The scene could not have been more picturesque last night in Champaign-Urbana.
ESPN analysts and equipment swarmed the campus of Illinois. Fans in a near-capacity Assembly Hall wore their brightest shade of orange. The guests of honor were none other than former coach Lou Henson and his wife Mary.
Former Illini greats such as Kenny Battle and Stephen Bardo were also in attendance to watch their coach's legacy raised to the rafters during a halftime celebration.
Then came the game.
The Fighting Illini upstaged No. 5 Ohio State 79-74 behind the support of a remarkable former coach, the pride of former players and over 15,000 orange-clad fans.
Here are four takeaways from last night's game.
Sophomore Meyers Leonard was the best-kept secret in NCAA basketball until last night.
Almost one year ago (January 21, 2011), Leonard and the Illini hosted Ohio State and the Buckeyes were led by All-American Jared Sullinger. Sullinger had his way with the Illini en route to the victory, scoring 27 points and grabbing 16 rebounds.
Meyers Leonard played a limited role in the loss. Playing eight minutes, Leonard scored two points, had no rebounds and four personal fouls. The fouls were largely the result of being physically incapable of matching the size and strength of Sullinger's dominant inside presence.
Last night was a different story.
Leonard scored 14 points, brought down five rebounds and shaped the Buckeye defense around his inside game. Sullinger scored 21 points, but was limited to five rebounds largely as a result of Leonard.
Leonard's below-the-radar status in the high school recruiting process got him attention from Illinois, Indiana, Purdue and Iowa. He was even considered a project by many when he signed with Illinois head coach Bruce Weber in July, 2008.
Weber has been known to recruit lanky centers in hopes of physical maturation, and Meyers Leonard is proof positive that this formula can work. Others have also noted his quick progression.
NBADraft.net currently has Meyers Leonard as the No. 14 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.
Brandon Paul's historic 43 points last night is the third highest-scoring performance in Illini history.
Paul's gaudy point totals were largely a result of nailing 8 out of 10 three-point field goals.
"I was laughing a couple times," Paul told the Associated Press after the game. "After the first couple three's, I just said I was going to keep shooting. That's the mindset I've got to have."
Despite the point total, the remarkable aspect was Weber's tolerance of Paul's style of play.
In Bruce Weber's motion offense, fluent and sometimes excessive ball movement is usually the law of the land. The problem, however, is that athletic ability is sometimes repressed in favor of Weber's offense.
Lesser players have been frustrated to the point of on-court feuds with Weber in the past over overemphasis on system basketball. Demetri McCamey, for example, shoved Weber off during last year's March 7 date with the Wisconsin Badgers.
Not last night, though. Weber let his junior go off.
If Illinois wants to replicate last night's game, it needs to make use of its depth and athleticism. Let Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand and others sometimes break free of what can come across as, dare I say it, over-coaching.
Former Illinois head coach Lou Henson had a banner raised in his honor last night. It was a fitting tribute on his 80th birthday to a 20-year coaching career at Illinois.
As Henson waved to the crowd with his wife Mary by his side, flashes of the past overwhelmed Assembly Hall. It is safe to assume that those in attendance reminisced on Henson's Flyin' Illini team of the 1988-89 season that reached the Final Four.
But this touching tribute is only an obligatory gesture that barely scrapes the surface of what Henson really deserves—the man deserves a spot in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Anything less is nothing short of criminal.
Henson recorded 423 wins at Illinois and 289 wins at New Mexico State. His 779 win total puts him at sixth place on the list of most winningest coaches in NCAA basketball.
He reached the NCAA Tournament 21 times in his 33-year career. He brought New Mexico State to its first and only Final Four to date. He even won three state championships while coaching at Las Cruces High School in the late 1950s.
Believe it or not, the most vocal advocate for Henson's induction into the Hall of Fame is ESPN's Dick Vitale.
In his ESPN blog from 2005, Vitale wrote an article titled, "Classy Henson is worthy of the Hall."
"I feel that the 73-year-old Henson has never been given enough credit for his accomplishments on the sidelines," Vitale wrote.
Eight years later, we're still waiting for the respect that Henson has rightfully earned.
Any fan of Illinois basketball can tell you where they were during Illinois' heroic comeback against Arizona in the 2005 NCAA quarterfinal.
They'll remember being down 15 points with under four minutes to play. They'll also remember Jay Bilas saying, "Illinois is playing with the heart of a champion."
The rest is history. The Illini Nation has waited patiently for that spirit to reemerge in Champaign-Urbana ever since.
Last night's Illini arguably played with the same passion, heart and ferocity as 2005 teammates Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head did against Arizona.
With an 11-point advantage and 18:14 to play, it appeared that the Buckeyes were finished toying with the Illini.
This was an extraordinary opportunity for the Illini to throw in the towel against their top-ranked opponent. Ohio State has not lost with a 10-point lead all season.
Illinois head coach Bruce Weber opted to wait for the TV timeout (at the 15-minute mark), which left his young Illini to dig out of their own ditch.
The Illini answered the call.
The defense forced four turnovers, grabbed a steal and went on a 9-0 run to bring the score to 48-46.
As the Fighting Illini look toward the rest of the season, the intangible element of perseverance will prove to be a season-defining characteristic.