The orange-clad multitudes roar when Illinois coach Bruce Weber comes onto the court just before tipoff. The players speak of him with adulation normally reserved for one of those coaches who have been at a school for a couple of decades.
Weber toiled for 19 years as an assistant before finally becoming a head coach at age 41. Tonight in the Edward Jones Dome, his team can secure a historic national title when it meets North Carolina in the championship game of the NCAA Tournament.
"It's just a great scenario," Weber said Sunday. "You got the teams that people have talked about since the beginning of the year. Whether you say they have the most talent, we have the best team, whatever, it's the two teams that have been there all along, and we're playing for the national championship. That doesn't happen very often."
He's got that right. This is the first time two No. 1 seeds have met for the title since Connecticut beat Duke in 1999 -- and it's the first time the top two schools in the final Associated Press poll have reached the final since UCLA secured John Wooden's final victory with a win over No. 2 Kentucky in 1975.
No. 2 North Carolina is 32-4 while No. 1 Illinois is 37-1 and a win away from setting the NCAA single-season record for victories. Were it not for its last-second, 65-64 loss March 6 at Ohio State, Illinois could be gunning for the first perfect season since Indiana went 32-0 in 1976.
"They've done the best job of anybody in the country this year," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who is hoping to finally grab his first title. "They're eight seconds away from being undefeated, from being 38-0. Nobody in college basketball history has ever won 38 games, and they have a chance."
A chance was all Weber needed to be a head coach. He toiled under Gene Keady, for a year at Western Kentucky and 18 at Purdue, before finally getting his chance at Southern Illinois in 1998. He won 103 games there in five years and went to the postseason three times, including a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2002.
Following that season, Williams left Kansas to return to his alma mater. Illinois coach Bill Self left for Kansas. Weber got the call from Illinois.
It was a nightmarish transition. The Illinois players were hurt when Self left and initially resisted Weber's motion offense and maniacal conditioning drills. Several talked of transferring. Not even a summer bonding trip to Europe could soothe their pain.
"I did fear losing them. I still remember that," Weber said. "It's September/October, I'm out recruiting, and almost every day I got a call from one of the (assistant) coaches saying, 'You got to call this guy. He's going to leave. He doesn't want to do conditioning. He doesn't want to do weights. He thinks our workouts are too hard.' It was more that they liked Bill and they had success. They were hurt. It's like a girlfriend dropping you. The pain lingers. There's a knot in your stomach."
With frustration building, Weber finally called the players together in the team's practice facility and told them to count how many Big Ten championship banners on the wall Illinois had earned between 1984 and 1998. There were none. Then he reminded them Purdue had earned six during that period.
"If you didn't buy in, we were going to head downhill," said point guard Deron Williams. "We had a couple of disappointing losses at the beginning of the Big Ten season last year that we had to get over. But being a point guard, I kind of understood first what he was trying to accomplish. I just tried to help everybody else out."
Fans, however, were indifferent to the new coach, too.
"I thought they would be mad at (Self). They were mad at me," Weber said. "It didn't make sense. I wanted to be there. Now they're chasing you down the street. Last year, they were chasing me, trying to get me out of Champaign (the Illini's home city). It's a little different scenario now."
Being at the center of the basketball world is a far different scenario, one Weber envisioned all those years he never got a chance to run his own program. While with Keady, Weber said he interviewed at just about every school in the Mid-American Conference (prior to the University at Buffalo's 1998 arrival in the MAC) and talked to some of them twice.
"I just didn't network enough," Weber said. "I did my job. I had to do tickets and camps and travel plans, all this stuff. I didn't have time to be making calls. It was frustrating. But at the same time, I was happy. It was more other people kept saying, 'You got to leave.' I'd say, 'Why do I have to leave? I'm happy. I got a great job.' "
The 49-year-old Weber speaks in a trademark rasp that has only two volumes: loud and even louder. It's a product of a childhood in which Weber and his four siblings had to talk loudly to get the attention of their father, who wore a hearing aid.
Weber's family has become a major part of his tournament run as his 81-year-old mother, Dawn, died March 11 of a heart attack suffered while waiting in line to pick up tickets for one of her son's Big Ten Tournament games in Chicago. One of the last times she talked to her son she told him the Illini's season seemed like a big fairy tale.
Tonight, Weber's team tries to write the ending.
"This is all NCAA history. We understand how special it is," Weber said. "I know you don't get this opportunity, this kind of group of kids. There is a sense of urgency to get it done, but I've just enjoyed the ride. We've had a great journey. It's just been so much fun from Day One this season. We're hoping to finish the storybook season."
WEBER'S WINNING WAYS
Year School Record Postseason
2004-05 Illinois 37-1 Championship game
2003-04 Illinois 26-7 NCAA Sweet 16
2002-03 Southern Illinois 24-7 NCAA first round
2001-02 Southern Illinois 28-8 NCAA Sweet 16
2000-01 Southern Illinois 16-14 None
1999-00 Southern Illinois 20-13 NIT first round
1998-99 Southern Illinois 15-12 None
Totals: Illinois 63-8; So. Illinois 103-54; Overall 166-62
AND THE WINNER IS . . .
Team over talent or talent over team? It's a tough dilemma. Led by its three-guard attack, Illinois is portrayed as the old-school, unselfish group that will do anything to win. North Carolina, meanwhile, has at least five future NBA players but is dogged by a style-over-substance label. It's hard to pick against the Illini now that they're on the cusp of a history-making 38th win. Illinois will struggle to stop Carolina's Scott May inside, but its crisp-passing guards will make just enough plays at both ends of the floor to overcome Carolina's athletic perimeter.
Illinois 80, No. Carolina 77
The theme for the championship game is the best talent (North Carolina) versus the best team (Illinois). I haven't seen a team pass the ball the way Illinois does in years. No doubt, the hoop purists are rooting for the Illini, who are trying to win their record 38th game. North Carolina needs to get the ball low to Sean May and force Illinois to play post defense. But the Illini guards will rattle the Tar Heel guards on the perimeter. They're also quick enough to slow down Carolina's fast break. Illinois has enough big bodies to throw at May and keep him honest. The best team will prevail in a great game. After the regionals, we're due for another overtime.
Illinois 86, No. Carolina 84