Sports News Sports News Elsewhere  (fresh daily from the Web)

The case for No. 1...

By Jeff Mayfield          Send a link to a friend

[DEC. 6, 2004]  The writers are way too obvious in showing their East Coast bias and disdain for basketball's best conference, the Big Ten. The coaches' poll is skewed.

Coach Skip Prosser reminded me of that at last Wednesday night's post-game press conference. He said that coaches are too busy being worried about their own teams to watch basketball in other time zones. He added that their analysis would be weak at best. In fact, some of my friends in the business say that many head coaches give the weekly voting assignment to an assistant coach or to their director of basketball operations.

Since we know that these two scenarios are clearly in evidence, I am willing to ride to the rescue and clear up this matter. The following are just a few of the reasons that Illinois should be No. 1:

1. Has a No. 3 team ever so completely dismantled a No. 1 team on national TV as Illinois did to Wake Forest last week? If they have, I sure don't remember it. I watch way too much college basketball, but I guarantee you that NO team THIS season looked as invincible as the Illini did last Wednesday night, period!

2. Took care of business: Though the Arkansas game was not pretty by all accounts, top teams must go on the road and find a way to get it done. Illinois did that and should be rewarded.

3. Strength of schedule: Illinois is willing to play anybody, anytime, anywhere. Unlike these supposed power teams from these supposed power conferences.

4. For example, Illinois plays up-and-coming teams like Arkansas or No. 23-ranked Gonzaga, last year's No. 3 team.

In the meantime, who was Kansas playing? They were tackling the always-tough teams from Pacific and Vermont. And while Vermont is certainly getting a little love, it not likely they are as strong as the Zags. The Jayhawks also feasted on St. Joseph's and Nevada, who were victims of graduation and some early defections to the NBA.

5. At least Syracuse played some ranked teams. Not highly ranked in the form of Mississippi State and Memphis, but a little better-quality opponents. They also tackled national powers like Northern Colorado, Princeton, Siena, St. Bonaventure and Colgate. Are you kidding me? LCC plays a tougher schedule than that!

6. And what have the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets been up to? How 'bout not playing a ranked team until January? Ga. Tech has been playing such household names as Alabama State, Arkansas-Little Rock, a middle-of-the-pack Michigan team and a weaker-than-usual Georgia team. On top of all that, they did everything but lose against the vaunted Flames of UIC that ISU nearly handled.

7. Despite what you may read in the national rags and what you might hear from the "expert" analysts, Illinois' backcourt is as good as anybody's. Deron Williams' court vision, his ability to get everyone involved, his knack for hitting shots at crucial junctures in games and his outstanding leadership qualities are probably unequaled. Dee Brown is not only the fastest player in America from end to end right now, I believe he is the fastest player I have ever seen. His ability to go in among the sequoias and come out with loose balls in traffic is an intangible very rare in the college game. His shooting has been on fire so far this season. He has polished his midrange game so much that defenders are confused on how to play him.

Then when you add Luther Head to this mix, it is game, set and match to Miss Capriati! An impeccable case can be made that Head has been Illinois' best guard so far this young season. His 3-point shooting has opened up huge leads in games and drawn defenses to the perimeter to open driving lanes and backdoor lanes to the hoop. His defense has improved so much, he is drawing the toughest assignments on that end of the floor. If he'll stop jumping into the air with no place to go, he may become the complete guard. There is little doubt that this is the best, or should I say No. 1, guard rotation in the country.

8. Improvement of the bigs: This is the area that not only every expert identified, but also those of us who know nothing about basketball predicted would tell the story of this year's team. So far, the bigs are putting it in all of our faces. Roger Powell Jr. has simply been electrifying.

And though the hordes jumped on his back for making his NBA play last spring, Roger may have known exactly what he was doing. More than 20 NBA scouts were on hand at the Wake Forest game, and I'm sure that Powell is no secret to any of them now. Sure Roger is a little undersized (I love how the media and message boards have the uncanny ability to overstate the obvious), but few who don't know him can measure the size of his heart and his mental toughness.

A play early in the Wake game illustrates my point magnificently. Roger missed a dunk on a spectacular feed from Brown, and fans behind press row were cussing and dissing Powell in every way they could. The next trip down the floor, Powell set a beautiful screen and than popped out to 3-point land. In the Illini offense the ball is then usually reversed to the weak side of the floor quickly to give a guard a shot or to create a driving lane. However, since Powell's defender had been burned by the near dunk, he collapsed hard into the lane. Powell recognized the blunder and calmly nailed a 3. Many players who miss dunks will sometimes compound the mistake by making silly passes or unforced turnovers; Powell simply delivers.

James Augustine has been called on to be a force in the paint. A guy who breathed on Bill Self's high-low offense had to learn not only a new motion offense but all the nuances associated with it. Now that he has, more production inside is sure to come. His angles to the basket are improving week to week. His vicious screens have led to easy layups and uncontested 3s. Defensively, even though he is giving up some size, his positioning seems to be dramatically improved, not to mention that he seems to be getting better on the boards all the time.

Throw in improvements by Nick Smith, Jack Ingram and Warren Carter, not to mention what Brian Randle might add, and this so-called "weakness" for Illinois may just fool everyone and become a "strength."

9. Bench: Being able to bring Rich McBride off the bench as a spark plug can't be overemphasized enough. I thought he was a MAJOR contributor in the Wake game. In fact, the games that McBride, Smith, Ingram, Carter and Randle bring may determine just how far this Illini team goes.

