Illinois Story Brings New Meaning to 'March Madness'

The four or five hours we've taken to drive from Cincinnati to Nashville, Knoxville, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit or Chicago is half a day's work, but the destination doesn't seem worlds away

Mar 23, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

The four or five hours we've taken to drive from Cincinnati to Nashville, Knoxville, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit or Chicago is half a day's work, but the destination doesn't seem worlds away. In any case, it's usually worth arriving.

But what about Champaign-Urbana, Ill.? If you're not an academic or a basketball freak, the University of Illinois' location is literally the middle of nowhere. Were it not for the Chicago metropolis and the Abraham Lincoln legend co-written by Carl Sandburg, Illinois is either a farmland or a wasteland — and this is a native talking.

Lots of people have left Illinois, but 1978 hasn't. Nor have the endlessness of dull prairie, depressed real estate or Cheap Trick and REO Speedwagon over the speakers at the Steak 'N' Shake.

Fortunately, neither has the rabid passion for basketball, the official pastime of poor kids in barnyards and ghettoes everywhere — and they're almost everywhere in Illinois. If you don't live within a quick train ride to Chicago or a fast drive to St. Louis, it's basketball territory only. Little else makes Illinois worth the trouble of living there.

At this time of year, though, it's almost worth the trouble. The term "March Madness" was first coined 30 years ago in Illinois to describe its state high school basketball tournament, especially the small-school version. No state basketball tournament brings up quite the flavor of the Illinois frenzy with its Freeport Pretzels, Polo Marcos, Hoopeston Cornjerkers, Cobden Appleknockers and Lincoln Railsplitters.

Illinois divides its basketball schools into two classes, with Class AA including all schools of 755 or more students and Class A taking in the rest. As about 400 schools play in the Class A range, Illinois High School Association (IHSA) Executive Director Marty Hickman says he's probably running the largest single-elimination tournament in America.

In Illinois, the small school state finals always dwarf those worthless college conference tournaments on the same weekend, and the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament usually take a back seat to the large high school Elite Eight. But this year, by vigorous coaching, a bit of coincidence and a sad twist, both tournaments were connected last weekend.

It's well known that the University of Illinois spent much of this season atop the college basketball rankings with a speedy, coordinated ball club put together by Bruce Weber. In his second season with the Illini, Weber has fashioned an NCAA favorite out of players recruited by former coach Bill Self, who took off for Kansas when Roy Williams vacated Allen Fieldhouse for North Carolina.

Three showcase basketball programs, three openings, two big names. It's taken Illinois fans a while to take to Weber, who came up from Southern Illinois University. But if he's never been the most colorful character, he now has the most compelling story, for this high point of his professional life coincides with a low point in his personal life, the sudden and unexpected loss of his mother.

On March 11, 81-year-old Dawn Weber ruptured her aorta while entering the United Center in Chicago to watch her son's team play Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament. She died at 6 p.m., leaving behind four children, including three basketball coaches.

Bruce Weber coached that night and through the weekend to win the tournament. He comes from a coaching family. Another of those sons, Dave Weber, is head coach at Glenbrook North, a tony west Chicago suburban high school making a deep run in the Illinois state tournament.

At 9 a.m. on March 15, the family held a visitation at a Milwaukee church, followed by an 11 a.m. funeral. Bruce Weber then returned to Champaign for practice at 5 p.m. Dave Weber had a game that night, a big one, for the Supersectional championship and a trip to the state tournament. He won, beating Waukegan.

"Dave and I carrying on is what my mother would have wanted," Bruce Weber told reporters last week. "She would want us to fulfill our duties as basketball coaches, and that's what we will do."

Both brothers claim to have drawn strength from their "second families" — their basketball teams — and each other. But Illinois, top-seeded in the Chicago Regional, beat Fairleigh Dickinson 67-55 in an uneven performance March 17. Much of the Illinois media declared the Illini in a funk.

The next day Glenbrook North showed up in Peoria for the state tournament. Generally the large school tournament in Illinois is five teams from Chicago, one from the state's northwest quadrant, one from the midsection and one from the St. Louis area or points south. Behind John Scheyer, a 6-foot-6 junior who averages 25 points and about as many battles for loose balls every game, Glenbrook North eased past comers from almost every part of the state.

Scheyer's had a bit of a rep going for quite some time. A favorite to win Illinois' Mr. Basketball this year, he's said to have received a scholarship offer from Marquette coach Tom Crean before he entered high school. Some cards ticket him for Duke in a couple years, although Illinois sentiment naturally has him passing from Dave Weber at Glenbrook North to Bruce Weber at the state's Big Ten university.

Opening the state finals, Glenbrook North notched a 68-47 win against Chicago Private League entrant Brother Rice. The next afternoon, a 51-33 win against Rockford Jefferson clinched a spot in the championship game later that day.

Three-and-a-half hours before the state title tip-off, the Illini took up business in the NCAA Tournament, preceding that fabulous Cincinnati-Kentucky game at the RCA Dome with a dominating performance in its 71-59 win over Nevada. And at the very moment UC and UK went toe-to-toe before 40,000, the largest second-round crowd in NCAA Tournament history, Glenbrook North thumped Carbondale 63-51, taking Illinois' big-school title in a game that wasn't nearly so close.

Now the Illini gear up for the Sweet 16 along with the other three top seeds — Duke, North Carolina and Washington. It could be Illinois' year.

"In a way, it has been great that both of us have had enough successes this season to get us to this weekend," Bruce Weber said in the March 20 Chicago Sun-Times. "It's keeping us both going right now."

As always, this time of year leaves many regions with cases to make for their basketball superiority.

Three teams from North Carolina — Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State — remain in the running, and it would have been four if Wake Forest survived in double overtime against West Virginia. Only Kentucky and Louisville remain from the Tristate, but UK's 69-60 win against UC had to be the most intense game in the tournament's first weekend, both on the floor and in the seats.

The Bearcats were right there, trailing only 64-59 with 3:56 remaining. But UK brought more bodies and more inside presence from the start, then the Bearcats faltered with their outside shooting in the final minutes.

But no story trumps the one in Illinois, where a family marches through the high of life, the low of death and the madness of a game.