Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Big Win on the road against the Badger!

What a great performance by the ILLINI tonight in Madison against a very scrappy (and favored) Badger squad. I know we came into the showdown at #6 in the country, but the Badgers were the vegas favorite given the BIG-10 strength at home. 40 minutes later, 66-51 was your final, but it was a closely contested affair for most of the way. At one point, ILLINOIS trailed by 11 points (24-13) in the first half before the defense kicked-in and sparked the rally which never really ended. Great 3-point shooting from Smith and McBride didn't hurt either (especially the timely daggers from deep outside). We are the only team in the BIG-10 to beat the Badgers at home in conference play over the past 5 seasons (and have now done it two years in a row under Bruce Weber).

McBride, Randle, and Smith were amazing tonight. While James struggled from the floor in foul trouble much of the way, these three really stepped-up big in the scoring column with over 34 points between them. This was the signature BIG-10 road-win I've been waiting for all season after early losses at Indiana and at Iowa.

Illinois is now 59 for their last 62 games. They are 1 of only 2 teams to win on the road in the BIG -10 this year amongst the top-5 teams (Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Illinois). Sparty beat Ohio State in Columbus in 2x-overtime a few weeks ago. The BIG-10 is a combined 74-5 this year at home against opposition, including intself. When you look at this conference against the other 5 'power conferences', we have the highest winning percentage of the BIG-6 at over 60%. I think the ACC is 2nd right around 55% with the BIG EAST in 3rd at 50%.

Illinois now improves to 20-2 on the season (and could easily be 21-1) and should move up in the rankings next week when they come out. We get Penn State at the Hall on Saturday before an extended break leading up to the next road game against the BUCKEYES. But for now, we savor the victory in Madison atop the BIG-10 standings with Iowa of all teams.

I told you the loss in Bloomington to Indiana was a good loss for us. We'll be favord to win the remaining games on our schedule with the possible excpetion of the season finale in East Lansing against Sparty. But tonight was a coming out night for Randle and Pruitt. I knew something special was brewing. Last weekend McBride stepped-up and out against Purdue. Tonight, Jamar Smith came out along with McBride and Randle. This is shaping up to be another special ILLINI squad under Coach Bruce; who might just be having a better coaching season than last year. I like our chances this year especially when you consider that there are no dominant teams like Carolina of 2004/5. This just in, Lunardi (ESPN Bracketology) has us as a #1 seed after tonight's win: http://sports.espn.go.com/ncb/bracketology

Oskee Wa Wa! Hail to the Chief!

Saturday, January 28, 2006

19-2 and Counting!

Good wins over the past week in Evanston and then at home against Minnesota and today against Purdue. You gotta protect the home court in the BIG-10 and try to win 50% of your road games. So far so good as far as the ILLINI go. And, the good news is that we still haven't played a great game all season. I'm hoping all elements come together next Tuesday in Madison against the Badgers.

Pruitt and Randle stepped - up big against Indiana on the road and had it not been for 50% foul shooting we would have and should have won that game in Bloomington. Still, can't complain too much after the talent we lost last year to the NBA (Head, Williams, and Powell to the CBA).

Kudos to Jamar Smith for stepping-up from downtown with the 3-ball over the past few games. His sharp-shooting and quick release will come in handy over the next few months. It's good to see other players score besides James and Dee who are each capable of putting up 20 points on any given night. But this team plays best when we are tenacious on defense and balanced on offense - not just relying on the 3-ball to win in the half-court game. We have size this year down low unlike last year with Augustine, Pruitt, Randle, and Arnold.

With games at Madison, Ann Arbor, Columbus, and East Lansing still on the schedule, the closing stretch won't be easy. I'd like to see us win 2 of these games - if not more. I think we have a chance in all games because there is no domination this year. But, it's tough to win on the road in February in the BIG-10. At 32 straight, we're tied with Southern for the longest home -winning streak in the nation. Oskee Wa Wa!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Good Loss in Bloomington 62-60 Hoosiers

Is there such a thing as a good loss in conference play? I submit to you that the answer is yes as exemplified by the FIGHTING ILLINI against a very strong Indiana squad in Bloomington tonight. Sure, it was a road loss in the BIG-10. No big surprise there. We were the higher seed (#5) versus the #11 Hoosiers. But when it comes to conference play in the BIG 10 it's all about protecting the home court. This game meant more to Indiana tonight than it did to us. They had to win. We tried to win. There lies the big difference.

