Illini Wonk
Monday, February 28, 2005
  Coming Attractions
Illini Wonk awoke with a strange feeling today and couldn't quite place it before realizing that it was a Monday after an Illini basketball-free weekend. Eight straight days without a game!??! How will we survive?

Rest assured, dear readers, that this blogger is not taking the week off and is instead working on some exciting posts that are coming soon. First, Illini Wonk has secured a screener copy of the March 13 Training Camp: Illinois Basketball on College Sports Television and will provide a review. Second, Illini Wonk will have an exclusive interview on the NBA prospects of Illinois' starting five with Basketball Guide Brendan McGovern.

Stay tuned!
Sunday, February 27, 2005
  Big Ten MVP?
With the Big Ten regular season title wrapped up, talk has now turned to which one of the three starting guards will be named conference player of the year.

Illini Wonk is relieved to not have to vote on this one, but is curious how you would. Leave your vote and reasoning in the comments section below. Also, on his blog, Mark Tupper is asking for feedback on his vote for some of the conference awards. If this is all too much work, you can simply fill in an oval and cast your vote at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Let Illini Wonk put one theory to rest: that being the possibility that the three guards could split up the Illinois share of the vote, thus giving the award to someone on another team. That can't happen. The race is between these three. There has yet to be a plausible case advanced for any other player in the conference.

In a previous post, Illini Wonk hinted at the race that was shaping up between Dee Brown, Luther Head and Deron Williams. Since then, several more pundits have weighed in and a few are undecided. In the Northwest Herald, Nick Pietruszkiewicz writes let's just give it to Williams. No Brown ... wait, maybe Head. Chad Dare's column in the Danville Commercial-News is headlined Illini's 3-headed monster deserves Big Ten MVP honor.

But most of the pundits are impressed with the recent play of Brown and are leaning his way.

Marlen Garcia writes in the Chicago Tribune that Illinois guard Dee Brown is building an airtight case to be named Big Ten player of the year. For Tupper in his Decatur Herald & Tribune column, Dee Brown is inching ahead. Vahe Gregorian says each [of the three guards] would make a deserving Big Ten player of the year, but Brown is the one who gives the Illini their zest and oomph and strut and, finally, their advantage. Not content to only bestow him with conference player of the year, Peoria Journal-Star Sports Editor Bill Liesse gives Brown the national MVP award and writes While there used to be three candidates, Brown has separated himself from teammates Williams and Head. Kedric Prince breaks down the three guards and says My vote this year will go to Dee Brown. (Prince also votes Bruce Weber conference coach of the year, Head and Williams on the first team and James Augustine on the second team of the Big Ten).

At, Pat Forde has the lone dissenting opinion (that Illini Wonk could find) and names Luther Head player of the year in the conference. Forde, in a nod to the Academy Awards, names the Illinois backcourt Ensemble of the Year.

UPDATE: Despite John "Brumby" Brumbaugh's initial leanings toward Head, he gives a statistical defense of why it should be Brown.
  They ain't sharing
With Michigan State losing to Indiana today, the Fighting Illini clinched the outright conference title for the second straight season.
Friday, February 25, 2005
  New Illini Wonk Features
Regular readers of this blog may have noticed some new features and Illini Wonk wanted to alert you to a few of them that make the blog easier to use and keep up with.

First, a few weeks ago Illini Wonk added a new comments software that can be found at the bottom of each post. Unlike previously, you don't have to be registered with Blogger in order to comment.

Next is the site search from Google. If you've been to this site in the past and wanted to look back at a post you liked, this is for you. Actually, if I have to explain this to you, you're probably a Michigan fan and we don't want you here anyway.

Then there are several buttons that allow you to add the RSS feed from this site to your personal web page at Feedburner, Yahoo!, MSN and Newsgator.

If you're tired of constantly clicking back here to see if there's a new post (or too busy to do it at all), there are two new features that send alerts when new posts are added to the blog. LiveMessage Alerts! is a feature through MSN Messenger that sends alerts of new posts to your MSN Messenger, Windows Messenger or mobile device. Alternatively, you can enter your email address in the box that says "send me Blogmail when updated..." and Blogarithm will email you when there's a new post. Both are great ways to keep up with Illini Wonk and your other favorite blogs (I use Blogarithm to track Mark Tupper's blog).

Yes, adding all of the features AND keeping up with the highest profile team in the nation takes a lot of time, so if you want to support this effort the next button is for you. Click on the "Hi. Support this blog today!" button to make a contribution to Illini Wonk. Will Illini Wonk continue to publish a blog without contributions? Probably. Will contributions make Mrs. Illini Wonk a little less hostile to the idea of a blog? Again, probably. It's entirely up to you whether or not you use this button. I guess that's why they call it a contribution.

Top 25 scores have also been added to the blog so there's no need to click away from the site to follow other games that might interest you. Below that are almost 100 links that help you keep up with Illinois basketball. If there's any links not here that should be, feel free to post them in the comments section or email Illini Wonk.

Thanks for reading!
Thursday, February 24, 2005
  Illini's Impressive Performance
They came into the game against Northwestern with a record of 27-0, ranked #1 for the past three months, the last four weeks of which they were the unanimous selection. Even though Northwestern beat them in Evanston last season, the Illini could have overlooked this game. During Bruce Weber's appearance on Pardon the Interruption, co-host Michael Wilbon said he expected the Wildcats to give them a game.

Not these Illini. Not last night. Not this season. The Fighting Illini put on one of their best performances of the season and handed Northwestern their worst loss in seven years. Mark Tupper blogged that it was Show time...again! Tupper closed the post with: Twenty-eight down, 11 to go. That’s what the Illlini players and coaches are beginning to say now, letting the “national championship” words seep into their conversation. It won’t be as easy as it seemed Wednesday, when Illinois reminded us how well they are capable of playing.

Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Downey made the trek to Champaign and said No superlative can do this team justice. The column included this gem: Asked for an opening statement after a 36-point loss, Northwestern's coach, Bill Carmody, said that at one point early in the game, "We're down 7-0 and we still haven't got a shot off. "From there, it just got worse. That's my statement."

Downey also wrote: They have won 28 games. Just one Illinois team won more … the 31-game winners who made it to the 1989 Final Four. And it isn't even March.

John Supinie's report card in the Peoria Journal-Star gave the team an "A" and wrote: Illinois took nothing for granted. The Illini overwhelmed Northwestern and added to their jewelry collection. In his recap, Supinie said that Illinois' ball movement left Northwestern dizzy.

In the Pantagraph, Jim Benson wrote The Illini put on a shooting and passing clinic they haven't exhibited in awhile. Tim Cronin of the Daily Southtown said Showtime, once limited to a basketball court in Los Angeles, arrived on the Illinois prairie Wednesday night.

Two more left and the Fighting Illini will be talking about the first unblemished regular season for a Big Ten team in almost 30 years. With this team, you expect it.
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
  Big Ten Champs
With the blowout of Northwestern tonight, the Illinois Fighting Illini clinched a share of the Big Ten conference regular-season title for the fourth time in the last five years. They can claim it outright for the second straight season with a win over Purdue next Thursday (that's right, they don't have a game for eight days which should challenge sports-writers who still have to file reports on the Illini).

Reigning Big Ten player of the week, Dee Brown, led the way for Illinois with 20 points while shooting 6-8 on three-pointers and added five assists. Brown also had the play of the game with a fast-break alley-oop pass over two Wildcats to Roger Powell for the dunk. Powell, for his part, had a double-double with 18 points and 10 boards. For complete box score, go here.

As usual, Jim Paul provides the Associated Press recap, which can be found on Illinois' official site.

Although the Big Ten title was one of their pre-season goals, the Illini are clearly not satisfied and have no desire to share the conference trophy. A report earlier today from Marlen Garcia in the Chicago Tribune had much worth reading:

Clinching a share of a conference championship used to be something to celebrate for Illinois.

Those days are gone for the No. 1 Illini (27-0, 13-0).

If Illinois beats Northwestern on Wednesday at the Assembly Hall to guarantee itself a share of the Big Ten title, no banners will be raised."

Why would you celebrate a tie?" Illinois guard Dee Brown asked Monday.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber said he told school administrators there will be no party."We want to win it outright," he said. "That means we have to win two."
  The nation's best backcourt
Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head form the nation's best backcourt for the Fighting Illini. Posted by Hello
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
  Illini are "Three D"
By now, the three guards that power the Fighting Illini basketball team are no secret. The tightly-knit trio forms the best backcourt in the nation and the accolades are piling up. All three were included on the 2005 NABC All-District Team, which makes them eligible for the NABC Division I All-American Team to be announced at the conclusion of the season. The Illini were the only team with three players on any of the 15 district first squads.

