Illini Wonk
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
  There's no place like Williams Arena?
The Illini start a two-game road trip in Minneapolis playing the Minnesota Gophers at Williams Arena. Illinois has won their last five at Minnesota and the last 14 in the series overall.

Illinois easily handled the Gophers 77-53 on January 25 in Assembly Hall which completed an 0-6 start in conference play for Minnesota. Since then, the Gophers have gone 5-3 and appear to be a much better team than when Illinois faced them more than a month ago.

As John Supinie pointed out, the Illini's Big Ten and NCAA seeds are up for grabs. Win out and they're contenders for a #1 seed in the NCAA's. Lose their last two road games and you're looking at a possible 6 seed and a Thursday game in the Big Ten Tournament.

Follow GameTracker here.
Saturday, February 25, 2006
  It's so hard to say goodbye
Tonight, Illini Wonk will have to watch the game against Iowa alone. It's not because he can't take the pressure of an important conference match-up. It's because I can't possibly see myself not tearing up at the thought of seeing James Augustine and Dee Brown introduced for their final game in Assembly Hall. Wonk won't be alone. Expect coach Bruce Weber to be emotional during the ceremony, as he ponders what the two have meant to a program that's gone 110-21 since the 2002-03 season. John Brumbaugh invites fans to get to Assembly Hall early and honor these two seniors with your applause, laughter, and probably tears.

Illinois has been playing basketball for 101 years and these two players have been here for four. But, it's hard to imagine the program without them. What will Illinois basketball look like without these two players who have done so much?

It's also hard to imagine where the program would be today had they not come to Illinois, but it almost didn't happen. As Stu Durando reminds us, Dee Brown was contemplating Michigan State and James Augustine was sold on Purdue. Once Dee was sold, he recruited Augustine and the rest is history. Now, on Senior Night, the two need one more victory for 111 in their career, which would join them at the hip in Illini record book. As Lucas Deal asks in the Daily Illini, Could it really have set up any better?

But, there is a game to be played. "That's why I'm not so emotional about it,'' Augustine said Thursday. "It's more of a basketball game than Senior Night. If we don't come out ready to play, they're going to beat us.'' Iowa comes into the game in a first place tie with Ohio State in the conference standings with Illinois and Wisconsin one game behind. The final three games are extremely important for Illinois' post-season prospects. Despite the fact that they are only one game out of first place in the conference, they are also only one game out of sixth place, with Michigan and Michigan State close behind.

Nevertheless, it will be hard to say goodbye to these two seniors and the media tributes are piling in. Lindsey Willhite writes that Dee Brown has been the face of the Illini. Jared Gelfond agrees and calls Augustine a Model of Consistency. Mark Tupper believes that it's time to honor Dee by retiring his jersey. The Northwest Herald includes Augustine, calling them the faces of the Illini and noting that they are simply known as "Dee and James."

As for the players, Brown can't believe it's coming to an end. Augustine says It's like a storybook happy ending. Illini Wonk agrees with both.

During the game, Illinois will unveil fans five favorite moments of each player's illustrious career. You can vote from among a list of ten each at Illinois' official site. I really don't know how you can pick only five, but give it a try. As for Illini Wonk, our poll simply asks: are they the greatest pair in Illinois basketball history? Be sure to vote on the top right and leave your comments below. Wonk still can't believe it's almost over...
Thursday, February 23, 2006
  So you're telling me there's a chance?
Well, there is a little hope. With Tuesday's loss at Michigan, the Illini fall to 8-5 and into a fourth place tie with Wisconsin (who lost at Northwestern tonight) in the Big Ten Conference standings. "We can still win it," said James Augustine. "Stranger things have happened. We have to win out probably. We've done it before."

For any chance at a conference title, the Illini would definitely have to win out. That would mean beating Iowa at home this Saturday and then getting wins at Minnesota and Michigan State. Considering that Iowa is first in the conference and Illinois is 2-4 away from Assembly Hall in Conference play, a win-out is a tall order.

But, even if they do win out, the two teams ahead of Illinois would have to slip up. Illinois could take care of that with Iowa, but that leaves the Buckeyes. After their win over Michigan State, Ohio State is sitting in the best position. They play Michigan at home on Saturday followed by the bottom two teams in the conference: at Northwestern and home to Purdue.

Here's the breakdown:
For the Illini to get a share of the Big Ten Conference Title, they have to win their three remaining games and hope for Ohio State to slip up. Could it happen? Sure. Is it likely to happen? Not very. All along, Illini Wonk has said that 12-4 will win the conference this year. From where I sit, it looks possible that Ohio State will fulfill that prediction. What do you think?
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
  Wolverine Hunting
The only thing standing between Illinois and a first place tie with the Iowa Hawkeyes is a game against Michigan in Ann Arbor. I'm on the road and will be following along on GameTracker.
Monday, February 20, 2006
  Finding some Orange in the Blue Blood
I picked up a copy of Blue Blood: Duke-Carolina: Inside the Most Storied Rivalry in College Hoops the other day. I know that title is a little provocative to Illinois basketball fans, but it is pretty hard to argue with that statement. Believe me, I don't have a lot of love for either of these teams, both of whom have beaten Illinois in the NCAA tournament recently, but I love college hoops so I gave the book a skim.