I liked the fight and never - give - up attitude in my team tonight. Down 55-40 with 8 minutes to go we actually had a chance to tie or win late in the game. You've heard me say this before, but this was a game we could have won. At one point we were up 13-3. Ouch! But give credit to the Hoosiers who rallied on their home floor tonight and defended their house. Killingsworth and Wilmont are good players.

But, this was a good loss for us. We grew up as a team in this game with both Randle and Pruitt going for seasons highs at 15 and 17 points, respectively. Wow! And on the road in the BIG-10....Wow Wow!. If those two guys continue to advance their games throughout the year we will be a very tough out come March, for anybody. This was a game of runs (13-3, 11-25, 14-1) to name a few.

Dee and James didn't have great games - both struggled with fouls most of the way. Again, it was really good to see someone else step-up and provide much needed scoring, especially in the half-court game where we have been struggling of late in conference play. Brown finished with 6 points. Augustine had ~ 11. Going 8 for 16 at the line could very well have been the difference. You need to make the foul shots, especially on the road if you hope to win.

No, this wasn't an upset. Although, this would have been a HUGE road win in the mightly BIG-10. We travel to Evanston on Saturday to take on the CATS before returning home for games against Minnesota and Purdue. We should rack up 3 more wins over the next week or so before going to Madison to take on those nasty Badgers. It's not easy to win there, or in Columbus, East Lansing, Bloomington, or in Iowa City.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Defending the Home Court - ILLINOIS over Michigan

Nothing comes easy in the BIG 10 during conference b-ball play, especially this year. It's like trying to get more than 10 minutes in against EDEN in a 60-minute O3 session. Not an easy taks, but ILLINOIS took care of business today by beating a very game Michigan squad 79-74 at the Hall in Champaign.

Dee led the way with 26 points and looked much better today than in weeks past. He was in control of his game and the team. He finished shooting 6-17 from the field and 9-10 from the stripe. Augustine was another large force down low with 23 points on 9-11 shooting. The dynamic duo led the way today as it needs to be for this team to excel. This one makes 31 in a row (dating back to Jan 17, 2004 - school record) at home and best in the nation. Oskee Wa Wa! Hail to the Chief!

But, when it mattered most up 75-74 with 17 tics on the clock and a 1 & 1 situation at the line, Warren Carter came through by hitting BOTH foul shots to really ice the game. He's only shooting 63% from the charity line this year but knew he would make both after the foul. This was a game of runs, including Dee's 3-point spree after the 53-51 mark. We needed this win today before heading off to Bloomington on Tuesday to take on the very strong Hoosiers of Indiana. The goal this time of year is to protect your house (home court) and to win at least 50% on the road - same for any school in any conference. If you can do that in a 'power' conference like the BIG-10 you will be in good shape heading into the madness of March.

That is going to be a tough place to play, and even tougher to come away with the 'W'. Then we travel to Evanston to take on a dangerous squad in Northwestern. We don't return home until Wednesday, Jan. 25th against Minnesota. So the home-winning streak will remain in tact until then.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Terrible Loss in Iowa City...48-63

Make no mistake about it - Iowa is a good basketball team. They play great team 'D' and know how to really move the ball on offense. Their big guys (Haluska and Brunner) are quite skilled. Alford is a great coach. This team is going to the big dance in March where it wouldn't surprise me if they made some noise. Today, they just had more energy, hustle, and plays to make the difference. This outcome was somewhat predictable given what happened a few nights ago. Iowa had a poor game and we won an epic battle in Champaign against SPARTY. The bounce-back for Iowa and the let-down for Illinois was no surprise to me.

All that being said, we played our worst b-ball game in almost 2 years. This was NOT an upset. I can't remember the last time our squad looked so bad on offense and defense. Dee had his worst game as an ILLINI, especially shooting the ball. Sure the officiating was lousy, but it was bad for both teams. We spent way too much time complaining about the bad calls than rising above them. Great teams find ways to play through tough circumstances, including terrible officiating. Great teams raise their game beyond that of their opposition and the men in stripes; and usually find ways to win in hostile enviros.


