Illini Wonk
Friday, December 31, 2004
  The line on the game
It's New Year's Eve, so I'll have some comments tomorrow. For now there are only links:

These are all the same: CBS Sportsline, Fighting,, Yahoo! and CNN/SI.

Mark Tupper has some thoughts about the tournament and the team at his blog.

Happy New Year!
  Vegas, baby!
Dee Brown after scoring and drawing the foul against Cincinnati Posted by Hello

That silence you hear...that's all of the Illini's critics who had become so vocal over the past few weeks eating their words. The Illini, criticized for not dominating their last three opponents as much as expected, posted a 22-point victory on the previously undefeadted Cincinnati Bearcats. I'll have more to post as the recaps become available.

The Illini will be entering conference play unblemished and with their best record in 15 years...the last time we went to the Final Four.
  So good
You can also follow the game here.

Illinois is up 30-18. From the stat sheet it appears that they're playing well, beating a bigger Cincinnati on the boards, and would be ahead by more if they were shooting better from beyond the three-point line (3-10).
  This is Jeapordy
Answer: when both teams are from the Midwest.

Question: What is, when is a battle of undefeated college basketball teams that involves #1 in the country not on national TV?

Looks like I'll be following another one online...
  Dumbest sentence ever
Illini wonk has always been mystified at some of the things that sportswriters will say from time-to-time (like Dick Vitale saying that Kansas is the best team in the nation), but this has to be the dumbest thing I have read in a long time. Here is the opening sentence of the recap of the Missouri/Gonzaga contest last night:

"Missouri missed its last 10 shots from the field and six of its last eight free throws — and still managed to hang on against its toughest opponent so far (emphasis added)."

What the *#$@ are they talking about? Missouri's last game before Gonzaga was against Illinois...the #1 team in the nation who beat both Missouri and Gonzaga. How does it get tougher than that?

ESPN doesn't give the story a byline, instead crediting it to the Associated Press. MSNBC had the same story and the Houston Chonicle carried it and credited "news services."

Most other newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune here, had a different AP story by R.B. Fallstrom. Who was the other AP reporter who penned that ridiculous sentence? If anyone knows, please post a comment or email me at
  I told you so
As I said in this post, N.C. State is not good. As further proof of this contention, they only scored 45 points last night while getting routed by lowly St. Johns. Despite being nationally 15th, they still do not have a win against the top 25 and don't have ONE good win all season.
  Showdown in Sin City
In a battle of unbeatens, Illinois will face Cincinnati in the Championship game of the Las Vegas Holiday Classic. The contest is being billed as a rematch of the Illini's 92-68 rout of the Bearcats in the second round of the NCAAs last year. Despite their protestations to the contrary, the Las Vegas Review-Journal says that Cincy seeks to avenge NCAA tourney rout. The Chicago Tribune said the roles are reversed from last season and this year, Cincinnati has something to prove. College Sports says it will be a tough test for the Illini. Both the Bearcats and the Illini have a lot of information on the game in their official releases.

Illinois and Cincinnati both won their first three games of the round-robbin tournament. They both beat Longwood by 26 points. Illinois beat Northwestern State by 18; Cincinnati beat them by 16. In their first game of the season, Cincinnati beat Valparaiso by 18, while later in the season, Illinois easily handled Valpo 93-56.

Although the Bearcats are undefeated and gaining national recognition, they have yet to get a quality win so they have a lot riding on this game. Illinois has been criticized lately for not winning by the huge margins that they had been earlier in the season, s they have something to play for as well. It should be quite a game! Wish I could watch it, but I'll be following it online here.
  Bring on the Bearcats!
After beating Northwestern St. last night for their 13th straight win to start the season (the Illini's best start since their last trip to the Final Four in 1989), the Illini will now face the Cincinnati Bearcats tonight in Las Vegas.

Since last night's game wasn't televised, I only have the written reports and box scores to go on (I also saw a few highlights on Sports Center, including a long three-pointer from Deron Williams to end the first half). points out that Illinois never trailed in the win. CBS Sportsline carried the same AP report with the headline Northwestern State can't keep up with top-ranked Illinois.