There were two stories that caught my attention. The first was Illinois coach Bruce Weber's reaction to Mike Krzyzewski's AMEX commercial, as recounted from a telephone call with Roy Williams. According to author Art Chansky, Weber was "pissed over the AMEX commercials" because he believed it gave Duke an unfair advantage in their regular recruiting battles.

Secondly, on several pages in the first chapter, Chansky had lots to say about the 2005 NCAA Final Four that included Illinois' matchup against UNC in the championship. He mentions the thousands of Illinois fans that showed up for their team's workout in St. Louis and the thousand of Illinois fans who drove ticket prices to $5,000 for a courtside seat. His assessment of the highest rated championship game since 1999 was this: As with most big games between evenly matched teams, it came down to made or missed shots, the bounce of the ball, and luck. Exactly the point Wonk made in a recap of the game. As for Duke, apparently they weren't all that upset with the outcome, because it kept Illinois (37-2) from breaking Duke's record for total wins in a season.

It may not be quite the read for Illini fans that Tales from the 2004-05 Fighting Illini is, but Blue Blood: Duke-Carolina: Inside the Most Storied Rivalry in College Hoops has a lot about college hoops, including some interesting bits on Illinois.
  Big men lead Illini to win over Indiana
The Illinois big men led their team to a nationally televised 70-58 victory over the Indiana Hoosiers in Champaign. James Augustine led the way posting his ninth double-double of the season, and leading the Illini with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Augustine and the rest of Illinois' "bigs" shot 20-of-29 from the field.

Brian Randle may have had fewer points (12) and rebounds (5) than Augustine, but he had a highlight reel dunk over Indiana's Marco Killingsworth. The dunk was reminiscent of his dunk on Penn State in his freshman year. He also survived a scare in the first half when he went down, grabbed his right wrist, winced in Bruce Weber’s direction and mouthed, “I can’t go.”

Wonk saw a number of encouraging things while watching this game:

1. The aforementioned play of the big men. Augustine had been struggling lately, so his big game was especially encouraging. While Augustine and Randle were the best of the bunch, Shaun Pruitt quietly had a solid game. His shooting was perfect, 3-3 from the floor and 2-2 from the line, and was on his way to another excellent game against the Hooisers when he was hit with his second foul less than four minutes into the game. Coach Bruce Weber said "You have to be happy with our big guys." Indeed.

2. The bench was big. Minus Jamar Smith who was benched for "not taking care of business," Coach Bruce Weber got solid contributions from the bench, which Weber said Illinois needed to grab at least a share of the Big Ten title. Warren Carter played a career-high 25 minutes and scored nine points. Chester Frazier only scored one point, but he added five rebounds and an assist in 15 minutes. Marcus Arnold contributed four points, two rebounds and some solid defense on Killingsworth for seven minutes.

3. Free-throw shooting. Illinois came into the game dead last in the Big Ten in free throw shooting, but put up a 17-22 performance against the Hooisers. The starters were even better at 13-14.

The win keeps Illinois in the Big Ten race and now, Mark Tupper says, Illinois' fate is in its own hands. That fate starts with a game at Michigan tomorrow night, the second time Illinois plays two games in three days in Big Ten play. Last year, it took some late game heroics from Dee Brown and Deron Williams to scrape out a victory. Who will step up this year?
Friday, February 17, 2006
  Of Faith and Hoops
With Ron Artest and Terrell Owens occupying much of last year's media spotlight, you could be excused for thinking that faith and professional athletics were mutually exclusive. But not for Roger Powell Jr. He can't talk about one without mentioning the other.

Ask him about basketball and he'll tell you about his faith. How it was a "blessing" playing for Illinois last season and that his favorite moment of the season was "being able to share my faith on national TV after the Louisville game." He attributes all his success to Jesus Christ, saying "Playing for him gives me focus."

Ask him about his plans for RPJ Ministries and he'll tell you that he wants to hold basketball camps for high school kids, preparing them "to be bold witnesses" while they're in college.

For Roger Powell, Jr., faith and professional sports aren't mutually exclusive. They're two sides of the same coin. They're both part of his everyday life.

It wasn't always that way. In an interview with Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Powell said he was having trouble living out his faith when he first arrived at the University of Illinois. He became bolder with his faith after attending an FCA team Bible study initiated by former Fighting Illini and current Los Angeles Laker Brian Cook.

