Tuesday, January 23, 2007

I-L-L-I-N-I: Gut-check Basketball at the Hall 2-Nite...

This wasn't a game for the faint of heart. If you're from the West Coast, you probably didn't even think this was a basketball game. See, you paid for a hardcourt showdown of two BIG-10 GIANTS (Illinois hosting Indiana), but instead a heavy-weight fight ensued. Admit it, for a moment there you thought this was Frazier and Ali all over again. And when the smoke cleared, the good guys won (51-43) in one of the most hard-fought victories you'll ever see. This was just another BIG-10 conference game.

I still feel the chill in the air between Sampson and Weber around the whole Gordon recruiting deal. Then there is the whole matter of geographic proximity, not to be confused with oragraphic lift. Boys and girls, this was another border war, plain and simple. We hate them. They hate us. It just doesn't get any clearer than that. To put it in perspective, it's sort of like the UW / UO rivalry each year between PAC-10 rivals ( x 10).

As for the game. Only 94 points were scored. It was 23-23 at the break. Like I said before; this was a BIG-10 conference game. Every shot was contested. I saw more hand checks and body contact than they had at the State of the Union tonight. There were no easy baskets. The shot-clock even worked itself up into a good lather tonight.

We held the bad guys (Indiana) scoreless for over 17 minutes between the end of the first half and the start of the second. Wow. Very impressive. How does that famous quote go again, "You might win if you score a lot of points. You won't lose if you hold your opponent scoreless. Defense, my friends, defense wins championships." It's been an up and down season (mostly down) in Champaign this winter, but the one constant in every game but one (Ohio State blowout loss) has been our defense. Relentless. Vicious. Fierce. Fearful. Naaaaasty (see the final score again)! Indiana can score. They entered the hall winning five of six (14-4 overall). The Hoosiers have been playing great ball of late (road win this weekend at UCONN). Make no mistake about this, tonight's win couldn't have come at a better time. OK, maybe a month ago - but who's counting?

This was our first win of the season over a ranked team. Wow; let me say that again. This was our first win of the season over a ranked team (#23 Hoosiers). It took us five attempts. This won't go down as another great Illinois basketball season unless we do some serious damange down the stretch to qualify for the BIG DANCE and excel in March. We've already lost three home games this year (first time since '98-'99). Actually, if you look at the 7 losses on the year, there's just the one really bad home loss to Ohio State (and is that such a bad thing anyway?). We lost the other six games by an average margin of ~ 7.5 ppg (all of which we led, some big, at one point or another). Ugh!

So what does this all mean? I don't know. I do know we're now 15-7 (3-4 in conference) with nine to play (4 at home). That's a lot better than 14-8 with four home losses and starting out 2-2-5 in the BIG-10. We've had to battle through several major challenges ranging from injury to alcohol abuse. Don't get me wrong, we're still far from healthy. I fully recognize that this year's squad is still a work in progress. Maybe, just maybe, things will start to come together down the stretch of conference play. We're starting to run out of opportunities to dazzle the selection committee. I do know this: we won't be going anywhere without continued excellent play from Pruitt and McBride. They have been carrying this team over the past few contests. We need to ride these two ponies hard down the conference stretch to have any chance at an NCAA tourney bid.

That made tonight's win even that much more impressive as Brian Randle sat on the sidelines for the entire game in warm-ups. Up next, Purdue in West Lafayette, IN. That won't be easy. Then we get SPARTY again at the Hall. We could win the next nine games. Or, we could lose the next nine games. Conventional wisdom says that we need 20 wins before the BIG-10 tourney in order to bounce off the bubble. Right now, we're still on the outside looking in at the BIG DANCE. We won't be if we win our next three or four games. We just can't go on another losing stretch right now. That margin of error evaporated earlier in the season. Assuming that we get 4 home wins (not the safest bet these days), then all we would need is one more at Purdue, or Northwestern, or Indiana, or Penn State, or at Iowa. 20 or bust!

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