A look at the box score shows that the Illini's defense returned to form. They held Northwestern State to 51 points on 35.8 percent shooting and converted 20 turnovers into 23 points. None of the Demons scored more than seven points.

In Mark Tupper's review of the game, he wrote "Defense is what Bruce Weber wanted, and defense is what he got Thursday." On his blog, Tupper has more thoughts on tonight's matchup, which he has dubbed the the brawl in a phone booth.

John Supinie of the Peoria Journal-Star wrote about the Illini's goal to go into conference play undefeated and said the only thing that stands between them and that goal is the Bearcats.

I'll have more thoughts about tonight's game later today...
Wednesday, December 29, 2004
  Illini wonk...Big Ten blog of the week?
Illini wonk got some conference recognition today with a link from Big Ten Wonk. I think it's fitting that, along with Hawkeye Hoops, the two best teams in the Big Ten this year have blogs. Along with Big Ten Wonk, I would welcome those from other schools in the conference.

For those of you visiting from the rest of the conference, it's good to have you here. If it's your first time, you may want to start with this post, the 411 on Illini Wonk.

For those of you who are fans of other teams in the conference, you may want to take note of what the Illini are doing for the conference this year. With their three-guard, fast-paced style of play, the Illini are Helping the Big Ten's image. I hope you become a regular visitor. Rest assured that I am a "company" guy. I always pull for the Big Ten when the Illini aren't playing. For instance, I was thrilled to see Wisconsin beat an overrated Alabama team tonight in Madison.

So welcome to Illini Wonk. I hope you enjoy your stay and make liberal use of the comments section at the end of this, and every other, post.

Go Illini!
Tuesday, December 28, 2004
  But how good are they, really?
So, just how good are the Illini? That seems a silly question to ask about a team that is spending their fourth week ranked #1. In By any name, these Illini are good, Mark Tupper is searching for an appropriate nickname for this team, like the "Flyin' Illini" of the late '80's. Regardless of the nickname, what Illini fans really want to call the Illini is "national champs." Lindsey Willhite of the Daily Herald sums up things this far with What a start to season for Illini. Frank Burlison has all three Illini starting guards on his Wooden Award list.

Now, the Illini have had two straight "lackluster" performances that have resulted in wins. One was the annual "Braggin' Rights" game against Missouri and the other was a 26 point victory over recent DI arrival, Longwood.

But, let's not forget what else Illinois has done this season. I just got done watching Gonzaga hand Oklahoma State their first loss of the season. This is the same Gonzaga team who has also handed the only loss of the season to both Washington and Georgia Tech. That same Gonzaga team has only one loss itself and that's to the Illini on a neutral floor. As a matter of fact, the Zags are one of four teams this season who have been handed their only loss by the Illini. When they face the Cincinnati Bearcats on Friday night, they'll likely get a chance to add a fifth.

As this season progresses, the Illini will find it harder and harder to quash talk of a Final Four appearance.
  The 411 on Illini Wonk
With the steadily increasing traffic flow to the site, I've been asked to explain what this blog is all about. As you can see from my profile on the right, I've been an Illini basketball fan for as long as I can remember. They are good enough that I felt they deserved their own blog and I thought I'd give a shot at getting it started. However, I can't keep this going forever and there are certainly people who know more about the Illini than I do, so feel free to speak up. Use the comments link at the bottom of each post or email me at

What about the name? Well, the only hobby of mine other than college hoops that takes up too much time and doesn't pay anything is politics. I've always fancied myself a bit of a policy wonk and I love the phrase so I borrowed the last half of it for my other hobby. In addition, it's so close to the name of the mascot, Chief Illiniwek, that I couldn't resist.