Powell was in Sioux Falls with the Rockford Lightning for two games against the Skyforce. The Lightning dropped both games, but Illini Wonk got a chance to sit down with Powell before the games.

Powell talked a lot about his last season with the Illini (because Wonk asked a lot of questions about it). He said midway through his junior year he knew that the 2004-05 Illini were going to be a special team. "Even in my sophomore season you could see visions of a great team," he said. "I knew that staying together for three years, we'd be special."

His favorite game in an Illinois jersey was against Louisville in the national semifinal. It was Illinois' first and only win in the Final Four and it stood out for Powell because "it took us to the National Championship game." Few Illinois fans will ever forget that game or the performance Powell had in the second half, scoring 18 points, two of which came on a tip-dunk of his own missed three-pointer. A close second for Powell's most memorable game was the game immediately before Louisville against Arizona.

Powell said that there was a "family atmosphere" among the Illinois teammates last year and that he stays in touch with most of his college teammates. He keeps in especially close contact with Luther Head, who attending Powell's wedding this fall along with Jack Ingram.

In the two games against the Skyforce, Powell averaged 22.5 points and seven rebounds. He was 8 for 14 from the floor both nights. Among CBA leaders, Powell is third in scoring with a 21.6 average, third in offensive rebounds at 3.4 per game and fifth in field goal percentage at 57 percent.

Almost as strong as his belief in God is Powell's belief that he'll join three college teammates (Cook, Head and Deron Williams) in the NBA soon. He maintains that the CBA has been good for him. "I've been getting a lot of playing time," Powell said. "I've been playing well and winning a lot. It's also allowed me to play on the perimeter, which is where I'll be in the NBA. At Illinois, I played the four.

Powell said that, despite being waived by Seattle, he gained a lot of confidence while he was there. "The GM paid me a big compliment," Powell said. "He said I wasn't a tweener, but a guy that could play three positions."

Powell will get flashbacks of his last season of college basketball next Tuesday. That's when the Rockford Lighting host the conference-leading Gary Steelheads for University of Illinois Fighting Illini Night. But isn't that the night the Illini take on the Michigan Wolverines? Never fear. The college game starts at 6:00 p.m. and you can watch the game on big screen TV's from the MetroCentre before the Lightning tip off at 7:05. Rumor has it that Kenny Battle will be there.

Whether or not Powell earns a spot in the NBA, he'll always hold a special spot in the heart of Illinois basketball fans. Don't be surprised if you see more Orange and Blue than Yellow and Blue in the Lightning stands on Tuesday.
Thursday, February 16, 2006
  Illini get the Win
It was pretty ugly at times, but the Illinois Fighting Illini managed to beat the Northwestern Wildcats, 63-47 in a game that Brett Dawson said wasn't all that fun to watch.

Illini Wonk agrees. After the game, Mrs. Wonk (who didn't see any of it) asked how bad Illinois lost. When I gave her a perplexed look and told her that Illinois in fact won the game, she said that I was complaining so much that she thought we were losing.

The reason I was complaining is this: the other team looked similar to the last five I faced in a YMCA pick-up game, except they were a little less sweaty. Despite that fact, Illinois was tied with 15 and a half minutes remaining and didn't put the game on ice until there was less than five minutes on the clock.

One thing is for certain: the Illini will have to play far better than this if they hope to beat Iowa at home or Michigan State (or even Minnesota) on the road. At times, Illinois has looked like a great team, but not during the last three games.

On his blog, Mark Tupper said that Illinois has some of its worst stretches after building a nice lead. Illinitalk says the Illini need to find their killer instinct.
Sunday, February 12, 2006
  Big game with Buckeyes
The Illini have a matchup with Ohio State in Columbus for sole posession of second place in the Big Ten standings. Iowa will remain in first place after beating a struggling Indiana in Bloomington.

"This will be as challenging for us defensively as anyone we've faced this year" said Bruce Weber. In this year's game it's Ohio State playing the "we don't get no respect" card. "A lot of times when (media) talk about the Big Ten, they kind of leave Ohio State out," guard Je’Kel Foster said yesterday. "This would be a good message to let everybody know Ohio State is for real." This game also matches Weber, the Big Ten's coach of the moment, against Matta, who has a bright future.

The Illini need the win to stay in the hunt for their third consecutive Big Ten title. The Buckeyes are thinking about the same thing and looking to protect their home court. Who wins? Tune in.
Thursday, February 09, 2006
  The Reverend Comes to Town
The palatial Illini Wonk headquarters are not anywhere near Bristol, Connecticut, so we will not be one of the dozen live interviews that Bruce Weber gives today. I've caught a few of them so far and no one has yet asked the question posed by Will Leitch at Deadspin.