In the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Rick Alonzo says Illini's three guards each award-worthy.

Brian Bennett of the Louisville Courier-Journal includes all three on his player of the year watch list, but says they're in danger of canceling each other out.

Frank Burlison of the Long Beach Press-Telegram has the "Illinois Big Three" are among his 15 nominations of the players who should be on the final ballot for the John R. Wooden Award.

In his tip sheet, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Jeff Gordon wonders: Will the Illini ever see a three-guard group this great again? Will the Big Ten?

But we're Americans. We can't settle for a three-way tie. Who's the best? The latest article from Tupper is revealing, not by what the players say, but by what they do. When asked who will be Big Ten player of the year, Dee Brown said: "It should be a co-Player of the Year," Brown said. "I'd give it to Deron and Luther." Williams said it should go to either Brown or Head. "It's tough. Both of those guys deserve it the way they've been playing. Luther has been playing great all year. Dee lately has been playing out of this world. It should go to one of them."

Are these guys for real? But the most revealing tidbit from Tupper is this: When the Illini players choose squads for pick-up games, Williams is always the first player taken. Always.

Lindsey Willhite dicusses their practice routine in the Daily Herald (hint: they have a slightly different than take on practice from that of Allen Iverson).

UDPATE: In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jeremy Rutherford writes: The Big Ten Conference MVP has come down to a three-player race and all three wear Illinois jerseys.
  Deron Williams NBA Bound
Yesterday, Illni Wonk reported a rumor that Deron Williams was shopping for an agent in preperation for the NBA draft. While he apparently doesn't have an agent, it's now pretty clear that this is his last season as a member of the Fighting Illini basketball team.

Marlen Garcia of the Chicago Tribune has an article that, reading between the lines, says that Deron Williams is gone at the end of the year. In the article he reveals that he almost declared for the draft last spring and will go if he is projected anywhere in the first round. Dee Brown on the other hand, puts his likelihood of staying in Champaign for another year at 90%. John Supinie writes in the Peoria Journal-Star: That's not a news flash. Mark Tupper says Williams is gone. Brown, whose stock may never be higher, might be. Even in the midst of all the speculation, Williams has said he's focused on season, not NBA.

More here, here and here.

As for where in the draft he might fall, Brendan McGovern projects Williams going to the Toronto Raptors as the 15th selection (From Philadelphia via New Jersey if 76ers' pick not in Top 8) here. In their mock draft, HoopsHype projects him the #13 pick and going to the LA Clippers. HoopsHype compares Williams to Andre Miller (so did his college coach, Rick Majerus) and says he's rookie year salary will be $1.3 million (still think he might be in college?)

UPDATE: CollegeHoopsnet has Williams in their top nine prospects for the 2005 NBA draft.

UPDATE #2: In the February 28 Sports Illustrated, Seth Davis rates Williams the second best point guard in the draft and says he'll be a "future all-star" in the NBA. Davis' notes include this blurb: At 210 pounds, has NBA size; efficient and controlled; can create off the dribble and knock down the J.
Monday, February 21, 2005
  Will he stay or go?
The Associated Press is running a story about the speculation that Illinois junior point guard Deron Williams has decided to hire an agent, leave school and enter the NBA draft. Williams and Weber are denying the rumor, but Weber says Williams will likely make the jump if he's a top-15 pick.

Illini Wonk has long been bracing for the departure of Williams. With the kind of season he and the team are having, it seems like too much to pass up. At this point, it would be surprising if he returned to college basketball.

A couple of weeks ago, Chad Ford's ESPN Insider report had Williams as the 3rd most likely underclassman to declare (behind Chris Taft and Andrew Bogut). Here is the small blurb about Williams: 3. Deron Williams, Jr., Illinois: His stock has never been higher, and he won't miss the opportunity to make the jump. Most scouts believe he's the second-best point guard prospect in the draft behind Chris Paul and should be a lottery pick.

Dee Brown was in the undecided section: 20. Dee Brown, Jr., Illinois: Brown would like to make the jump, but scouts want to see more of him at point guard. Once teammates Deron Williams and Luther Head leave this summer, he'll have the chance to run the Illini. If he does it well, he'll rise on every draft board. Right now, he's better off returning for his senior season.
  Big Ten Player of the Week
After averaging 18.5 points on 64 percent shooting, while adding 7.0 assists and 2.0 steals per game last week, Dee Brown was named Big Ten Player of the Week. Posted by Hello
Sunday, February 20, 2005
  Fighting Illini keep winning...
...and everyone else keeps losing.

It's been a rough week for the top ten. Well, 2-9 anyway, who combined for seven losses this week (only two of which were to other teams in the top ten). Two straight losses were hung on #2 Kansas, #8 Duke (one from last week) and #9 Syracuse. Illinois and North Carolina were the only teams in the top five without a loss this week.

This is part of the reason that the pundits who doubted Illinois' status as the best team when they were 10-0, 15-0, 20-0, even 25-0, are becoming a little quieter with each win. Any team that can string together 27 straight wins (and 41 of their last 43 stretching back to last season) must have something pretty special.

This is not to say that Illinois is a perfect team, because they aren't, but they won't face one either because there isn't such a thing. Anyone who tries to compare them to perfection (think Slezak) is just being disingenuous. The 1976 Indiana Hooisers went through the season without a loss, but they did miss a shot or two and committed a couple of turnovers. To win the national championship, Illinois simply has to be better than the team they face for six straight games. So far this season, they've done it 27 straight games.
  Sunday Special
It's Sunday and time for Fighting Illini fans to kick back, grab a cup of coffee and follow the news on their team.

The Rev

Sunday is a day that many people in America spend worshipping God, including Illini Wonk here. Yesterday, ESPN College GameDay had a profile of Roger Powell Jr., Illinois power forward and lisenced pentecostal minister.

Powell talked about the two important aspects of his life: "I am a basketball player. I am a minister of the gospel. I got game. I got Christ." He leads the team in pre-game prayer, which Coach Bruce Weber calls "good for our team." The next step for Powell may be balancing a pro career in basketball with his "passion for the pulpit."

Sunday Profile: Nick Smith

In the newspapers, Sunday is the day for profiles, and today, following his best performance of the season against Iowa, Nick Smith earns profiles from Jim Benson in the Pantagraph, Marlen Garcia in the Chicago Tribune, John Supinie in the Peoria Journal-Star and Herb Gould in the Chicago Sun-Times. Mark Tupper makes Smith the topic of his column in the Decatur Herald & Review.

Will someone always step up?

Illini Wonk has repeatedly been amazed that someone different always seems to step up and will the Illini to victory. Weber wondered aloud if enough guys will continue to step up and Bernie Miklasz provides an answer in his column:

The answer is yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. That's 27 times, and we're still counting.

Could it get crazier?

Jay Mariotti, who acknowledges that Illini give me a group wedgie, says yes and that the media coverage will be crazy if Illinois reaches the NCAA tournament without a loss. In his column, Mariotti says I've quit pushing the idea that Illinois is better off losing a game before the NCAA tournament, and then he spends the rest of the column trying to convince readers that they would be better off with a loss. The people respectfully disagree. Then, in case any national media needed reminding, Mariotti suggests that Luther Head and Rich McBride's brush with the law will become a national story.

Let sleeping dogs lie?

Right on cue with Mariotti, the Chicago Tribune felt the need to run a front-page story on the 2003 incident. David Haugh drew the assignment and his story, titled Illini coach keeps it in the family, includes interviews with an alleged victim and his parents and the state's attorney. Posted on the portion of the Trib web site, it carries the no-it-all title: No slam dunk for justice. Haugh also has a short story on the successful second chance Weber gave to Rolan Roberts.

Illini Wonk has never felt the need to comment on this story, but the Trib has thrown done the gauntlet. Sports stories of this nature tend to involve two different kinds of players: 1) thugs you expect it (and more) from, and 2) good people who make mistakes. Head's actions since the incident clearly prove that he belongs in the latter category. He was apologetic and even offered to quit the team. Coach Weber and his teammates wouldn't let him.

But now, thanks to the story, 600,000 people read the story on Head, that is if you can believe their circulation figures following the inflation scandal at two Tribune Co. newspapers.