So, welcome to Illini Wonk. Kick off your shoes, put your feet up and blog back. Go Illini!
  Little Nicky
Illinois senior Nick Smith is the smallest seven-footer I've ever seen in a basketball uniform. He's also one of the better shooters and passers at that height. He's an inch taller than Shaquille O'Neal and is a totally different player. I bet Shaq wishes he could shoot better than 80 percent from the free throw line. I've always enjoyed watching Nick play because you can see how much he enjoys the game and how well he knows it.

With that said, Nick is not having his best season. His numbers are down in most categories and he just doesn't seem able to contribute much early in the season. However, his best game of the season thus far has been at Arkansas, when he had some good minutes and seven points that the Illini really needed.

I bring all of this up because Mark Tupper has a post about Nick that I completely agree with. If the Illini fans are being hard on Nick, they need to lay off. He's been there for them in the past and he will again in the future. Have a read.
  A picture is worth 1,000 words
So click here to view photos from last night's game against Longwood.
  Where's the D?
Since the game against Longwood wasn't televised, I only have the written reports to go on. Most sites are carrying the AP story written by Jim Paul with a variety of headlines. Here's some examples:

CBS Sportsline: No. 1 Illinois takes care of business against Longwood Illinois uses second-half surge to beat Longwood

Yahoo!: Illinois Struggles to 105-79 Win Over Longwood

SI: (1) Illinois 105, Longwood 79

The local media came through with some more perspective and almost universally blamed Illinois' lack of defensive intensity for the closer than expected margin. Mark Tupper of the Decatur Herald & Review said Illinois didn't play good defense. The article from Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Loius Post-Dispatch was headlined with: Expected rout is slow to develop for Illini. In the article, Dee Brown, who had 13 assists, said "We played terrible, we looked bad, kind of embarrassing." The Chicago Tribune headline read Orange crush? Make it a blush. The Chicago Sun-Times was emblazoned with Self-deprecating foe no joke for Illini John Supinie of the Peoria Journal-Star talked more about the Illini's weak defense here.

In his blog, Tupper has some more on the game and said that the Cincy game will tell a lot.

UPDATE: Some other publications put a nicer spin on the game for the Illini. The South Bend Tribune wrote No. 1 Illinois rolls. As for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, their opinion was that No. 1 Illinois coasts.
Monday, December 27, 2004
  Illinois vs. Longwood
I'm following the game here. Right now it's 4-4. No word on who scored first...

UPDATE: You can also track the game here. Now the Illini are up 20-10.
The Illini will spend a fourth consecutive week at the #1 spot in the AP rankings. More to come on this later.
  Earth to Dickie V
In case you need another example of how out-of-touch Dick Vitale is with reality in the world of college basketball, check out the Expert Lists on Vitale is the only one of the six who does not list Illinois in the top spot, electing to put Kansas above the Illini. The other five have Kansas somewhere between third and eighth. To see why that might be the case, see the last paragraph of this post.

Vitale's omission of the Illini in the top spot has drawn notice from other sports commentators as well. In the Illinois/Missouri game, Brent Musberger publicly reprimanded Vitale for not recognizing that the Illini were the best in the nation. You can read the quote in this post.

Lest we forget, Vitale is also the one who had no room for any Illini on his preseason top 25 players list, or, as he calls them, his All-Rolls-Royce Teams. His pre-season ranking for the Illini? Try 13th. All of this is probably why coach Bruce Weber said "Dick Vitale can take his Dookies and shove it."

At they are posting a poll question to see where readers think Dick Vitale should be sent for the debut of HD on ESPN2. How about here.

UPDATE: Dickie V beware. The blogosphere is starting to take note of your, ahem, biases.
  ESPN Motion
ESPN Motion has posted video of the Illinois victory over Missouri that's worth checking out. My favorite clip in the 52 second video is Deron Williams' behind-the-back-crossover that broke a Missouri ankle in the second half. It also has some of the post-game interview with coach Bruce Weber that's worth checking out.

If you don't have ESPN Motion, it's time to join the 21st Century of sports fan and download it from the ESPN website.

