Illinois' Marcus Liberty dunks during the 1988-89 basketball season. (Tribune file )
This season marks the 25th anniversary of the "Flying Illini" and their remarkable run to the 1989 Final Four.
Entering the NCAA tournament that year as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, the Illini defeated McNeese State, Ball State, Louisville and Syracuse before finally falling to Big Ten rival Michigan.
That team, composed almost entirely standout in-state players—including Stephen Bardo, Kendall Gill, Marcus Liberty, Lowell Hamilton, Nick Anderson and Kenny Battle—still has a special place in the hearts of basketball fans throughout Illinois.
To celebrate that squad and its accomplishments, Bardo, a college basketball analyst at Big Ten Network, is set to release a book Friday titled "Flyin' Illini."
"It was a special group," Bardo told RedEye. "And I think what made it special is we were all from the state of Illinois. We took great pride in representing the state, and I think that's why fans of the Flying Illini still have a love affair with us today."
In today's college basketball landscape, it's practically unheard of that a big-time program like Illinois can field a team of in-state kids and win the way they did.
A scan of the 1989 roster reveals that of the 15 players who made the team, all but one came from Illinois. Four were from Chicago, five were from the suburbs, one was from Champaign and the rest were spread out across the state. Bardo, who lives in Chicago, hails from Carbondale.
Juxtapose that against the 2005 squad that made the school's second Final Four appearance in history, and you'll see that only eight of those players were from Illinois and the star of the team—Deron Williams—came from Texas.
So how did all these top guys decide to stay home and attend the same school? Homegrown collusion, of course.
"Nike All-American camp," Bardo said of how the Flying Illini were born. "Back then, typically all of the guys from the same area would congregate. So we would go back to the dorm room and all of the Chicago cats were hanging together. I'm not a Chicago cat but I'm from Illinois, so that's who I hung with.
"So we decided that it would be cool if everybody went to Illinois, and everybody kept their pact. It wasn't because of Lou Henson or anything like that. We had a pact and we all kept it."
"We did visit other schools," added Kendall Gill, a 15-year NBA veteran and former Bulls analyst for Comcast Sportsnet. "Steve and I actually visited Michigan State together, and we liked Michigan State. But the pact was the pact and we all decided to go down to Illinois."
Outside of those two successful Final Four squads, Illinois basketball has had a lot of down years, especially when it comes to keeping the homegrown talent at home. It bothers both Bardo and Gill that many of the state's top players—especially ones from Chicago—don't even give the Illini a look.
But they hope that will all change with John Groce in the coach's seat. Groce has has made recruiting the Chicago Public League his No. 1 priority, a move that could put the school back on top.
"I know it's hard to come to Chicago and recruit these kids," Bardo said. "But [Duke coach] Mike Krzyzewski does it. [Kansas coach] Bill Self does it. [Michigan State coach] Tom Izzo does it. Illinois is our state team. Chicago is in the state of Illinois and we should dominate recruiting in Chicago. I hear people say all the time that we're a delusional fan base thinking Illinois is a top 15 or 20 program, but when we get Chicago kids, we are."
"I always say that nobody will remember you [in Illinois] if you go to school out of state," Gill said. "They still remember us every day from that 1989 team. You look at the 2005 team. Deron Williams was the star, but people remember Dee Brown more for his career at Illinois because he's from here. What we try to tell in-state recruits is to cultivate your home base and it'll take care of you after all of the playing and all the cheering is over."
Bryan Crawford is a RedEye special contributor.
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