Fans of the Illinois Fighting Illini have no problem with logging miles to cheer on their beloved basketball team. Each year, the student organization known as the Orange Krush embarks on a road trip to watch their hoopsters take on a fellow Big Ten foe. While innocuous on the surface, it’s actually a covert mission. They enter the arena dressed in their rivals’ colors or some other disguise, and then right before tip-off, they tear away their false front and unleash a wave of Orange and Blue throughout the coliseum.
Organized basketball came to the Urbana-Champaign campus in 1906, and by 1915, the Illini had captured their first national championship. The victory was especially sweet, as the school’s football program secured a title that year as well. While subsequent crowns in 1919, ‘23, and ‘27 would be earned on the gridiron, the Illini hoops squad began to emerge as contenders in their own right once former All-American player Harry Combes assumed head coaching duties. Under his watch, Illinois won the Big Ten Conference in ‘49, ‘51 and ‘52 while also finishing third in NCAA postseason play in each of those years. In 1952, the final round of the national tournament was reconfigured so that the four regional winners would square off, meaning that the Illini can deservedly lay claim to having competed in the one of the first Final Fours ever.
In 1975, Lou Henson took over the program and quickly established himself as one of the most storied coaches in school history. The eventual Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame inductee would rack up 421 victories while in Champaign, guide Illinois to 12 Big Dance appearances, and post nine straight 20-plus win seasons from 1983 to ‘91. Of all his teams, the ‘88-’89 crew is the most celebrated. Paced by all-conference performers Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill and Kenny Battle, the “Flyin’ Illini” won 31 games and advanced all the way to the Final Four.
After an Elite Eight run in 2001 and Sweet Sixteen showings in ‘02 and ‘04, Illinois cemented their status as a national power in ‘05 with a record of 37-2 and a 15-week reign at #1 in both the Associated Press and USA Today coaches polls. While they’d lose the national championship to North Carolina, guards Deron Williams and Dee Brown would both be named to the Wooden All-American team. Brown was also chosen as the Sporting News Player of the Year in ‘05, and a year later, he was given the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award, the top honor for the nation’s best player under six feet tall.
At the State Farm Center, the Illini can always count on their dedicated diehards to create a raucous atmosphere, and the devotion hasn’t gone unnoticed. “The Orange Krush are super, scintillating and sensational,” said famed broadcaster Dick Vitale. “They are a fantastic sixth man for the Fighting Illini,” he added. In the world of college basketball, there is no higher praise than the seal of approval from Dickie V, so until they raise another banner, Illinois faithful can proudly sing the praises of their alma mater knowing that they’ve earned their spot among the elite.