Winning in many ways
The Illini basketball team earned its 16th straight win of the season yesterday by beating Purdue 68-59
in West Lafayette. This was the first game Illini Wonk has seen the Illini play since the Braggin' Rights game against Missouri on December 22 (although the first five minutes were missed due to the UCONN/Tennessee women's basketball game) and IW came away impressed.
After trailing at the half for the first time this season, the Illini dominated the Boilermakers with stifling defense and hot shooting. I was especially impressed with the play of the celebrated guard trio after the intermission. As the Illini were opening the second half with a 23-6 run, Dee Brown and Luther Head were draining three-pointers and Deron Williams had a couple of great assists, especially the feed to Roger Powell, Jr. who dunked to give Illinois their first lead of the second half at 43-41. From there, the Illini never looked back en route to a solid road win in the Big Ten.
The consensus among many is that the Illini didn't have a good first half. While that is true to a point, IW thinks it had just as much to do with Purdue being up for this game and wanting to defend their home court. Purdue's season has been pretty miserable to this point and knocking off #1 would have been a huge boost. Marlen Garcia of the Chicago Tribune
talks about the Boilermaker performance here
At the midseason point, Illini Wonk has a few random thoughts about this Illinois basketball team:
- The balance of this team is a tremendous asset. With the entire starting five averaging double figures in scoring, it's harder to hold this team in check. Even on a day when the Big Ten pre-season player of the year was held to six points on two for nine shooting (box score here), other Illini pick up the slack. Against THE Ohio State, it was James Augustine who led the way. Against Arkansas and Georgetown it was Powell. Opposing teams may be able to hold one or two of the Illini in check, but they can't stop all five. And, when all five are on track, like against Oregon, Wake Forest and Gonzaga, the Illini are by far the best team in the country
- This team does not have the lapses that the Illini have been famous for in past years. IW used to watch Illini basketball games and wait for the "lapse" when they would go three, four or eight minutes without scoring. This year, they don't have those lapses as evidenced by how little they've been behind all season. This may be due to how well they're running their offense, or because they're so balanced, or because they have two point guards in Williams and Brown. Whatever the reason or reasons, this team does not fade for large portions of games.
- Having veteran players is another asset. The Illini start two seniors and three juniors-all of whom started on last year's Big Ten championship team. Those upperclassmen don't get rattled when they get behind and have handled their #1 ranking with class. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Herb Gould profiles the four seniors here.
- Lastly, the Illini have shown that they can win games played in a variety of styles. They can win wide open games like they did against Wake, Gonzaga and Oregon. They can grind it out with Cincinnati and Purdue. They are capable of holding leads once they get them and they can come from behind like they did at Purdue.
For those of you who have been following the Illini for years or maybe just for this season, please use the comments section of this post and share your thoughts with the rest of us.