Channing Frye: Illinois Game five years ago punched ticket to the League


Five years after “The Illinois Game,” Channing Frye still tells Deron Williams that that game got him to the League. (Alan Walsh/ValleyoftheSuns)

University of Arizona fans remember the team’s collapse in the 2005 Elite Eight when the Wildcats led by 15 with four minutes remaining as one of the most gruesome losses in program history, the last day in the Lute Olson Era that you could truly call Arizona Basketball “elite.”

Five years to the day of the horrifying loss, Suns center and former Wildcat Channing Frye remembers it a bit differently.

“It put me in the league,” Frye said after Friday’s win over the Knicks. “You’ve got to just go out there and hoop, and there’s very little I could have done to help us out.”

Frye is certainly correct on that count. He led the Wildcats with 24 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks, and even showed us a sample of the modern-day Channing Frye by drilling a three to put Arizona up by 12 with six minutes left.

In a column this week, Bill Simmons argues that March Madness should affect our feelings about future draft picks, and in this game Channing certainly elevated himself to top-10 status.

It’s a game that I look back on as a last chance for Lute Olson to reach one more Final Four, and (in hindsight) the only chance I would have to watch a Final Four team while I was in school. The Wildcats were soooo close, but with five years of perspective Frye isn’t regretting anything he did in his stellar performance.

“We were right there, but it happens,” Frye said. “There are a lot of teams that were right there. Kansas was right there until UNI beat them, so you’ve just got to look back, hey, it was a great game. There were great players. Deron Williams went crazy, Luther Head went crazy, so hey. I played the best I could play, and they did, and they came out victorious.”

Five years later with the Suns’ Frye still a rival of the Jazz’s Williams, Channing still chats with the former Illinois point guard about how that game put him in the league.

From an Arizona perspective, that game was a watershed moment in the program’s history. The program won just one NCAA Tournament game in the next three years before last year’s surprise Sweet 16 run when many thought they shouldn’t have even been dancing. Then this year The Streak of 25 straight years in the NCAA Tournament came to an end.

“It’s just all up to Coach O and the recruiting that they did,” Frye said of The Streak. “It was just a testament to him and just the system that he had, and everyone wanted to come in and just take pride in Arizona.”

That’s what Frye did in his four illustrious years as a Wildcat, but when his final collegiate moment ended in disaster, the ever-optimistic Frye still found a way to take a positive from it.

J-Rich and his Spartans

The Phoenix Suns player most attached to his college has got to be guard Jason Richardson. You almost can’t go a full interview without J-Rich bringing up Sparty, especially this time of year.

So with the Suns beating the Knicks by like 100 Friday night, Richardson was free to scoreboard watch his Spartans’ Sweet 16 win over those giant-killing Northern Iowa Panthers.

“I was scoreboard watching, man,” J-Rich said. “We’re up by 15, I can look at the scoreboard a little bit. Then once I knew I wasn’t going back into the game I had to make sure I kept in touch, you know. The security guy behind us and a couple of fans kept on telling me the score. I’m definitely glad we got the win.”

The Spartans move on to play No. 6 seed Tennessee at 11:20 a.m. MST, giving Richardson plenty of time to watch before he has to be at the arena for the Suns’ 4 p.m. MST tip against the Timberwolves.

With No. 5 Butler waiting in the Final Four, Richardson’s alma mater could reach the title game for the second year in a row without knocking out a top-three seed.

“That’s a good matchup for us,” J-Rich said of the Volunteers. “We can’t overlook them. They’re still a tough team, we’re playing without our point guard (Kalin Lucas) really. That just let’s you know what kind of talent we have at Michigan State and definitely the kind of coach, how great coach Izzo is.

“I think it is Izzo,” Richardson continued when asked about how the Spartans have so consistently been a Final Four team. “The way he just motivates guys and guys really pull together and just band like brothers it definitely is something special.”

An unusual position

With the Suns battling for playoff positioning and all but having wrapped up a playoff berth, nine-year veteran Jason Richardson is in an usual position.

By this time of the year J-Rich’s teams are usually playing for lottery positioning, as his only other playoff appearance came with the 2007 “We Believe” Warriors, who sneaked in at the very end of the season with a 42-40 record.

“That was definitely different because we were playing just to get into the playoffs,” J-Rich said. “Now we know we’re in the playoffs, now we’re playing for position, trying to get home-court advantage. I’ve never been in that situation before, so it’s huge for me and it’s special.”

Gentry on the Sweet 16

Usually when the media meets with Suns head coach Alvin Gentry before a game in his office, his TV is tuned to an NBA game. The past few weeks, he’s had March Madness on, and he certainly was watching the Xavier-Kansas State Sweet 16 thriller Thursday night when the Suns were off.

“I thought it was one of the best college games I’ve ever seen,” Gentry said.

I asked Gentry what he thought of K-State’s botched foul up three with six seconds remaining days after Gentry chose to foul with the Suns nursing a three-point lead with four seconds left in Golden State. Although the worst did happen for the Wildcats — the foul came too late and was deemed a shooting foul, and then Xavier hit all three freebies to send the game into overtime — Gentry did not see that as a condemnation of the strategy.

“If you’re going to foul, you’ve got to foul,” he said. “It can’t be kind of a foul, it has to be a foul, and they didn’t do that.”