Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Monster win in Minneapolis

Big win for the ILLINI tonight ON THE ROAD in Minneapolis as we took charge in the 2nd half on route to a 71-65 victory in the BARN. That moves us to 10-5 in the BIG-10 and 3-4 on the road. The 'experts' say that you have to win at home and go 50% on the road. We're on our way. Bring on SPARTY this Saturday.

Tonight was about Augustine and Pruitt. Dee had a nice game, but didn't shoot the ball particularly well. He's due for a break-out stretch, but I hope that doesn't happen until the BIG DANCE starts. James almost had a triple - double with 16 points, 12 boards, and a career-high 7 assists.

Our defense continues to carry us deep into the conference schedule. I don't know if there is a better defensive team out there in the nation. We pick up the pressure early an often in the half-court game, especially when we smell blood in the water. I like how our quick hands are always looking for the tip or the steal. And, we fill the lanes like nobody I've seen of late.

Our offense has been struggling of late but is getting better. Lots of good action tonight with the pick and roll. James had a great night in the post PASSING the ball. As soon as the perimeter shooting comes around a little bit as I expect it to (and that's contagious) we're going to be very tough to defend and beat in March.

And speaking of March, it's now March in New York. The Madness is upon us. Get those brackets ready. The FINAL 4 is in Indy this year. How far is that from Champaign?

Saturday, February 25, 2006

We Needed It - And Got It! 71-59 ILLINI over Iowa

I can't wait for March. Horton is killing me in the Pick-Off. But, I'm getting an idea of who's for real and who's a pretender as the big tournaments draw closer. Lots of bubble teams out there on pins and needles, but there is still a lot of basketball to be played until the BIG DANCE starts in 2.5 weeks.

Illinois showed - up today on Senior Day for Dee and James. Neither had a great game in terms of scoring, but they both played well for the team in terms of the intangibles and DEFENSE. Defense is what defines this year's ILLNI squad. I don't think think there has been a more consistently solid defense in the nation. Sure we're last in the BIG-10 from the charity stripe and our shooting has been down of late, especially from behind the ARC. But, if we get hot in March for a few weeks we could be dancin' into early April.

Today was redemption day for the bench. Arnold, Carter, and Smith combined for 17 points. But today was about McBride and Randle. They really came to play. Rich had 15 and Brian had 13, but their defense was even better. Randle shutdown Haluska. He really is an athelete on the hardwood. I like the long and lean guys.

At 23-5 (9-5) we're now tied for 2nd place with Iowa behind the BUCKS who are 10-4 in the conference this year. Oh, to have that Penn State game back. Even another second on the clock would have made a difference. But kudos to Augustine and Brown who ended their careers at Illinois with 111 wins in 4 years. Wow!

The road ahead this week doesn't get any easier with games at Minnesota and at Michigan State. It would be great to get one of those games, if not both. But winning at Minnesota and in the Breslan Center against SPARTY won't be easy. The Gophers have been giant killers this year with some monster wins against Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan State. But for now, we're in good shape after winning today in a must - win situation.

Here is my top - 10:

5) BUCKS (Ohio State)
6) TIGERS (Memphis)
7) BULLDOGS (Zags)
9) BC

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Tough Road Loss in Ann Arbor....

You've heard it here before - no easy wins in the toughest conference of them all. After two good home wins against Northwestern and Indiana, the ILLINI hit the road to play a game against Michigan in Ann Arbor. We should have stayed in Champaign. When it comes to the RPI, no conference is more competitive top to bottom than the Big - 10. It's just not easy to win on the road this year. Tonight was another good example as the Illini dropped their 5th conference game of the season with a 72-64 loss in Ann Arbor. The game was actually much closer than the final score with most of the margin being garbage free-throws down the stretch. We fall to 22-5 and 9-5 in the conference. Ugh!

But, give credit to a Michigan squad and a guy named Horton (not Paul - thank God). Daniel had a career high in points (37 big ones, go figure). Tonight, they ended an 11-game losing streak against my ILLINI. As a team, the Wolverines shot nearly 50% for the game and from behind the arc and that was the difference. Illinois is holding BIG-10 opponents to less than 39% on the season (at home and away combined).

Augustine and Brown both stepped - up tonight with big games. The problem as I saw it was a lack of depth from the bench - which I don't think had any points tonight. Where was Randle? Where was McBride? Those guys need to pitch in 10 points each night. As a team, wWe continue to shoot poorly from 3-point land (4-15 on the night). Our free-throw shooting wasn't bad at 6 for 9, but not great either. No, tonight was about a desperate Wolverine team who needed this win more than we did and refused to lose. They played with more energy and urgency down the stretch. Sure the calls didn't all go our way either, but you can't blame the officiating for 12 turnovers, especially down the stretch. Michigan also out-rebounded us 27-25 (a stat we normally dominate). No, this wasn't an upset (despite what you may read elsewhere). This one just plane slipped away late (after a 34-30 halftime lead). It hurts when you can't hold leads that you work all game to build, especially on the road.