Tributes from the Trib

The sports pages of the Chicago Tribune try to make up for the front page assault with love showered on the Illini. Columnist Mike Downey pays tribute to their win under pressure here. Garcia celebrates the crunch bunch.

Illini News bits

In the midst of a tough 0-2 week, Bill Self says in the Los Angeles Times that he's happy for the Illini...The Illinois guard trio all made the 2005 NABC All-District first team...Press credential count at Iowa: more than 175...Number of Illinois fans at Iowa: 4,000 estimated...The Illini have begun to embrace the idea of an undefeated regular season...On his blog, Tupper says the Iowa game provided Illinois with their Play of the Year...on I, Max, host Max Kellerman said Illinois will be the 2005 NCAA champ...
Saturday, February 19, 2005
  Iowa = Last Test?
Although the Buckeyes might take issue with this characterization, when the Fighting Illini take the court in Iowa City today, it's being billed as the last chance to derail a perfect regular season. Although Andy Katz says the best chance for a loss is in Big Ten tourney.

In motivating his team, Coach Bruce Weber said in the Belleville News-Democrat "It helps us that we had a tough game (against Iowa)," Weber said of the Illini's 73-68 overtime win Jan. 20 in Champaign. "They know they're capable.

The big difference this time, of course, is that Iowa will be without Pierre Pierce who was kicked off the team after being charged with first-degree burglary and two counts of domestic abuse and assault. In their previous game, Pierce played all 45 minutes and had 22 points while guarding Deron Williams. Hawkeye Hoops (wishfully?) thinks the Hawkeyes are playing as well without Pierce on the offensive end, but especially miss his defensive capabilities. At the time of his dismissal, Pierce was averaging 17.8 points. 4.2 assists and 2.5 steals and certainly heading for one of the all-Big Ten teams.

Illinois comes into the game a well-publicized 26-0 having recently run to a 22-point half-time lead in dispatching Penn State in University Park. A win today will move them into a tie with the 1960-61 Ohio State Buckeyes for the third best start in Big Ten conference history.

The Hawkeyes on the other hand after starting the season 12-1, are now 16-8 and 4-7 in the Big Ten. They have dropped three of their last four games and are coming off a loss at 7-15 Purdue. Marlen Garcia has more in the Chicago Tribune on the Hawkeyes' downward spiral and in the Sun-Times Herb Gould has Iowa perfecting fadeaway.

However, with the Hawkeyes currently on the outside of the NCAA's looking in, they know what a win over the Illini could do for their tournament resume. Lindsey Willhite's article in the Chicago Daily Herald is titled A victory over Illini today could do wonders for Hawkeyes, and has the quote of the day: As the number of criminal charges against Westmont native Pierre Pierce rises, so does the RPI number next to Iowa's name.

To be clear, Iowa still has several good players in Greg Brunner (fourth in scoring (17.3) and second in rebounding (8.5) in Big Ten play), Jeff Horner and Adam Haluska. In their last game, Erek Hansen's shotblocking ability gave the Illinois big men some problems.

It will be interesting today to see what Iowa will want in the game tempo. Do they try to run with Illinois, sans Pierce? Or, do they follow the lead of Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin in trying to shorten the game. Stay tuned.

Even though it's almost 250 miles from Champaign, the Orange Krush will be well represented at the game. Steve Batterson's piece in the Quad-City Times is headlined with: Orange crush to descend on Iowa. In the article Steve Alford suggests that 1/4 of the crowd could be wearing orange and blue rather than black and gold.

Sports Illustrated preview here. Illinois official game notes here.
Friday, February 18, 2005
To borrow a line from Big Ten Wonk, President Bush finds sea of empty seats at press briefing--stunned Chief Executive is told: "Everyone's assigned to Illinois now." It's amazing that all this coverage doesn't effect these guys, because it's EVERYWHERE. By the way, while you're at BTW, be sure to check out his must-read talk with Mike Decourcy. The chat was supposed to be about the entire conference, but who can blame them for spending most of it talking about the Fighting Illini?
  Word of the day: Unselfish
In Illini news, the word of the day is unselfish. Here's a few examples:

Bowling Together

Apparently in stark contrast to the theory of Robert Putnam, Sports Illustrated finds that the Illinois basketball teammates like to bowl together. The SI article, titled No room for 'I', celebrates the fact that the Illini do everything as a team, both on and off the court (and employs almost every other play-as-a-team-cliche out there). The quote from Weber is: "We don't have THE star...We have balance, we have unselfishness, and that makes us more of a team."

Brown? He's Unselfish

In the Chicago Tribune, columnist Rick Morrissey writes: If anything is certain besides death and taxes and the survival of Dick Vitale's vocal cords even in the event of a catastrophic nuclear attack, it's this: Illinois isn't going to have a letdown. Further on in the article, he writes: A letdown? It's not going to happen. Illinois is good enough to win the national championship, which doesn't mean a whole lot until the Illini do it. But it does mean that there's nothing fluky about them. And it certainly doesn't hurt that their path to an NCAA title could be local, from Indianapolis to Rosemont to St. Louis.

Why are they not going to have a let down? Could it be...unselfishness? Here's what SI sees: Most of all, you see unselfishness. Two things about Dee Brown illustrate that. He thinks so highly of teammate Deron Williams that he sometimes wears a Williams jersey around campus. My favorite point guard, Brown says of Williams. And knowing it bothered Luther Head to be the first starter to come out of every game for a rest, Brown suggested to coach Bruce Weber that he take a seat first. How many college kids with an eye on an NBA career do things like that? Just about none. You're lucky if you can find a high school kid that team-oriented. Meanwhile, in Chapel Hill, N.C., people still wonder whether North Carolina has gotten over last season's selfish ways. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams sometimes is one of those doing the wondering.

Williams? He's unselfish

In a profile by Steve Batterson in the Quad-City Times, Deron Williams says “There isn’t a guy who wants to be a superstar on this team. We all want to be one part of the total package, and I think that’s one reason we are so unselfish. It doesn’t matter to any of us who scores the points, as long as we score enough as a team to win the game.”

Powell? He's Unselfish

In a recent story from Marlen Garcia in the Chicago Tribune, Roger Powell Jr. was asked if he was worried about his mini-slump that he broke out of last night against Penn State. Powell's response: "If you're not scoring but you're playing defense and getting people open and your team is winning, you have to be happy with that," he said. "If you're mad, that would be kind of selfish."

Yeah, but what do the Badgers think?

After the Illini beat the Wisconsin Badgers for the second time this season, Alando Tucker told Jim Paul of the Associated Press (story here) "None of them are selfish. They all share the ball," said Tucker, who led the Badgers with 24 points. "They don't care about who scores. That's something you look for in a great team."

Weber? Not so unselfish

From the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel: Purdue coach Gene Keady got a call from Illinois coach Bruce Weber earlier this week about what gift the retiring Keady wanted. The top-ranked Illini will honor Keady before their March 3 game in Champaign, Ill. “He asked me what I wanted for a present and I said I wanted a W,” Keady said. “He said he couldn’t do that. People are so selfish that way.”

Well, not even a perfect team can be perfect.
Thursday, February 17, 2005
  Slezak vs. Couch
Greg Couch has a column today on the Fighting Illini that appears to this blogger to be a response to his fellow Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Slezak. You might remember Slezak's column Tough to grade Illini without a test from an earlier post by Illini Wonk.

In his column, titled Biding their time, Illini stay razor sharp, Couch writes what can only be taken as a response to Slezak. Two columns, two days apart in the same paper leads you to wonder if they're both watching the same team. What follows is a point/counter-point from the two Sun-Times columnists:

Slezak: They are a perfect 25-0 but hardly a perfect team.
Couch: Whatever, while we're waiting for the NCAAs, we pick away and look for holes in the perfection.

Slezak: [The Illini take] offense with anyone who points out an obvious flaw, such as their lack of an inside game or their tissue-thin bench.
Couch: The inside game? James Augustine has developed from a hindrance to a solid, even good, center. The thing is, the bench is fine, and not overly important in the NCAA tournament anyway, where there are more and longer TV timeouts for rest.

Slezak: We know Illinois is a very good team. But just how good is hard to figure out. At times...the Illini look unbeatable. Until one stops to consider the competition, that is. It's not Illinois' fault that the rest of the Big Ten is lousy. But the fact that this is a down year for the conference makes the Illini's tournament prospects an iffy proposition.
Couch: The schedule? Well, the Illini have pounded Wake Forest in Champaign, Cincinnati in Las Vegas and Michigan State in East Lansing.