ILLINOIS, right now, is not a great team. We are a good team that has some serious flaws. Now is the time to make incremental improvements in our game, especially on offense. Nobody is playing better defense in the country right now. We have some young contributors in Frazier and Smith. They will grow up quickly. But, here are the areas for improvment, in my opinion:

1) Too much complaining and not enough execution, especially when the calls go against us. We need to remember we're not getting paid to make the calls. It becomes a distraction and a weakness when we become consumed by this phenomenon. It happens to everybody. We don't want this reputation in the league as being 'whiners'.

2) Unbalanced offense, we need to find ways to score when Dee has an off night like tonight. Become more than one dimensional on offense. Dee won't go for 34 points each night, and we don't want him too. Augustine, Randle, and McBride need to step it up now. Yes, I'm calling them out for 30 points a night. Will they answer? Are they men?

3) Don't play like people owe you something. They don't, and you won't get it either. BIG-10 play has commenced; there are no gimmies. It's hard to win on the road - as it should be. This is a power conference, perhaps the best in the country. So don't think that you deserve the calls or the seas to part. They won't. Play hard for 60 minutes, even on the road when you're down when it doesn't seem like a call ever goes your way.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Brown Delivers Again - 34 for Dee!

Mr. Brown has now left the hall - taking his 34 points with him as the #6 ILLINI spoil another BIG - 10 opener for Michigan State (now 1-6 against the men from Champaign in openers). SPARTY has lost 4 in a row at the Hall. With a crowd approaching 17K, all decked - out in construction orange, it was another great victory for the ILLINI Nation as we moved to 15-0 to start the 2005-2006 season.

Dee accounted for 34 of the 60 points tonight. It was not a well-balanced affair. Dee took control early and often scoring from just about everywhere on the court. But, I think the story of this game was our tenacious defense, holding the 80+ SPARTANS to 35% shooting and 50 points. This was a real surprise. I think our defense might be a little ahead of last year's squad - which wasn't too bad either.

But, the offense is another story. We need to find another 1 or 2 scorers when the game is on the line, especially as BIG - 10 play deepens. Dee can't be expected to post 34 points / night in the strongest conference in the country. We might send 8 teams to the big dance in March save Penn State, Purdue, and Northwestern. If we don't send 8, we might send 9. Mr. Carmody has the Wildcats playing some good Princeton b-ball of late.

But back to this one. The Orange Krush returned to campus early (still on winter break) and were loud and obnoxious as usual. Gotta love 'em.

Next up is a game Iowa Squad on Saturday in Iowa City. Then we get Michigan at home before two consecutive road games against Indiana and NW, respectively. Not an easy opening month for the Fighting Illini.

The BIG-10 is stacked top to bottom this year. It's not going to be an easy road to 10 victories in the conference this year. Anything more than that would be a surprise to me. I see the ILLINI going 10-6 this year as we extend our home court advantage. The two real - tough home games appear to be against Indiana and Iowa later in February.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Hook-Em Horns! Hail to #10!

I don't have words to describe what I saw tonight in Pasadena at the Title Game. It had to be the best Title Game of all time as Texas beat the 2-time Champs 41-38. I should say Vince Young beat USC 41-38. He had 467 yards of total offense and a bunch of touchdowns. He talked the talk and walked the walk. What a freak!

What a comeback, down 12 points with 6 minutes to go. And the rest was history as Texas earned the National Championship by beating one of the best college teams of all time. And #1 vs. #2 is only 2 for 8 in the BCS Title game. Vegas Odds say take the underdog in the BIG ONE.

Congrats to Patriacca for winning both Pick Em and Bowl Mania this year - a great feat itself. Wow, what a BCS series this year. All 4 games were good and close. Thanks to everyone who played this year - it was awesome.

But back to Vince Young and Texas. I don't think I've ever seen a football player like him in my life. He didn't win the Heisman this year but easily could have, should have? Come back to the game next year Vince, please. You're good. You have moxy. You got game brother. We trust in you and need you. Congrats to Mac Brown, a great coach and a great man. First the conference title and now the National Title. ongrats to TEXAS and their fans. What a program. Love 'em or hate 'em, there is nobody like 'em.

