In the first round of NCAA Tournament, Illinois pounded Murray State 72-53 behind eight points and eight assists from D-Will.
In the second round, Deron went off, pouring in 31 points to go along with seven assists as the Illini defeated the Cincinatti Bearcats to advance to the Sweet 16. The victory set up a Sweet 16 showdown with top-seeded Duke.
But that was where their tournament run would end. Still their was hope on the horizon for the Illini after a strong first season under Weber.
TAKING THE NATION BY STORM
Expectations were high on Deron and the Illini entering his junior year, so to give him a more steady home life, Amy and Denae moved to Champaign.
With his family in place, Deron was set for his best year yet. He was picked as the Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year and named to the prestigious watch lists for both the Wooden and Naismith awards. Playboy Magazine chose him as a Preseason All-American.
By December of 2004, after a dominant win over Wake Forest, the Illini were the number one team in the nation. They rolled through to the best start in school history and won 29 consecutive games before falling in number 30 to conference foe Ohio State.
At the center of it all was Deron, who played every game and was third on the team in scoring at 12.5 points per game and first in the conference in assists, at 6.8 per game (11th in the nation). He became the first player ever to lead the Big Ten Conference in in-conference assists each of his first three years in the Big Ten.
“Deron runs our team,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “His feel for the game is uncoachable. With his numbers, it’s unbelievable that people are talking about him as national player of the year, because he doesn’t have staggering numbers. He just makes us go. He’s not caught up in points. He’s caught up in getting the ball to the hot hand. If there’s no hot hand, he knows when to take over.”
“He’s just one of the elite kids. He’s a special breed who has a special feel for the game.”
His honors in his junior season included being named a 2005 Consensus Second-Team All-American. He was also named to the Wooden Award All-America Team, a College Insider.com All-American, a NABC Second-Team All-American, a Sporting News Second-Team All-American, a CBS Sporsline.com Second-Team All-American, an Associated Press Third-Team All-American and a Sports Illustrated.com Third-Team All-American. For the second consecutive year he was a First-Team All-Big Ten selection by both league coaches and media.
“Deron Williams deserves every bit he gets,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said during the 04-05 season. “[He’s] so unselfish, so under control.”
At 32-1, Illinois entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed and disposed quickly of Fairleigh Dickinson in the first round. They went on to defeat Nevada and Wisconsin-Milwaukee to advance to the Elite Eight, then ousted Arizona in an overtime thriller to advance to the Final Four. In the National Semifinal, Illinois took on Louisville and Deron turned his attention to the defensive end of the floor and Cardinals guard Francisco Garcia, who finished with just four points on two-of-10 shooting. Illinois advanced to the National Championship game with a 72-57 win.
In 2005, Deron led one of the most incredible comebacks in NCAA tournament history.
The Illini fell to North Carolina 75-70 in the National Championship game, ending the season one win short of glory, but that wouldn’t change how much the team, easily the best in school history, had accomplished.
Following the season, Deron chose to forego his senior year and declared for the NBA Draft. At his press conference, D-Will pledged that he would not forget all that the Illini accomplished in his three years there and thanked both his teammates and the coaching staff.
“We had a lot of great times playing here together. We won a lot of games, won some championships, and had an amazing run this year to end my career,” Deron said. “[The coaches] put the ball in my hands and let me run the team, and I appreciate them having confidence in me and helping me improve my game the last two years.”