UPDATE: for those of you who don't want to install ESPN Motion (or if you're like me and just want more video), Fox Sports has a 2.5 minute clip of interviews with Luther Head, Dee Brown and Bruce Weber. You can view it here and scrolling down the page.
Sunday, December 26, 2004
  No. 1 vs. No. 330
When the Illini take the court tomorrow night in Champaign, they will face the Longwood Lancers of Farnville, Va. Longwood just made transition from Division II to I last season and are now facing the #1 team in their new division. At, 1-13, they are ranked 305th in the latest RPI and 330th (out of 332) in Sagarin ratings.

I know a little something about what the Lancers face in their move to Division I as I have been watching nearby South Dakota State University make that transition this year. The Jacks got their first D I victory last week against Tennessee State. While they haven't played anyone as good as the Illini, they stayed within 16 of Marquette in Milwaukee.

If you want to know more about the Lancers, see the end of this previous post , this preview from Yahoo! and this article from Marlen Garcia of the Chicago Tribune here.

UPDATE: Longwood made's Bottom 10, but they are certainly getting their money's worth from the match-up with #1 through a front page article by Andy Katz.
  Best 3 Amigos Part Dos
The Quad-City Times keeps the debate alive on the best guard trio in the Big Ten with this column from Don Doxsie. In a recent post, I explained my vote and Don agrees for a different, but equally good, reason. He cites the impressive performance of Illinois' guards in their win at Carver-Hawkeye arena last season. Regardless of all of our early voting, this debate won't be settled until the two teams have met in Champaign on Jan. 20 and in Iowa City on Feb. 19.
Saturday, December 25, 2004
  All you need is love
Could the magic ingredient in Illinois' stellar season thus far

While we're talking about love, the Chicago Tribune has a great Christmas article about former Illini guard Matt Heldman, Charting Illini's heart. I loved watching Matt play basketball on a great Illini team and I bet he would take a lot of pleasure from watching the 2004-5 team.

UPDATE: The story on Matt Heldman is making appearances in newspapers around the country. See here, here and here.
Friday, December 24, 2004
  Lessons learned?
The annual "Braggin' Rights" matchup in St. Louis against border foe Missouri is being called the first test of Illinois' season. I would disagree. I think the game against Arkansas was a similar test with the difference between the two being that Missouri hit some late shots and Arkansas didn't. The similarity between the two is that Deron Williams took over down the stretch and ensured a win for the Illini.

Mark Tupper thinks the test was a good one for the Illini, which is also exactly what coach Weber is saying following their first final margin of the season that was less than double digits. The most important aspect is summed up in a headline from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: Illinois keeps rolling despite off night.

The Illini are now 11-0 and almost certain to extend that to 12-0 when they face lowly Longwood on Monday night. That would be the best start since their last final four season in 1989. Illinois SID Kent Brown has put together a lot of interesting information about the season thus far that you can read here (pdf). Here's just a few of my favorite:

Thursday, December 23, 2004
  Context from ESPN
The updated Power 16 weekly rankings came out today and here's their view on the Braggin' Rights game last night as they leave the Illini in the #1 spot:

Got its first decently tough game Wednesday night and passed with mostly flying colors.

Sounds good to me.
  Best 3 Amigos: Illini or Hawkeyes?
Yesterday, in a post about how the Iowa Hawkeyes may provide the most competition in the Big Ten for the Illini this year, I referenced an article about the Iowa trio of guards. Big Ten Wonk has an interesting discussion posted on the topic. Readers of this blog will not have a hard time determining where I stand on this one, but let me start by saying that I have been very impressed with the Hawkeye guards this season and it might be too early to decide this one. However, I'm going to give my two cents:

Illinois is better. First, there is a famous quote and I think it applies here: "There are three kinds of lies; lies, damned lies and statistics." In his article, Gregg Doyel says that Iowa's guards have more steals with the obvious implication being that they are better defenders. However, there is another stat which to me is a lot more telling: Iowa is giving up 69.9 points per game and the Illini only 62.7. There's a lot more to defense than steals. For instance, the Illini guard trio only had two against Wake Forest but they received accolades for shutting down two of the best guards in the country.

