The High Five: Counting down the top Final Four teams in state history

Welcome to the High Five, our new weekly column ranking a little bit of everything throughout the sports world.

In our debut edition, we rank the top Final Four teams in Illinois history.

You may be surprised by the amount of success the state has enjoyed since the Final Four began in 1939. Starting with DePaul in 1943 (with Hall of Famer George Mikan a freshman and legendary coach Ray Meyer in his first year with the Blue Demons), 11 teams from Illinois have reached the Final Four.

With all due respect to those early winners, including the 1950 and 1954 runner-up teams from Bradley, our top five trends more recent.

5. Loyola, 2018

From the good luck brought by Sister Jean to the instant impact of Jacobs graduate Cam Krutwig as a freshman, this team had every element Hollywood begs for in a storybook season.

The Ramblers won both the regular-season and tournament titles in the Missouri Valley Conference. As a mid-major team, though, Loyola went unranked all year and entered the tournament as an 11 seed.

Starting with a last-second win over Miami in the opening round, the Ramblers quickly became the team no one wanted to play. They advanced to the Sweet Sixteen by beating No. 3 Tennessee, then the Elite Eight with a 69-68 win over Nevada.

The Final Four dream became complete with a dominant victory over Kansas State, but ended with a semifinal loss to Michigan.

4. Illinois, 1989

Known as the “Flying Illini,” many fans believe this is the most talented team in program history. Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill, Steve Bardo, Kenny Battle, Lowell Hamilton, Marcus Liberty … man, this team was loaded.

The Illini finished second in the Big Ten, just behind Indiana and ahead of Michigan. As a third seed they beat McNeese State and Ball State, then Louisville and Syracuse to reach the Final Four.

But that Big Ten schedule finally caught up to Illinois. Michigan, led by Glen Rice, beat Illinois 83-81 in the semifinal on a Sean Higgins putback with 2 seconds left.

3. Loyola, 1963

The school recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of the only Illinois team to win an NCAA basketball title.

By starting four Black players, the Ramblers broke an unofficial agreement between college coaches at the time to play only two Black players at a given time. The Ramblers lost only twice in the regular season and started the tournament with a 111-42 win over Tennessee Tech.

After beating Mississippi State, Illinois and Duke, the Ramblers upset No. 1 Cincinnati 60-58 in overtime in the title game. Jerry Harkness and the four other starters played every minute of the final, earning enshrinement into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.

Indiana State University's Larry Bird (33) and DePaul’s James Mitchem fight for the ball during their Final Four semifinal game in 1979. Associated Press

2. DePaul, 1979

As much as DePaul fans still wonder what might have been in the years that followed with stinging early tournament losses to UCLA, St. Joseph’s and Boston College, this is the team they’ll always cherish.

The Blue Demons opened with a 23-point loss to UCLA and remained unranked until late in the season. Despite taking lumps along the way, freshman Mark Aguirre, sophomore Clyde Bradshaw and the rest of the team became battle tested with Meyer guiding the way.

After beating USC and Marquette at the start of the tourney, the Blue Demons avenged the loss to UCLA by beating the Bruins 95-91. The ride ended there, however, as DePaul lost to Indiana State and Larry Bird in the semifinal.

1. Illinois, 2005

Illinois' Dee Brown gets a ball to autograph from a fan during the team’s run to the Final Four in 2005. Associated Press

So which team was better, the 1989 team or the 2005 team?

We won’t settle it here, except to give a nod to the team that advanced a step further before losing 75-70 to North Carolina in the title game.

The Illini started the season 29-0 and wrapped up the Big Ten Conference title before losing the finale at Ohio State. They cruised to the Big Ten tournament title and rolled through the first few rounds of the NCAA tournament as a top seed.

Then, in one of the greatest comebacks in tournament history, Illinois rallied from a 15-point deficit in the final minutes to beat Arizona 90-89 in overtime and advance to the Final Four.

Illinois dominated Louisville in the semifinal, and then fell to the Tar Heels after foul trouble and brutal perimeter shooting proved costly against a team that put six players into the NBA.

Big Ten player of the year Dee Brown was a consensus first-team All-American for the Illini while Deron Williams and Luther Head were second-teamers.

Williams, Head, Brown and James Augustine were drafted into the NBA, with Williams earning NBA All-Star nods three times after Utah selected him with the third overall pick.

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