Give credit to SC for making all of the right halftime adjustments. They went down as great champions, to the very end. After being shutdown in the first half, Pete and company made the right moves during the break to score 4 straight touchdowns to open the 2nd half. Lendale White was large and in charge. Reggie came on in the 2nd half after being shutdown most of the game. What was he thinking on that 1st-half pitch which Texas recovered to end their drive? Leinart was HUGE in the 3rd quarter and threw for over 300 yards.

But in the end, it came down to Vince Young making play after play after play after play. Nobody could stop him, even on a 4th and 5 to win the game. I haven't seen any better.

It was an epic battle, an instant classic, one for the ages. This game lived up to all of my expectations and then some. Texas and SC. SC and TEXAS. I won't forget this one as long as I live.

Vince Young is for real. Vince Young is unreal. Vince Young is a superman in college football. If I could change my vote, I would vote Vince for Heisman over BUSH.

But also give credit to that defense of Texas. They stuffed Lendale on 4th down late in the game and set-up the final drive, a drive for the ages. It's been 35 long years since Texas last won the title. They now have 20 straight victories. They are my #1 pre-season team heading into the 2006 campaign. Hook - Em! Repeat in 2007?

Monday, January 02, 2006

Mirek's Bowl Mania 2005 / 2006 Wrap

All I can say is wow and thank you. Thanks for playing BOWL MANIA again this year. We had the largest field of all time this year. Thanks for playing and see you in 9 months for Ronler Pick-Em 2006.

Hamilton has been large and in-charge from the beginning, but does he have enough to hang-on for the win? How about those bowl games? The first 9 or so went pretty much as predicted until the first shot heard 'round the world when Nebraska upset a much better Michigan team in the Alamo Bowl - with a lot of help from the officials.

The upsets continued in the following days. Here are my thoughts on the bowl games this year:

1) Nebraska over Michigan? Only with a lot of help from the men in stripes. Don't get me wrong, Nebraska played well but not well enough to win by themselves. Michigan should have won that game, but didn't really do enough to earn it on the field.

2) What was the best game of the season? I submit the Insight Bowl where Rutgers put up a great fight against a game ASU squad, probably a bit disappointed in their bowl game this year. What a game. It had it all as ASU held on for a 45-40 victory in the desert.

3) Close honorable-mention games: Nevada over UCF in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. George O'Leary's squad almost pulled off the upset. How about the MPC BOWL where BC held on to barely beat Boise State? Hawkins heads East to take charge of a scandal-ridden Colorado bunch. Good luck. And the 72nd Nokia Sugar Bowl was a good one right down until the very end when the punter for WV found daylight and a first down.

4) In the big - disappointment bowls, there were plenty. Here they are:

a) UTAH beating GA TECH. Ugh, that was an ugly Emerald Bowl. No way is UTAH that good. GA TECH just didn't show up this year, and lost 38-10.

b) Wisconsin over Auburn in the Cap 1 Bowl. Ouch, congrats to Barry as he goes out on top. Auburn just didn't look like themselves today. In bowl games, it's all about showing up and preparation. The regular season really doesn't matter that much. Badgers go out as champions in Orlando: 24-10.

c) Virginia over Minnesota in Charlotte. Yikes, and the Gophers had the huge halftime lead to boot. Hey Mason, tell you squad a regulation game is 60 minutes. Congrats to the men from Monticello. 31-24, Virginia. Ugh!

d) South Carolina going down against Missouri in the Liberty Bowl, 38-31. The Gamecocks dominated most of this game but were unable to finish what they started. Brad Smith ran ruck-shot over the Gophers in the 2nd half.

e) Miami, 40-3 losers to LSU in the Peach Bowl. Again, another game where 1 team showed-up and the other didn't. Coker had to clear house after this one. This was very very bad.

Here is my first look at the 2006 pre-season poll heading into the spring camps. Of course, this assumes a lot, but as of right now here's how I see them for next season:

1) Texas
2) LSU
3) Florida
4) Va Tech
5) WV
6) Auburn
7) Notre Dame
8) FSU
9) Michigan
10) Oklahoma

And in case you missed them, here are the top 100 moments from this year's bowl season: http://msn.foxsports.com/cfb/story/5222782

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