But when the Reverend Roger Powell comes to town with the Rockford Lightning to play two games against the Sioux Falls Skyforce, Illini Wonk will be there for an interview. Powell is coming off a 25 point, 8 rebound perfomance in Rockford's 113-97 win over the Michigan Mayhem last night, exceeding his 21.6 point and 7.1 rebound averages on the season.

My question to you, the readers: what do you want to know about Roger Powell since he left Illinois? What should Illini Wonk ask him in the interview this weekend? Let me know and look for the interview to be published Saturday night.
Sunday, February 05, 2006
  Bye Bye...
...Home court winning streak
...Big Ten championship
...#1 seed

I may recap this game later in the week, but I haven't been able to watch it again. Penn State? At Assembly Hall? Did hell freeze over?
Friday, February 03, 2006
  It's Good to be Dee

How does a team that lost two first round NBA draft picks and a CBA All-Star remain in the top ten of every national poll, become the first NCAA team with 20 wins and stand atop the toughest conference in the country? There are lots of reasons, but one of the biggest is Dee Brown.

His successful transition to the point guard this season is one of the most important factors in Illinois' success. Early in the season, some were questioning whether or not he could make the move, but he has proven the doubters wrong.

He served notice to the Big Ten in the opening conference game when he poured in a career high 34 points on 12-22 shooting. He followed that up with a couple of shaky shooting performances on the road in two Illini losses and a big game at home against Michigan. Since then, he has been instrumental in Illinois' run at a third consecutive conference title.

His numbers in conference play are impressive. He's carrying an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.4:1 and averaging three rebounds and nearly two steals per contest. Brown has led the Illini in scoring in half of those eight conference games while averaging 16.8 points. He doesn't spend much time on the bench, either. Brown has played 309 out of a possible 320 minutes in Big Ten games thus far.

In the Big Ten Conference individual basketball statistics, Brown is ranked in the top ten for scoring (10), assists (2), steals (5), three-pointers made (4), assist-to-turnover ratio (4) and minutes played (4).

Brown's solid play is turning some heads.'s Pat Forde named Brown the hottest player in the Big Ten, writing 'There is no bigger gamer in college basketball.' Brown is among the Midseason Top 30 Candidates for the John R. Wooden Award and one of the 16 finalists for the Bob Cousy Award (fans can vote for their favorite candidates on the Cousy Award web site).

Mike Nadel of the Peoria Journal Star feels compelled to point out that Brown's success at the college level will mean diddly-squat in the NBA. One NBA scout who was at the Wisconsin game might take issue. This scout told Bruce Weber that Brown is so much better at angles, penetration and creating for other people.' " In addition, DraftExpress has Brown going 28th in their 2006 Mock Draft.

Dee Brown has at least ten games left in his Illinois basketball career. If he plays like he is now, it might be several more than that. One thing is for certain: the Illini have been extremely fortunate to have him for four years.
Thursday, February 02, 2006
  Big Ten Race at Half Way
With conference play half-way over, the Illinois Fighting Illini are 6-2 and joined by Iowa and Michigan at the top of the standings. Iowa and Michigan play each other on Saturday, so if the Illini beat Penn State at home, they'll share the top spot with only one other.

But, you don't win trophies for leading the conference at the half-way point, so it's time for a preview of the second eight games of conference play and what chances the Illini have for a three-peat.

For a long time now, Illini Wonk has been insisting that 12-4 will be good enough for at least a share of the conference title this season. With eight games behind us and the three leaders at 6-2, that prediction is looking prescient. The formula for reaching that magic 12-4 mark is much easier than the execution: a team must win all eight of their home games and split on the road. That is exactly what Illinois, Iowa and Michigan have done.

For Illinois to continue that pace, they will have to beat Penn State, Northwestern, Indiana and Iowa at home and win two of four on the road against Ohio State, Michigan, Minnesota and Michigan State. That simple formula does not go far enough for reader Illini88, who asks for Wonk to call the two wins in advance. Here it goes: Illinois will win at Ohio State, avenging last year's loss to the Buckeyes, and celebrate a share of their third consecutive conference title on the Gophers home court, just like 2002. But, I could be wrong.

However it ends up, it's probably going to be a nail-biter. In addition to the three teams with only two losses, four teams (Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State) have three losses and any one of those seven could win it all. Michigan State will be looking for any of the top three to slip up, as their next three games are against Northwestern, Purdue and Minnesota.

At Hawkeye Hoops, Ryan Kobliska sees the Hawkeyes winning the conference if the top seven teams win all their home games and trips to the bottom four teams. They do so by virtue of their easier road schedule over the final eight games. But Big Ten Wonk blogger John Gasaway guesses that Iowa's first-place days are numbered.

What are your predictions? Leave it below and don't forget to vote in the poll on the right.
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