Also, on free throws, Doyel decides to compare total numbers (55 for Illinois and 129 for Iowa) rather than percentages. Had he chosen the latter, he would have seen that Head (95%), Brown (88), Williams (77) are much better than Horner (81), Haluska (80) and Pierce (47). Also, the fact that Illinois' average margin of victory is above 20 might have something to do with the fact that they're not shooting many free throws.

This leads into the second point, which is that the Illini have a better points per weighted shot, as you can see from another post on Big Ten Wonk. I shouldn't have to tell you why this is an important stat. Allen Iverson scores a lot of points, but he takes a lot of shots to do it. I put Pierre Pierce in this category.

So, while the Iowa guards are very good and much improved over last season, they are not quite as good as the Illini. Oh yeah, and the Illini haven't lost yet.
  Celebrity watch
At the sold-out match-up with Missouri, crowd-watchers spotted former Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, Missouri governor Bob Holden and U.S. Rep. Jim Talent. That begs the question, "where was Dusty Baker, Rod Blagojevich and Dennis Hastert?
The spin from coach Bruce Weber and the Illini is that it was good to have to win a tough game, which I agree with to an extent, but it's also good to have everyone afraid of you. I think the Illini will still inspire fear, but they've shown a chink in their armor. Linas Kleiza was a little too mobile for Augustine and a little too big for Powell and that led to a 25-point night for the Missouri forward.

I might have to go review some game tape to find out why we were so effective against Gonzaga's Ronny Turiaf, but had so much trouble with Kleiza. We could be vulnerable to a good power forward.

However, the end result was still a "W" for Illinois in their border war with Missouri and the Illini are the boast of the town.
Wednesday, December 22, 2004
  It's time to brag!
We're running out of space for these things... Posted by Hello

  It wasn't pretty, but we're braggin'
The Illini just got their fifth straight win against the Missouri Tigers in the annual "Braggin' Rights" matchup in St. Louis. It wasn't pretty, but they got the job done in the end and equaled their best start to the season since 1989 with the 70-64 win.

Quote of the game was from Brent Mussberger with about four minutes left in the first half. He said "Illinois had that one stretch where they beat Gonzaga, Wake Forest then ranked then #1, and then went down to Little Rock and beat Arkansas. No team in the country has had a three game stretch like that. They should be a unanimous #1. Are you listening Mr. Vitale? We'll wait for the Tar Heels in march. they well might win it, but right now Illinois is clearly #1 in the country." I couldn't agree more and couldn't have said it any better. After the game on ESPNEWS, Mussberger said the game was so close because of Missouri's good defense and Illinois' poor three-point shooting.

In a post-game interview with Steve Lavin-also on ESPNEWS-Bruce Weber credited Missouri's defense for taking away some of their set plays. He also said that a rivalry game like this hardly ever results in a bl0w-out.

There were some encouraging signs. 1) Illinois shot free throws well down the stretch. 2) Luther Head continues to play well. 3) Deron Williams took over the game down the stretch, much like he did at Arkansas when the Hogs got close. Maybe he needs more close games to play well. I'll have more to say later about the game and the Illini season.
  Illini not braggin' yet, but...
They're up by 15 at half time. Dee, Deron and Luther are looking good.
  Game on!
You can follow the Braggin' Rights game here. Illinois is up 11-8.
  Believe the hype!
The annual Braggin' Rights game between the Illini and Mizzou is tonight at 7:00 p.m. cst. and the #1 ranking carried into the game by Illinois has upped the hype level considerably. With Illinois 18 point favorites, Bruce Weber is trying hard to convince his team that they can't take a rivalry like this for granted (see here, here, here and here). A Google News search returned more than 140 previews of the game. Go Illini!
Tuesday, December 21, 2004
  Big Ten gaining some respect
Michigan State just finished the night with a 12 point victory over UCLA. The Big Ten is now second only to the ACC is conference RPI rating. See: Early wins good sign for Big Ten (subscription).
  Conference competition
I just got done watching the Iowa Hawkeyes demolish Texas Tech by 30 at the United Center in Chicago. Iowa could be the most under-rated team in the country. This win moves the Hawkeyes to 10-1 and was was their third over a Big-12 opponent...the other two were Iowa State and Texas. They also have also beaten Louisville and their only loss is to North Carolina. At least one sportswriter agrees with me, although he's going a little over the top on the comparison with the Illini guards. One thing is certain, Iowa will provide some competition in the Big Ten this year.