Slezak: It's hard to imagine that lowly Penn State or sinking Iowa or little Northwestern or even Purdue or Ohio State can challenge the Illini. So we must look ahead to the Big Ten tournament and hope some team will provide competition. Is Tom Izzo's disappointing Michigan State team peaking at the right time? Can Bo Ryan's Wisconsin squad, clearly less talented than Illinois, grit its way through the conference tourney? Because these teams are the Illini's best hope for a reality check before the NCAA tournament begins.
Couch: Is this too easy? Is the schedule too weak? Are the inside players too soft? Is the bench falling apart? Will the pressure get to them? And what's going on with Roger Powell? I don't know. These questions don't seem too serious to me, but it's what we keep hearing over and over. And over.

Slezak: This is no way to prepare for the NCAA tournament. This is no way to prepare for Kansas or Oklahoma State or Arizona. It's no way to learn how to remain poised under pressure.
Couch: These guys are ready.

Slezak: With these huge expectations as the backdrop, the untested Illini are being set up to fail. Neither Weber nor his players have dealt with anything like this before. And if the Illini are still undefeated and a unanimous No. 1 come NCAA tourney time, the pressure will only increase.
Couch: The team is relaxed. Pressure? They play better under pressure.

Slezak: Weber's players seem to have grown more confident with each victory. But an undercurrent of doubt remains. They, too, must be wondering if they really are the best team in the country.
Couch: Meanwhile, No. 2 Kansas lost to unranked Texas Tech this week, and No. 3 Kentucky lost to unranked South Carolina -- and Illinois never loses.

Slezak: It might not be fair, but a perfect record won't mean a thing come March. No one knows how good the Illini are, but we all know what will happen if Weber's team stumbles in the NCAA tournament. Just as soon as the "over-rated'' chant ends, the "I told you so'' chorus will begin.
Couch: Maybe the talk should be about just how beautifully they move that ball around. With Deron Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown, they fling that thing around like the Harlem Globetrotters. Or maybe we should talk about the way the Illini guards absolutely own every passing lane on defense. As a game goes on, the pressure builds and other teams realize that their passes have to be perfect. These guys are ready.

At the start of this post, Illini Wonk speculated that they can't possibly be watching the same team. Turns out that was correct. At the top of Couch's column is the location he wrote from: State College, PA. Meaning, he was at the game. Slezak? Probably back at her desk.
Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.
  26 going on 30
The Fighting Illini picked up another win last night to set the school record for consecutive wins at 26. There are four more conference games left on the schedule and the opportunities for Illinois to lose a regular season game are falling away. A win at Iowa on Saturday will tie them with the 1960-61 Ohio State Buckeyes for the third best start in Big Ten conference history.

Big Ten Wonk has a good recap of the news coverage and Mark Tupper also blogged about the game. If you're looking for video highlights (since it wasn't on national TV), try ESPN Motion but also be sure to visit Peoria's WEEK-TV.
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
  Geography is Destiny
Picking up on a theme that Illini Wonk first covered six weeks ago, the front page of the USA TODAY sports section has a story about how close the Illinois campus is to their three NCAA Tournament stops if they earn the #1 seed in Chicago. Thanks to the benefit of time afforded by a full-time reporting job, Jack Carey adds some interesting information:

Although there are no guarantees the tournament selection committee will send the Illini to Indy for the opening weekend, the NCAA's system of keeping top seeds close to home makes it likely.

An Indianapolis-Chicago-St. Louis NCAA itinerary for the Illini would entail about 440 miles of one-way travel. Currently, the champ with the shortest trip was Michigan State in 2000 at about 570 one-way miles: Cleveland; Auburn Hills, Mich.; and Indianapolis.

"A humongous advantage," Spartans coach Tom Izzo says.

And the advantage wasn't only provided by Michigan State fans who had easier access to the games. The shorter the trip, the more focused and less distracted the players.

"You don't have the hassle of airports, and you don't have to worry about weather (delaying a flight)," Izzo says. "Would that give you any kind of an edge if it's a two- or three-point game? It could."

And if the Illini can make travel plans without stepping foot in an airport? "If Illinois gets a No. 1 seed," Izzo says, "who'd argue that they didn't earn that?"
  Illini go on Safari
The Illinois Fighting Illini go into the Bryce Jordan Center tonight to hunt the Nittany Lions of Penn State. The Illini have won five in a row in the series and nine of the last ten. Last year's game at University Park provided this viewer with one of the most memorable moments of Dee Brown's career in the orange and blue. The Illini trailed the Nittany Lions at the mid-point of the second half when Brown went on a tear and scored 19 points over the last 12 minutes. He may have missed a shot, Illini Wonk can't remember it. What he can remember are off-balance, game-saving, long-range bombs that didn't touch the rim on their way through the net. Brown was 6-10 on three-pointers in the game and finished with 24 points.

This year, the Nittany Lions are 7-16 (1-9) and have little from this season that they'd like to remember. This game against the undefeated Illini may provide their last chance to salvage something, anything, from the year. Penn State Coach Ed DeChellis states the obvious, saying not going to be easy. Wings Over Happy Valley, a local restaurant, seems to be so certain of an Illini win that they are offering seven jumbo wings plus celery and bleu cheese to every fan who attends the Illinois game if the Penn State Nittany Lions pull this off. I don't know too many business-people who would gamble with $20,000 if they weren't fairly certain it would turn out their way.

The Illini are for their part sounding the proper cliches, insisting that they aren't overlooking this conference bottom-dweller on their unblemished march through the season. Mark Tupper has the proof here, but if you want to see them say it for yourself, check out the video "Illini not looking past Lions" here. Brown insists that These-type games are what I get pumped for.

Illinois game notes here. The Associated Press also has a preview.
Frequent readers of this poll and fans of the Fighting Illini have noted that while the Illini have spent three consecutive weeks as the unanimous #1 and eleven weeks atop the national polls, they have bounced around from first to seventh in the RPI, at times being ranked behind teams they have beaten. Even now, with most of the other top teams suffering conference losses while the Illini remain unblemished, Illinois is stuck behind Kansas at the #2 spot.

Confused? Well, you're not alone. David Brown of the Northwest Herald looks at the "out of this world" RPI rating of the Illini and concludes that it is as difficult to explain as space travel. Read the rest of the instructive column here. Hat tip to Yoni Cohen at College Basketball for the link.

Bonus Illini Wonk observation: RPI can be a useful tool when sorting out who is last in and last out of the NCAA Tournament, but it's not particularly effective for judging who the best team is in college hoops. Illinois is penalized in the RPI for playing teams like Longwood and Deleware State, but does anyone other than Carol Slezak really believe that playing them makes the Illini a worse team?
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
  They're so Good, they Outta be in Pictures
Whil the Illini are dominating the small screen with their on-the-court performances (and CSTV set to go Behind the Scenes at Illinois), Illini Wonk insists that the Illini are so good, they outta be in pictures. What follows is a movie-title look at the week in Illini basketball news.

Ocean's Eleven

The Illini are spending their 11th consecutive week atop the Associated Press Poll, the third consecutive week as a unanimous selection. The Bloomington-Normal Pantagraph headline reads Illini's reign hits 11.

Kentucky Fried Illini

A Louisville fan who writes for the Courier-Journal attended the Wisconsin game in Champaign and pays tribute to the atmosphere in Assembly Hall here. He closes his column with this: As a now more-distant Illini fan, I kept wishing all those around me could better enjoy the moment, the undefeated season, this living history. But success has only increased the worry and expectations. It's all been so perfect up to now. Where does life go from there?

Roger & Me

In a difficult search for imperfections with this team, the media has settled on the senior slump that Roger Powell, Jr. has found himself in the midst of for the past weeks. In the last four games, Powell is averaging 6.5 points, which is less than half his average, and 4.5 rebounds. Through the first 11 games of conference play, he has yet to record a single assist on one of the best teams in the nation in that category. There's more on Powell's lack of production from Mark Tupper, Herb Gould, Marlen Garcia and Jeremy Rutherford.

Dazed and Confused

Carol Slezak types a column titled Tough to grade Illini without a test in the Chicago Sun-Times today that is just inexcusably poor for an in-state sports-writer. She repeats the tired refrain: [Weber's] team is undefeated, but it plays in the Big Ten, which is so weak this season that Illinois could run the table playing four against five. The column goes downhill from there, taking numerous pot-shots at the Big Ten, falling all over herself to praise the ACC and dismissing the Illinois win over Wake Forest as occurred a lifetime ago.

