Mention the 2004-05 basketball season to Illinois fans and most will get almost giddy with excitement. The way that team played, the utter dominancit showed every single game, the way that no deficit was too much (looking at you, Arizona), it all harkens back to a time where Illinois Basketball ruled the college landscape.
There was a time when Illinois was easily one of the top programs in all of college athletics. That 2004-05 season encapsulated the pinnacle of Illinois basketball. One man on that team would be drafted third overall by the Utah Jazz following that season.
The man who willed the Illini back against Arizona with the help of his teammates.
That man could have potentially gotten the Illini back to the National Championship the following season had he not pursued his dream.
That man is Deron Williams.
The junior knew his calling was to the NBA and after a stellar season in which he scored over 12 points per game, passed for just under seven assists per game, and was a second-team All American. Who could fault him for chasing that dream? After all, Deron had a 14-year NBA career and was a All Star multiple times, so there is no doubt that Williams made the right decision.
However, pretend for a second that Deron were to stick around for his senior season. Deron and Dee back at it for one more season.
In theory, this would have meant less playing time for Rich McBride, the team’s leader in free throw percentage and three-pointers made.
The other option that then-coach Bruce Weber could have gone with would have been to use a guard heavy lineup, sitting Brian Randle in order to keep McBride in the lineup. Either way, the makeup and chemistry of that 2005-06 team would have been vastly different.
Say, for instance, Williams would have seen a spike of five points per game and improved his assists per game by one. That would have put Williams at 17.5 points per game and 7.8 assists per game, which would have let the 2005-06 Illini.
Not only does that give this Illinois team a different look offensively, but it would vastly improve this team on the defensive side of the ball. I know Deron was not known for his defense, but the way he commanded and led these guys spoke volumes. All of these guys would fight for each other, something the current state of Illinois basketball lacks.
The Illini reached No. 6 nationally during this Deron-less season, but cracks could be seen without the presence and talent of Deron. Perhaps the rough four-game stretch to open Big Ten play (vs. Michigan State, at Iowa, vs. Michigan, at Indiana) played out as everyone expected. Win a couple, lose a couple.
This team, though, needed what Williams could give them. Another option to go at the other team’s best defender, another hot hand to hit the shots when they weren’t falling. The Illini lacked that far too often in 2005-06, and they were never able to get duplicate what fans saw just one season earlier.
When the Illini entered the 2006 NCAA Tournament, they were placed in the Washington, D.C., bracket and would go on to lose to Washington by three in the second round. Illinois had lost 66 percent of its scoring from the previous season and were unable to get much going against a strong Huskies defense.
The region was eventually won by George Mason and its improbable Final Four run, but what could have been with a senior season from Deron Williams. The Illini would have had all the tools needed for a championship run.
Perhaps a senior season may not have stopped Cinderella, but it sure would have helped.