It's not every day when you're presented with the opportunity to talk to one of the members of 1989's Flying Illini team, so when I was given that chance last week I just couldn't pass it up. I was able to ask the one and only Stephen Bardo a few questions about Illinois basketball and he was generous enough to answer them for me.
And since it would seem selfish and somewhat creepy to keep it all to myself, I've decided to share those questions and answers with all of you.
It should also be pointed out that this was all done before last night's game or else this entire thing would probably have just been Stephen and I screaming at each other and high-fiving.
The Champaign Room: Like last year, this season got off to a very promising start for the Illini only to fall apart once Big Ten play began. Why do you think this team struggles so much against the rest of the conference, and is there a realistic chance the team gets its act together in time to qualify for the tournament?
Stephen Bardo: When you play conference teams they know your personnel and team tendencies very well. Even in the case of Illinois with a new coach, the player's tendencies are still the same. If teams had success against them last season doing certain things those same teams have more confidence this season against Illinois. It's gonna be tough for them to right the ship in order to make the tournament. Tough to lose 4 straight at home and be considered one of the best 68 in the nation.
TCR: Brandon Paul takes a lot of flak from the fan base. Do you think the frustration from fans is justified, or is it a case of expecting too much from Paul and not accepting him for who he is?
SB: Brandon has shown at times he can be an elite guard and play well against the stiffest competition. Then other times he seems somewhat disinterested during certain games. I think fans don't like the inconsistency that comes with Brandon's game at times. He'll tease you with performances like 43 points versus Ohio State last season and 36 points versus Gonzaga. Yet against Big 10 competition he hasn't been consistent. I think that's why fans have become frustrated with him.
TCR: All indications are that John Groce can bring talent to Champaign as a recruiter, but do you think his style of play can work consistently in the Big Ten?
SB: I think John Groce is the right coach for the Illinois job. I think he's flexible enough to cater his system to his personnel. What Illini fans are seeing right now may not be his ideal system since he doesn't have his type of players at Illinois yet. I like what he's trying to do. Up-tempo, score in transition, tough defense that leads to easy offense. I think today's players want to play in a system like that.
TCR: Looking back on the Final Four run in 1989, what are your favorite memories of the team or that season?
SB: The way fans responded to us is still amazing! We have become legends among the Illini fan base and I'm very proud of that. The chemistry on that team was stellar, one of the best I've been apart of. Our style of play was unique and we enjoyed competing against the best. Some of the memories from that year are only second to the birth of my two sons!
TCR: And, we have to ask: Flying Illini versus the 2005 NCAA runner-up. Who you got?
SB: Who do you think I have? Every man on each team will say they would win. I'm no different. Yet I think among all the players on both teams I'm the most knowledgable. So since I think '89 would have run them out of the gym I guess I'm right!
TCR: That's a game I think we'd all love to see.
Thanks again to Stephen for answering our questions, and thanks to Mike Humes at ESPN for reaching out to set this up.