The major problem with Ms. Slezak's hypothesis (that being that Illinois is untested) is that of all the ranked teams, no team has played (or beaten) more games against the current top 25 than the Illini (6). As for the "Big Ten Conference hurting their post-season chances" argument, Illini Wonk dismantled that in this post.

Bo Knows Illinois

Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan has figured out why Illinois ended his team's 38-game home winning streak and then beat them in Champaign: the Illini are better.
Monday, February 14, 2005
  The Blogosphere
Illinois basketball fans are having a season that will live on in their memories and Illini Wonk is enjoying blogging every minute of it. Juding by many of your comments, you are enjoying the season and this blog as well.

Illini Wonk would like to take this opportunity to thank you for reading and to let you know that there are other places on the world live web that are worth your precious time. This post is an attempt to hit some of the highlights.

Big Ten Basketball=Ugly?

Certain members of the sports-writing media (and headline writers at the New York Times) have begun a disturbing habit of labeling the Illini wins as "ugly." Illini Wonk was willing to overlook that in reference to the win at Michigan, but once they started applying the label to the win over Wisconsin, we have issues. Fortunately, Illini Wonk does not have to fight this battle alone and can simply refer you to an excellent post from Big Ten Wonk, who feels compelled to remind the pundits that not ugly.

An intereseting aside comes from a matchup tonight of Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Pitt beat Syracuse 68-64 for a total of 132 points in a game that the two teams shot a combined 38.5 percent from the field. Illinois and Wisconsin shot a comparatively scorching 46.3 percent as teh Illini won 70-59, which by the calculator on my computer is 129 points. So, is 130 points the threshold that must be reached in order to no longer be labeled "ugly" or will that adjective be used to describe tonight's Big East matchup?

Quinn Snyder or Matt Foley?

Just when you thought the season couldn't get any worse for Quinn Snyder, the blogosphere got hold of a pre-game motivational meeting that includes barking out The Eye of the Tiger. Somehow, this makes our Braggin' Rights a little less sweet. Hat tip to Yoni Cohen of College Basketball for the link.

The Sage of Decatur

Regular readers of Illini Wonk should be no stranger to Mark Tupper of the Decatur Herald & Tribune and his blog. As always, there are some good reads this week. If you aren't reading this blog, you aren't following Illini Basketball.

Other links of interest

The Chris West Basketball Journal is from a fan of Wisconsin basketball...with Illinitalk the title is self-explanatory...and don't forget Brett Dawson at the Champaign News-Gazette (the one part of their site you don't have to pay for...The Chicago Bulls don't have Michael Jordan anymore, but they do have a lot of good young players and a blog...

See you in the blogosphere!
Sunday, February 13, 2005
  The Three Amigos
Once again, all is well in Illini-land. In the game against Wisconsin, the guard trio was outstanding, the bench provided good minutes and the defense stayed strong as the Illini dispatched the final ranked opponent on their regular season schedule. The questions that had been piling up following less-than-stellar performances against less-than-stellar teams all seemed to get answered on Saturday.

Not to say that everything is perfect. Nick Smith apparently copped a little attitude over playing time. Roger Powell continued his mini-slump (although it was at least partially due to foul trouble).

Triple threat

Following the play of the guard trio, Illlini Wonk has two questions: 1) Is there any way these three don't all make first-team all Big Ten? Seriously, if you had to construct a team out of all the conference players, is there anyone else you'd replace them with? 2) How are the voters going to pick a Big Ten player of the year from among these three? Illini Wonk is well aware of Luther Head's impressive stats, but you can't discount Deron Williams' leadership or Dee Brown's heart (and their stats aren't bad, either).

Not surprisingly, guard play is the focus of most of today's media coverage. John Supinie's report in the Peoria Journal-Star is headlined Trio sterling in silver victory. At the top of Lindsey Willhite's reports in the Daily Herald, the headline reads Three guards take control in second half and Heady effort for Illinois. (In a sports-writing trifecta, Willhite also reported on the Illini dodging a bullet with their foul trouble). In the Chicago Sun-Times, it was Head's 26 help Illinois capture 25th from Herb Gould. Guards get offense over hump after half comes from Mike Albright of the Decatur Herald & Tribune. Marlen Garcia of the Chicago Tribune simply said that it was Head's game. In the Rockford Register-Star, Matt Trowbridge focused on their adaptability with Illini guards excel when forced out of their game. Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports on the long-range heroics that led to a Dee-lightful result for the Illini. Daily Southtown sports-writer Paul Ladewski says that Brown, Illini revel in battering Badgers. Williams' performance in the second half against Wisconsin led Mike Nadel to write: Deron provides Illini their 'rock'.

Pick your poison

In the Pantagraph, Jim Benson says it's time for Big Ten Conference coaches and those around the country to figure out Plan C. He writes: Trying to run (Plan A) with the University of Illinois proved to be a big mistake. Just ask Gonzaga and Wake Forest. Trying to get the Illini in a half-court slugfest (Plan B) hasn't worked, either. Wisconsin, the king of Plan B, found that out Saturday.

Seeing is believing

Rockford CBS affiliate WIFR has clips on their 10 PM Sportscast.

Extended coverage

The Chicago Tribune also carried a column from Joe Gergen on the Illini season. Also in the Decatur Herald & Tribune, Mark Tupper says that while the Illini always find a different way to win in different situations, the one thing they all have in common is intelligence. In his report card, Supinie gives the Illini frontcourt a "C," and he also reports on the four pairs of orange boxers Coach Weber has received since a comment he made on ESPN here. Tim Cronin has more in the Daily Southtown here and here.

Doubters remain

Even from in-state columnists like Mike Imrem, who seems to take pleasure in the fact that he doesn't see Illinois play every day and isn't an expert but doesn't let that stop him from saying that Illinois is not the best team. His argument is one that Illini Wonk is tiring of. The old "Big Ten stinks argument so Illinois can't be that good." The Big Ten may not be great this year, but they've been able to do something that no one else in college basketball has been able to do (not even Wake Forest) and that's keep the Illini within double digits once the final horn sounds. So before pundits continue to lament how playing in the Big Ten will hurt Illinois come post-season, keep in mind that the conference foes have given them better games than Wake, Cinci, Gonzaga and the other non-conference foes the Illini crushed.
Saturday, February 12, 2005
  Illini down last ranked foe
Ignoring the advice of John Mutka, the Illinois Fighting Illini completed the season sweep of the Wisconsin Badgers with a 70-59 win before a record Assembly Hall crowd. The victory pushed the Illini's record to 25-0 (11-0), which ties a school record and marks their sixth win against a top-25 opponent.

After a plodding first half that saw the Illini take a one point lead into the locker room, the Illini trio of guards came out blazing in the second half. Deron Williams scored the first 8 points of the second half, followed by 8 points from Luther Head and it was late free-throws from Head and three-pointers from Dee Brown that sealed the win. The 57 points scored by the trio almost matched the entire Badger team. Jonathan Linder of BadgerNation called the Guard trio unstoppable against Badgers.

Luther Head employed a spectacular mid-range game to post an impressive stat-line of 26-points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists (he was also 12-13 from the free-throw line). His point total is even more impressive in light of the fact that none of the points came from behind the arc-his first game this season without a three-pointer.

Alando Tucker was the only Badger in double-figures and he had an impressive 24 points to go with 8 rebounds. The lack of success from the other Wisconsin players was mostly a result of another impressive defensive performance from the Fighting Illini. The Badgers were the third-straight opponent of the Illini held under 60 points and the 13th straight under 70. Only three opponents have broken the 70-point mark against Illinois this season.

New York Times reporter Pete Thamel hung around Champaign after his profile of Bruce Weber to write a recap of the game. The report from Marlen Garcia of the Chicago Tribune can be read here.

Greg Doyel was in Champaign and gives some suggestions for what the Illini should do during the next month here. After saying they need to stay angry, stay together and stay agressive (and some other suggestions) he ends with this final piece of advice: Stick with what got you here: Why are you listening to us, Illini? You're 25-0, and regardless of what Brown says, you're far and away the best team in the country. Anyone who says otherwise can't be taken seriously. Tell them we said so. Just keep doing what you're doing. (But don't say you weren't warned.)

