their opinions were initially unsuccessful. One member from the 2005 team did reach out to me late, however, and asked to remain anonymous. His take?

"I'm not touching that (laughter), but I have to say it's a fun debate. But when you think about it, we all bleed orange and blue."


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