Roger Powell Jr. played in four straight NCAA basketball tournaments for the University of Illinois, and now he’s trying to get back to the “Big Dance” as an assistant coach at Valparaiso.
He can still picture the confetti dropping from the ceiling the night the Fighting Illini fell to North Carolina in the 2005 championship.
“Losing that game was pretty tough,” says Powell, a Joliet native and the team’s starting forward. “After we got home and took everything in, I realized it was a great season. But at that moment I was crushed.”
In the prior game, Illinois’s Final Four contest against Louisville, Powell learned what he was made of. He got into foul trouble early and couldn’t make anything happen in the first half. When he returned to the court in the second half, he lit up the Cardinals for 18 points, helping the Illini reach the National Championship game for the first time in school history.
“That was the most significant 20 minutes I’ve ever played in my career,” says Powell, who also played pro with the Utah Jazz, preseasons with the Chicago Bulls and pro abroad.
The Illini went 37–2 in 2004–2005, and Powell enjoyed a college hoops career that kids—himself included—only dream about.
“I just thought the whole aura around the tournament was awesome and something I wanted to be a part of,” he says. “Last year we made it to the NIT [National Invitation Tournament], but we want to go to the Dance. I want to go there as a coach.”