Sports Illustrated has the AP story here. Following the game, Mark Tupper blogs under the headline unbeaten better than a loss that 41 percent of teams who enter the NCAA tournament have won it all, while only 11 percent of those who had one loss could say the same.
  We must protect this house!
In their last 78 games at home, the Fighting Illini are 75-3 (including 18 straight) and perhaps their last tough home test of this season comes today against the #20 Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers are no doubt still smarting over having the Illini come to Madison and snap their 38 game home winning streak and would like nothing more than to return the favor in Champaign. Add to that the post-season boost the Badgers would get from a win on the road against the #1 team and you have to believe that Bo Ryan will have his team ready to play.

The Wisconsin press is loaded with coverage. Opportunity knocks is the headline to Mark Stewart's article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. In the Capital Times, Rob Schultz (perhaps unknowingly) weighs in on the whole "nickname thing" with orange sharks in reference to Illinois' suffocating defense. The Wisconsin State Journal has more on the Badger's feeling that they let the previous game "slip away."

The Illinios media has more. Mark Tupper notes here that it is now the Illini who have the home winning streak to lose and they are expecting the Badgers to slow things down today. Marlen Garcia previews the game here by looking at three players who were in the same high school conference: James Augustine, Roger Powell and Alando Tucker.

Jeremy Rutherford breaks down the game for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch here and the official Illinois game notes can be found here.
Friday, February 11, 2005
  The Buzz Grows
An earlier post from Illini Wonk has chronicled The Buzz on the Illini and regular posts (e.g. here, here and here) have tracked the overwhelming press coverage of Illinois Basketball during their historic season.

On Tuesday, the last semi-competitor for the Illini's buzz fell away as Boston College lost to Notre Dame. Now, the buzz on the Illini has risen to a roar. Associated Press sports-writer Jim Paul wrote a flattering profile of Coach Bruce Weber (could there be any other kind after his track record) that made the Most Viewed Sports stories on Yahoo! News and turned up in 77 places on a Google News Search.

In-state coverage has been overwhelming for months, but much of it is still well worth reading. Chicago Sun-Times sports-writer Herb Gould asks the question Exactly how does a program go through three coaching changes in eight years and achieve more under each new coach without missing a beat? He answers the question by chronicling those eight years here.

Copley News Service sports-writer Mike Nadel gives us a look at the mail he received about Illinois basketball here in the Sauk Valley Daily Gazette. In further confirmation of the Illini buzz, he writes not surprisingly, the nation's hottest college hoops team has been the hottest topic this winter in Mike's Mailbag. There's some about the lack of exuberance among Illini fans, Charlie Villanueva, their post-season prospects and Weber as a recruiter.

In more local coverage, there are two profiles of Illini big men. Lindsey Willhite on James Augustine and Steve Batterson on Jack Ingram. In the Chicago Tribune, Marlen Garcia has a must-read about Illinois' motion offense and a companion piece on their defense.

While the national sports media may not have been there since the beginning (or at least since consecutive wins in one week over Gonzaga and Wake Forest), they have certainly been around as of late. According to Yahoo! Sports National Columnist Dan Wetzel, it's Perfection or bust for the Illini. In his mailbag, SI columnist Grant Wahl writes: Dee Brown's three consecutive steals against Michigan on Tuesday may have been the single most impressive short-term feat by a player that I've seen this season. William Geoghegan of SportsCentral says here that things will be sorted out come March.

But now, sports-writers around the country are filing their stories. Joe Gergen gives readers of New York Newsday a look at the Illini here. Jack Wilkinson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution weighs in here. The Los Angeles Times sent a reporter to Champaign to file this report. Even the Gray Lady herself got in on the act with a profile of Bruce Weber here.

Add another sports-writer to the list who think the Ilini will finish the season undefeated. Jake Curtis of the (just outside Big Ten territory) San Fransisco Chronicle profiles the undefeated and the winless.
  The other No. 1 in Illinois
The Fighting Illini are not the only top-rated college basketball team in the state of Illinois. Pantagraph Sports columnist Randy Kindred writes about the University of Illinois and Division III Illinois Wesleyan (located in Bloomington, about about 50 miles from Champaign), both ranked #1 in their respective polls. Kindred speculates here about the prospects of both of them winning the national championship, which has only been done once by a state before.

However, Illini Wonk's alma mater, Wheaton College had other ideas as they defeated Wesleyan 86-74 this week. While Wesleyan is certain to drop from their perch atop the poll, the 9th ranked Wheaton Thunder will no doubt move up.

As an aside, the CCIW is one of the best Division III conferences in the nation. Illini Wonk has been to games in Wheaton and Bloomington and if you're having trouble getting tickets to the Fighting Illini, you could do worse than seeing one of these two teams play.
Thursday, February 10, 2005
  Where's the bench?
Following the catastrophe at Michigan (oh, that's right, Illinois won). Following the ugly win at Michigan, much of the focus has been on the collective disappearing act pulled by the Illini reserves. Jack Ingram was the only member of the Illinois squad who saw playing time in the second half as Coach Bruce Weber sat Roger Powell for six minutes and James Augustine for one.

The headline in the Chicago Tribune read Illini backups go backward at bad time. Jim O'Donnell wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that the effectiveness of the Illinois bench is disappearing. In the Decatur Herald & Tribune, Mark Tupper wrote: Not once during the course of this unbeaten season has Weber so thoroughly turned his back on his bench, and it's a trend that probably should not continue. Lindsey Willhite wrote in the Daily Herald: As Illinois rallied to victory Tuesday night, two of its key reserves stayed glued to their seats.

Admittedly, the bench was not good. Ingram's 12 minutes was double what Rich McBride and Nick Smith played combined. Between the three of them, they only took five shots with Smith and Ingram each making one. The three of them also managed only one rebound, one assist and one steal. In his post-game comments, Weber admitted that the bench did not produce.

Before everyone writes off the bench, they would do well to keep in mind that one game doth not a season make. Were it not for Jack Ingram's eight points in both games, Illinois might not have come out on top against Wisconsin and Iowa. Rich McBride had two big three-point baskets in his only two attempts at Purdue and had maybe his best game of the season against Michigan State. Nick Smith had three important baskets against Iowa.

As for the starters logging too many minutes, Luther Head is averaging 32.5 minutes per contest, Dee Brown 32.1 and Deron Williams 33.4 while James Augustine and Roger Powell are averaging 25.7 and 25.5, respectively. Weber says he wants his starters averaging between 33 and 36 minutes per game; they're at just under 30. Weber also said about the bench: "They've been important in the streak and made big plays. Now, they have to pick it up again.''

The bench is clearly not a strength for the Illini. However, in their search for flaws in this perfect team, some have become perhaps a bit overzealous.
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
  And then there was one
With Illinois' win at Michigan and Boston College's loss at Notre Dame, the Fighting Illini are now the only undefeated team in college basketball. The sheer amount of coverage is overwhelming so Illini Wonk will bring you a slice of it.

First, following last night's game there has been a lot of praise for the second half performance of Dee Brown. Nathan Fenno of the Ann Arbor News wrote that Tuesday night against Michigan, Brown was simply the difference. Dick Vitale praised Dee during the North Carolina/Duke game and in his column.

Jay Mariotti (who has recently earned the ire of Illinois fans and players for predicting them to lose on ESPN's Around the Horn) writes here in the Chicago Sun-Times: Yet one charming characteristic keeps shining through the muck of sloppy Illinois performances: Someone always bails out the cause. This time, as the maize-covered fans bobbed and Brent Musburger teased an upset on national television, it was Brown. We'll remember this performance not only for his trio of steals, but for a key three-pointer and a spectacular, behind-the-back pass to James Augustine that excited a throng of Illini fans who had been quiet for most of the evening. When Deron Williams couldn't hit a jumper, Roger Powell's offense disappeared and the bench was nonexistent, we saw a hoops version of the UPS commercial: What Brown can do for you.

According to Mark Tupper in the Decatur Herald-Tribune, Brown took matters into his own hands. In a similar vein to the prior post from Illini Wonk, Tupper wrote: After getting few inside touches in the first half, Illinois turned that around in the second half. Of Illinois' final 22 points scored in the game, there were four layups, four dunks and six free throws. And not a single jump shot.

Dee, however is not the only star on the team, as he is joined by Luther Head and Deron Williams on the mid-season candidates for the Naismith Trophy. North Carolina is the only other team with three players on the list.