Bring on the Hawkeyes for a revenge game at the Hall. I'm sure we'll paint it orange on Saturday, our last home game of the year before playing at Minnesota and at Michigan State. The schedule is cruel this time of year. This ILLINI squad is a good young team that has made a lot of improvement over the season. But that's it. We're not a great team. Coach Weber is still searching for the right chemistry, especially on offense. Hopefully he'll find a brew that works sooner than later. I see this team as a 3 or 4 seed in the big dance come March. We should win our first and second - round games (but no guarantees from this mouth). But, moving beyond the Sweet 16 to the Elite 8 or the Final 4 is going to be a tall order this year. March Madness is about who's playing good ball for the final 6 games of the season.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Bombed in Columbus

The Bible teaches patience and tolerance under hardship. I'll be staying late after school today for some addition work on these two values; I have neither right now. We were out-gunned by the BUCKS today in a terrible display of basketball. The only thing good about today's game was the officiating. Help - we've fallen and can't seem to get up.

Sure they shot lights - out from beyind the arc (outscoring us there by 24 points alone). But, following what was probably our worst loss in 101 years of b-ball history at Illinois (at home vs. Penn State), we came out flat today and did not bring the energy or decision-making to the hardwood. I got the answer to my question regarding how we would respond with the 8-day lay-off after the 'upset'. It was the one I feared and not the one I hoped for.

We've now lost 2 in a row and 4 in the last 9 after staring 15 - 0. It seems as if we've been stuck on 20 wins forever. It's amazing how fast you can go from a high to a low in just 1 week of play. We have some work to do on both ends of the court, but especially in our half-court offense. We also have to find ways to get the ball in transition more often.

On the bright side, the BIG-10 race is still wide open - meaning we still have a chance to win the toughest conference in college basketball. No way Gonzaga or Duke are un-defeated if they played in the BIG-10. We have the highest RPI of all conferences and the most balance top to bottom of anyone. On any given night, the 'upset' can happen. Just look at what's transpired over the past 7 days.

We get NW and Indiana at home over the next week; which should be good news in terms of fixing what's broken with some home cooking. But looking beyond that stretch, it doesn't get any easier with games against Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Michigan State (3 of the last 4 on the road). Now is the time to get healthy by fixing what's wrong. And my top - 10 as we are only 4 weeks away from selection Sunday:

3) Villanova
4) Texas
5) Memphis
6) Gonzaga
7) Florida
8) Pitt
9) WV
10) Tennessee

Saturday, February 04, 2006

What the Hell Happened?

Yes, Penn State beat ILLINOIS toinight inside the Hall. What the heck happened? We were up 39-25 at the break. I guess it was all downhill from there. This just in, an official game is 40 minutes long, not 40.1. Too bad Rich McBride hit the 3-ball AFTER the back-board went red with no time left on the clock in regulation. Close, but no cigar. What a crazy scene in Champaign tonight. Up next, the BUCKS in Columbus on Saturday. That game can't come soon enough. Will we rebound and play like a #6 seed or will be stink it up again like we did tonight in the 2nd half?

This might have been the upset of the year in college basketball. Check that, it has to be the upset of the year. We're now 90-4 at the Hall over the past 7 years, but this was probably our worst loss in the modern era, certainly in my 34 years on the planet. Up 14 at the half, I think we extrapolated a 28 - point win at the break instead of showing up ready to play the final 20 minutes. I have to put most of the blame on our seniors (Brown and Augustine) along with Coach Bruce. Where do we go from here?

Penn State only has 2 road-wins in conference play over the past 4 years. That means they stink, or stunk. I guess congratulations is in order to the Nittany Lions from Penn State and Ed Dechellis. Perhaps, a better statement is 'your're welcome'. All good things must come to an end - including a 33-game home winning streak. Souther lost their 33-game streak earlier this week. The Zags now own the longest winning streak at home in the land at 33. Ouch! Our last loss at home was on Jan. 10 2004 to Purdue. I'd rather lose in early February than early March, but I'd rather not lose at all.

Looking at the box score it's hard to put this one together in favor of Penn State. We shot better from the field (47 % to 44%). Parker (24 points) and Claxton (20 points) led the way for the Lions. Looks like the difference was in 3-point shooting tonight. They hit the big ones down the stretch when it really mattered (9-18, 50%). Illinois only went 9-27 (33%) from behind the arc.

Lesson learned tonight: play hard for 40 minutes or don't expect to win. The BIG-10 is a deep conference. NO game should be taken for granted. This loss should serve as a stern reminder for the rest of the season. Bring-on Ohio State.

My Top 10:

3) Memphis
4) Villanova
5) Texas
6) Gonzaga
7) Florida
8) Michigan State
9) Illinois
10) Pittsburgh

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