If Iowa were in the ACC, they'd be ranked in the top ten-maybe even five-right now. Don't believe me? Let's compare Iowa and N.C. State. In the most recent ESPN poll N.C. State is ranked 13 and Iowa is at 19. This is despite the fact that the Hawkeye's record is better than the Wolfpack's 8-1. Iowa also has more games against top 25 opponents (3 to 1) and more wins (2 to 0).

In fact, N.C. State's best win thus far is probably a six-point home victory over 3-5 Purdue. The other teams they've beaten are a who's who of NCAA cupcakes: New Orleans (3-5), Elon (2-8), East Carolina (4-6), Campbell (2-5), Manhattan (4-2), Liberty (1-7) and La. Lafayette (4-5). N.C. State's loss to Washington was only the second team they've played that currently has a record above .500. The AP Poll is a little better with N.C. State at 16 and Iowa only one behind, but I believe Iowa is a legitimate top ten team and N.C. State doesn't belong in the top 25.

This is just one of many examples of bias among polls and sportswriters that I'll be chronicling in the days to come.
  On a mission from God
Roger Powell Jr. withdrew his name from the 2004 NBA draft to return for his senior year with the Illini. Supporters of the Blue & Orange were happy at the time, but with Powell being perhaps the most consistent contributer on the team this year, they are now elated. It was enlightening to read in this article that Powell, an ordained minister, credits his relationship with God as the reason for his success.
  Illini looking to 'five-peat'
Tomorrow night in St. Louis the Illini will be looking to win their fifth straight 'Braggin' Rights' contest against Missouri. Here's the post-game photo from last year's victorious Illini Posted by Hello

  Braggin' Rights!
The annual Braggin' Rights game with Missouri is tomorrow in St. Louis and the Illini can't wait for the game. We've won four in row in this matchup and will be looking to make it five. I'll be watching ESPN2 at 7:00 p.m. est. Brent Musberger will take a break from women's bowling and join Steve Lavin in calling the game. The Tigers have won four of their last five (including a win over Indiana) and are 6-4 on the season. Although Mizzou is not up to their strength of past season, Bruce Weber knows that anything can happen in a rivalry game like this. You can get all of the game notes and history of this contest here. Hopefully, this isn't the last time the Illini men visit St. Louis this season.
Monday, December 20, 2004
  Three weeks are better than two
It seems fitting to me that the first post on this blog shortly follows the announcement by the AP that the Illini will spend a third straight week atop their NCAA men's basketball poll (see Illinois still No. 1). The three weeks constitutes one more week than the Illini have spent at the top of the poll in the 100 year history of their program.

The ranking follows yet another dominating performance by the Illini in their 93-56 victory over the Crusaders of Valparaiso (see No. 1 Illinois dominates Valparaiso). I was travelling and unable to watch the game, but I kept track of the score through repeated calls to Tellme. According to Herald & Review's executive sports editor Mark Tupper, Illini coach Bruce Weber was even sorry for leaving in the starters for so long.

The Illini still have not had a let-down yet this season. Perhaps Arkansas could be considered a let-down, but if the Hogs continue winning that Illini victory could look better as the season progresses. The only surprise from the poll is how 15 people could have possibly voted for Kansas as the number one team. Kansas narrowly deafeated 17-point underdog South Carolina at home and have yet to leave Allen Fieldhouse or face an opponent anywhere near the top 25. One of the few openly endorsing Kansas in the top spot is Dick Vitale, thought he feels compelled to explain himself in his latest installment of Dick Vitale's Sensational 16. There will be much more on national polls (and their shortcomings) in later posts.
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