Speaking of North Carolina, Bruce Weber was interviewed on ESPN during the half-time show of the North Carolina/Duke game. During the interview, Weber was asked by Steve Lavin how the Illini would match up with the Tar Heels. Weber was very diplomatic and said he would love to have the match-up because it would likely come in St. Louis.

Speaking of Coach Weber, in the Pantagraph, Jim Benson notes that in less than two years, Weber has won in every Big Ten Conference building.

Not to be left out of all this year's Illini coverage, the Orange Krush are profiled here in SI On Campus. In the article Maggie Haskins says that the Orange Krush is the No. 1 student section in the country (sorry, Cameron Crazies) for the No. 1 team in the country (sorry, Duke). Haskins also notes that the Illini are 75-3 in Assembly Hall over the past six years, during which time the Orange Krush has raised more than $600,000 for 20 charities.

For those of you who are tired of reading about the Illini, College Sports TV will go Behind the Scenes at Illinois on Friday, March 25.
Tuesday, February 08, 2005
  The Bullseye Gets Bigger
The night started with two unbeaten teams in college basketball and almost ended with none. On a night when Boston College lost their first game of the season, the Illini pulled out a come-from behind win on the road and handed the Michigan Wolverines their seventh straight loss in conference play.

Credit Michigan with giving Illinois one of their toughest games of the year. The Wolverines game plan was clear from the beginning and they almost executed it to perfection. Coach Tommy Amaker determined that his short-handed team couldn't run with Illinois, so on offense they spread the court and went deep into the shot clock on every possession (ESPN frequently displayed the number of times they went under ten seconds on the shot clock). On defense, they stuck with a zone and gambled that the Fighting Illini couldn't beat them from the outside. It almost worked.

After jumping out to leads of 16-6, 18-8 and with 8:47 left in the first half they led 23-15. The Illini then went almost 12 minutes without a field goal and ended up trailing 24-28 at the half, only the second time they trailed at half-time all season. Early in the second half the Illini found themselves behind by eight points. Then, Dee Brown took over on defense.

Brown stole the ball on three consecutive Michigan posessions and converted them all for lay-ups. The last was a three-point play that put the Illini ahead 42-41 with 7:54 left and they would never trail again. From there, Illinois poured on some style points with Brown going behind his back to James Augustine for a dunk and Luther Head feading Deron Williams for an alley-oop dunk.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Illinois' performance was their apparent willingness to settle for jump shots. Exactly half of their 48 shot attempts in the game were from behind the arc and they made less than 30 percent of those. Illinois showed little ability or desire to get into the paint, despite the cold shooting night from outside.

Although they shot poorly, the Illini did a lot of things well. They only turned the ball over five times in the entire game and their eight steals were the difference between their 24th win and their first loss. The Illini also showed a remarkable resiliency. Despite the fact that the three starting guards played 117 of a possible 120 minutes coming off one day of rest, they seemed to get better as the game went on. Most impressive was that, once again, the Illini showed that on any given night, any one of the five starters can beat you. Tonight it was Dee Brown. Tomorrow night it might be Roger Powell (who had nine rebounds tonight).

The media have turned in a few recaps and most of them focus on the performance of Dee Brown. Sports Illustrated is here. CBS Sportsline here. FoxSports here.
  The Road to Perfection
On the College Basketball front page at, the lead story is titled "Chasing History" and asks Can either the Illini or the Eagles match the 1976 Hoosiers? The story links to a look at the remaining games on the schedule for the two teams in their quest for a perfect season. In a link underneath, Pat Forde reverses an earlier guess and predicts that the Illini will be 33-0 on Selection Sunday and breaks down each remaining conference match-up.

UPDATE: on WPGU just before the game tipped off, Forde called in from the Florida/Kentucky game and during the interview said he still think North Carolina is the better team.
Monday, February 07, 2005
  Fighting Illini vs. Wolverines
For rivalry week, the Illinois Fighting Illini face the Michigan Wolverines on Tuesday night at 6 p.m. est. Brent Musberger will call play-by-play, Steve Lavin will provide color commentary and Erin Andrews is the sideline reporter for ESPN.

The Illini face a program reeling from injuries and suspensions. The Wolverines have lost six straight games and will be without the services of their point guard, Daniel Horton, who was suspended indefinitely after a domestic violence charge. Illinois has had their number in recent years, winning the last nine meetings between the teams.

In his press conference today, Illinois coach Bruce Weber had a lot of nice things to say about Michigan coach Tommy Amaker and the bad luck he's had this year. In an exchange of pleasantries, Amaker was quoted in the Quad-City Times here as saying that the Illini have a chance to be remembered as one of the great teams of all time. Detroit Free Press sports writer John Eligon profiles the two teams here and concludes that the two teams are in opposite universes.

According to Nathaniel Whalen of the Daily Southtown here, the Illini have a chip on their shoulder following their less-than-perfect offensive performance at home against Indiana. The official Illinois release can be read here. Marlen Garcia's preview in the Chicago Tribune is here

Since there isn't a lot of preview coverage of the game, Illini Wonk decided to fill this post with some of the press coverage of the Illini.

The front page of the USA Today sports section was filled with news about some football game played yesterday, but a second sports section had two articles about Illinois & looking at their games from the previous day and another daydreaming about a matchup between the two elite teams. Fortunately for those of you who don't get the print edition of the national paper, you can read the article from Malcolm Moran here.

On SportsCenter tonight, Joe Lunardi said there's no question that Illinois is a #1 seed, but they will be battling Kansas for that seed in the midwest.

Mike DeCourcy puts to rest the "they'd be better off entering the tournament with a loss talk" about the Illini with some good research here. He finds that of the last six teams to go into the NCAAs undefeated, five made the Final Four, and two won the national title. They had a composite NCAA Tournament record of 22-4. Of the last six major-conference teams to enter with one loss only two made the Final Four and none won it all. They compiled NCAA records of 17-6. The bottom line for DeCourcy: if you're good enough to win every game before the NCAAs, you're probably good enough to keep it up. Amen.

In another offering from DeCourcy, he looks at why the Illini are undefeated and offers four reasons: motivation, grace, menace and stamina.

The Big Ten Weekly Release is heavy on Illinois news, with blurbs on Illinois' Record-Setting Season, Roger Powell joining the 1,000 career-point club and Deron Williams' quest to be the first player to lead the conference in assists for three straight seasons (at 7.89 assists per game, he's also on pace to top Eric Snow's single season record of 7.8).
  Recruiting Roundup
The current team has been making so much news that it has been hard to find time to post anything on the future crop of Fighting Illini basketball players. In the recent Sports Illustrated spread on the Illini, Grant Wahl wrote: Despite the positive publicity surrounding the Illini's breakout season, the jury's still out on Weber as a big-time recruiter: All of the players in his rotation are Self's recruits, and Self outflanked him last fall to land highly regarded in-state forward Julian Wright of Homewood-Flossmoor High.

Illini Wonk has repeatedly said that nothing recruits like ten weeks at the top of the rankings and due to that ranking, Weber gets noticed when he is on the recruiting trail. In a Chicago Tribune article titled Recruit proves up to his billing, Bob Sakamoto recounts a trip by Weber to see a 6-foot-10-inch junior named Brian Carlwell star for Proviso East (Dee Brown's high school). At the game: Illinois coach Bruce Weber was the center of attention Friday night in Maywood, posing for pictures, signing autographs and basking in the glow of the Illini's No. 1 ranking.

"I knew coach Weber was going to be here watching me," said Carlwell, who made an impression with 16 points, 18 rebounds and three blocks. "It means a lot to me [for him] to come and watch with their busy schedule. But I didn't want to think about that too much and take away from concentrating on the game.

In other Illinois basketball recruiting news, Illinois signee Jamar Smith had 30 points to lead Richwoods to a 51-41 win over Peoria Notre Dame.
Sunday, February 06, 2005
  There's no place like the road
For the second time in three games played in Assembly Hall, the Illinois Fighting Illini survived a poor shooting night to get a victory. Tonight, a superior defensive effort propelled the Illini to a 60-47 win over a young Indiana Hooisers team. The Illini played in front of a national audience on CBS and 15 recruits in the stands.

The Fighting Illini shot only 19-44 (43 percent) from the field and 4-16 from three-point land (Dee Brown was 3-4 from behind the arc and the rest of the team was 1-12). They didn't shoot as bad as they did against Iowa on January 20 (32 percent), but also not nearly as good as against Minnesota on January 29 (56 percent). Illinois is shooting better than 50 percent on the season and 41 percent on three-pointers.

The Illinois defense suffocated the Hoosiers, who frequently went deep into the shot clock (unless they turned the ball over earlier) before hoisting up a tough shot. The 47 points marked the second lowest total of the season for the Hoosiers and was the eleventh straight game the Illini held their opponent under 70 points.

For all of the talk about having three point guards, Illini Wonk only saw one today. Illinois dominated the first ten minutes of the game and built a 20-3 lead as Deron Williams assisted on all 7 of their buckets. At that point, Williams went to the bench and Indiana went on an 8-0 run to pull within nine as part of a 17-6 run to end the half.

With Williams on the bench, no one was creating shots for the Illini. When he left the game, James Augustine had 10 points in the first ten minutes. With Williams on the bench, the other Illini forgot about him and he didn't score the rest of the first half. Luther Head never really appeared in the game, although some late baskets gave him 13 points on the night. Dee Brown shot well, but settled for the outside shot rather than taking the ball to the hole. (Watching him today reminded Illini Wonk of last year's performance with the stress fracture, except that he is shooting better this year).

Deron Williams had 8 assists in the first half and 11 for the game. Even on a day when his shot was off (1 point on 0-7 shooting) he proved just how valuable he is for this team and how important it is to have him on the floor. He runs Coach Weber's motion offense so efficiently and gets everyone involved. He truly makes everyone on his team better, especially James Augustine. Speaking of Augustine, he had a solid game that earned him CBS' player of the game award. He had a game-high 16 points and 4 blocks along with 5 rebounds.

Although it was their lowest scoring game of the season, Illinois still played good enough to win and push their record to 23-0 (9-0). At half time, Seth Davis said that if they beat Wisconsin next Saturday they will run the table in the regular season. However, the Illini do have trips to Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State remaining on the schedule, so it won't be wrapped up until March 5 in Columbus.

Associated Press recap here. Marlen Garcia of the Chicago Tribune has a recap here (why does this appear on the San Jose Mercury News website before the Trib's?). Mark Tupper blogs about the game.
  Illinois vs. Indiana, '05 vs. '76
Perhaps the biggest challenge the Fighting Illini will face today against the Indiana Hoosiers will be fighting off complacency. The Hoosiers are 5-3 in the conference, which puts them in a tie for fourth place. However, Indiana will be most likely be without their star Bracey Wright, who severely sprained his ankle and was on crutches at Friday's practice. Terry Hutchens of the Indianapolis Star has more here. According to Mark Tupper, the Illini are preparing for the Hoosiers as if he's playing.

That could be why the Las Vegas Line on the game favors Illinois by 20.5. Tupper blogs that the Fighting Illini would benefit from better competition.

However, the real contest here is between the history of these two programs. As Hutchens writes, Indiana has shot to protect '76 team's distinction. Indiana was the last team to go undefeated and win the national championship and their meeting with Illinois today obviously draws comparisons. Quinn Buckner, who starred on the '76 Hoosiers team, sees parallels between his college team and the current Illini.

In the Indianapolis Star, Phil Richards has a nice write-up here for Indiana fans who might not have been paying attention to the Illini so far this season. According to Lindsey Willhite of the Daily Herald, this game presents a great opportunity for the program. In his write-up here, Willhite says the game before the Super Bowl should turn into a free nationally televised two-hour infomercial. Illinois official game notes here.
Saturday, February 05, 2005
  SI: There's Joy in Illinois
In a recent post, Illini Wonk referenced an entry in the College Basketball Mailbag of Grant Wahl that said Illinois would beat North Carolina in a head-to-head matchup (Jimmy Dykes said the same thing today and picked them both to make the Final Four).

Wahl takes a long look at the Fighting Illini-who he nicknames the 'Stylin' Illini'-in the February 7 issue of Sports Illustrated. (Photo here). Apparently, Wahl was a little upset that he didn't get the cover story-that went to Peter King's preview of the Super Bowl-but it did draw a mention on the cover.

In the article titled There's Joy in Illinois, Wahl dwells mostly on the backcourt trio. Wahl writes: While a few elite squads may have two All-America candidates at the guard positions -- Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and Wake Forest come to mind -- only the Illini have three.

He has more on the backcourt: Williams was the Big Ten preseason player of the year and is the backcourt trio's top all-around player, but Brown provides the most energy, sparking the punishing Illini fast break. "People love to see guys playing so unselfishly, so fluid," says Brown, whose charisma, orange headband-and-mouthpiece combo and unruly 'fraids (so dubbed by teammates to describe his half-'fro, half-braids hairstyle) make his the most recognizable face on the team.

Yet out of all the Stylin' Illini, the one having the best season is Brown's fellow Chicagoland native Head, who was leading the team in scoring (16.5 average) and who saved Illinois with 25 points in its closest call, a 73-68 overtime win against Iowa on Jan. 20. "It's good to learn that we can pull games out when we aren't playing our best," says Head, a.k.a. 4-Head (read the back of his jersey), a onetime devotee of the dunk who raised his three-point shooting accuracy from 34.3% in 2003-04 to 43.4% this season. "We have so much trust in each other that if we pass to the open guy, we know he'll knock the shot down," Head adds. "And the people taking the shots have confidence too."

But Wahl also pays his respects to the Illini who play in the paint: Perhaps owing to their transcendent backcourt, the Illini's most overlooked improvements have taken place inside. "Our downfall last year was obvious," says Weber. "Teams just said, 'We're going inside, and you can't stop us.' So this season that was the Number 1 thing to address." A colorful quartet of forwards has shored up that weakness, including starters James Augustine, an indefatigable rebounder, and Roger Powell Jr., a 6'6" battler who's a licensed Pentecostal minister. The reserves are offensive glass specialist Jack (the Professor) Ingram, an Academic All-Big Ten electrical engineering major, and Smith, a 7'2" perimeter drifter with a vaguely sinister nickname (Chainsaw) who unspools such gems as, "I like to think I'm kind of bipolar."

Mental states aside, the Illini interior has been good enough to win, if not necessarily to dominate. "The key is, all four guys are different," Weber says. "James is a runner who's athletic and has great bounce. Roger's undersized, but he's explosive and quick. Nick's got the skills of a European-type big man, and Jack is a rugged in-between guy who can rebound and shoot from 15 to 17 feet."

Wahl also documents Illinois' record-breaking assist-to-turnover ratio. When it comes to maximizing smart passes and minimizing mistakes, the Illini are operating at a historic level indeed. In the four years since the NCAA started tracking team turnovers as an official stat, no Division I school has had an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 1.57. At week's end Illinois was clicking at an astonishing 1.80. "If we have one commandment, it's to pass the ball to the open man," says Weber. "Instead of shooting with a hand in your face, get it to the next guy, and the next time he'll reciprocate. Passing is a lost art, which is why I'm blessed with these guys."

As for Coach Bruce Weber and the changes he brought to the program, Wahl writes: Like the soon-to-retire Keady, Weber preaches man-to-man defense -- the Illini often played zone under Self -- but he has tweaked Keady's motion offense, creating "changes that are more suited to the modern-day player," as Keady says, with a hint of old-lion resignation. "There are more options, from allowing the guards to post up to giving players more freedom to shoot threes and go one-on-one. But they still get the ball inside and make the extra pass."

"The more skilled players you have, the more freedom you can give them," says Weber. "They're allowed to make plays as long as they do it within the system."

In a slightly strange accompanying article, Wahl says that the three-guard approach has its drawbacks and the caption on the photo of Deron Williams is: The 6' 3" Williams flies by most guards but can suffer when pitted against a tall small forward. I'm having a hard time recalling a game when Williams matched up with a small forward or when he "suffered" as a result of it. I would think that Deron would salivate at the idea of having a bigger guy guard him.

Whatever, Wahl ends the article with this paragraph: Guard play remains the key in March, and few teams can hope to outperform the Illini's terrific trio at tournament time. That's what they'll have to do, though, to knock off the No. 1 team. When asked how to beat his Illini, center Nick (Chainsaw) Smith replied, "I would do one of two things. One, play zone and pray that we miss our shots and you outrebound us. Or two, slow us down in transition and hope your three guards have the night of their lives." The rest almost went without saying, but Smith said it anyway: "Not many teams can do that."

Illini Wonk agrees and enjoyed seeing an article about the team in SI. They should have put it on the cover. The Super Bowl can have next week's.
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