From just the little bit of time I've spent around this year's team, I think the chemistry seems to be as good as it has been in Illini camp in years. These players have demonstrated a penchant for knowing their roles, executing when called upon and doing all the little things that transform good teams into great teams. Greg Taylor and I have even heard from some sources that players like Ingram have performed the best in practice up to this point. When the bench comes in and performs at a high level like they did against Wake, they take huge amounts of pressure off the starters. If this team will never care who gets the credit and only be concerned about ONE statistic, the "W" column, the upside for this team is huge.

[to top of second column in this article]

10. Coaching: I complimented Coach Weber at the Wake post-game press conference because as a former player and coach, I love comprehensive preparation. Nothing disappoints me more when I see players and coaches who are not prepared to face an opponent. If an opposing team is clearly better and just more athletic, you can still prepare and give them the battle for their lives. But not doing your homework and being surprised by what the other team is doing is just not acceptable to me. With Weber at the helm, this team always seems to be prepared.

Now people will point at me and say: You're crazy. What about last year's Providence and North Carolina games, not to mention the Purdue game at home?

Can I let you in on a little secret? The Illini players had not bought into Weber's philosophy yet. In those losses, may I humbly state that there was way too much individual play and not nearly enough unselfish play. From my perspective players were just running through the motions, not cutting hard, not setting hard screens, not running for their teammates, not making the extra pass and in some ways not running the offense or the plays that were called. It is safe for me to say that the Illini were not executing offensively or defensively.

One day the light went onů and it's been a different story ever since.

Coach Weber may never be the recruiter that some of those Wall Street suits are. But, he doesn't have to manipulate anything either. Illinois is one of the top universities in the world, he is a great coach, has a great staff and the Assembly Hall environment is second to none -- trust me on this one. It will be the crime of the century if Illinois is not voted No. 1 this week. However, it won't be for a lack of evidence.

ISU does it again

With their thrilling 77-69 victory over St. John's before a raucous crowd of over 8,000 patrons, the ISU Redbirds have beaten a third school from a major conference. What's better than that is their record now stands at 5-2 and, if they keep playing like this, they are on track for some postseason activity.

Once again, Lincoln's Gregg Alexander led the way for the Birds with nine points. But it was stellar work on the defensive end that sealed this win for ISU. His long 3-pointer also helped nail the coffin shut.

New Johnnies coach Norm Roberts, who is a former Self assistant, had high praise for ISU and the Redbird Arena environment. He also said hello to all his friends in central Illinois.

Railers clobber Jacksonville

Lincoln went on the road to face a Crimson team that they had to share the CS8 title with a season ago. The Railers executed early and often and hammered Jacksonville 68-39. I spoke with Railer coach Neil Alexander Saturday night and he was as pleased as I have ever seen him with the way his team executed on Friday night. However, knowing him, I'm sure he was not pleased by the little lull his players had that allowed Jacksonville to whittle a huge lead down to nine points. I'm sure that a hard week of practice will get the Railers ready for Friday night's home contest against Chatham-Glenwood. I had no report on Lady Railer action.

Illini football to introduce Zook

This is the man I predicted from the start, so I hope I am right about this signing. It came down to experience for me. Sometimes you can take a chance and hire an untested coach who is an alum and has turned in a positive resume as a coordinator. I didn't feel that this was one of those times. Zook had gone 8-5 the previous two seasons and had won something like his last four games this season, including a thorough beating of the always-tough Seminoles of Florida State. That said a lot to me.

Word on the streets is that this guy is a good recruiter too -- something that is imperative at this time in Illinois football history. I figure with his Florida contacts the Illini can finally return to getting speedy receivers and more quality players at the quality positions.

Critics have pointed out to me that he won ONLY eight games in each of the two previous campaigns. I'd be ecstatic if Illinois won ONLY eight games in each of the NEXT two seasons. After we get to that point, we can always re-evaluate.

I think this is the best decision we could possibly hope for at this point in the proceedings, and I commend Ron Guenther once again for another fine selection.

LCC hoops

Katie Geisler fired in 23 points and Jennifer Cyrulik and Jodi Raymer added 14 points each to lead the Lincoln Christian College Angels to their first win, a 78-49 drubbing of Principia.

LC hoops

Lincoln's Tiffany Tungate tallied eight points, five rebounds and two steals to lead the LC Lady Lynx to a 70-51 third-place victory over Harper. With the victory, the Lady Lynx pushed their record back up to the .500 level at 5-5.

No report on either school's men's teams.

Bears, Rams and Colts all win

Although the Colts are by far and away the best team of this bunch, the Bears' fans had plenty to celebrate Sunday with their convincing win over the Minnesota Vikings. Foremost among those was the play of quarterback Chad Hutchinson, who was not bad for a surfer dude. Peyton Manning continues to roll one of the most amazing NFL seasons ever, and my son makes no bones that he is his favorite player.

Team of the week

This is an easy one. It goes to Jeff Colleen, Tom and Guyla Sowers, Scott Sarver, and the dozens of talented people who annually make the Christmas in the Chapel event one of the best in central Illinois. This year's performance was one for the ages, and the best advice I could give anyone would be to call Sowers at 732-3168 and see if there's any way you can get a copy of it. No family Christmas could be complete without this powerful and inspiring presentation. Thanks to all who made it such a wonderful experience.

The BCS is probably getting what it deserves. If any of us ran our businesses, schools or families the way that thing is run, we'd be out of business. Though I gave you conclusive proof as to why Illinois should be named No. 1 in the country later today, I have very little confidence in the voters.

That's it for me. Have a great week, everybody!

[Jeff Mayfield]


LDN sports sponsored by:


Previous columns

Back to top


News | Sports | Business | Rural Review | Teaching & Learning | Home and Family | Tourism | Obituaries

Community | Perspectives | Law & Courts | Leisure Time | Spiritual Life | Health & Fitness | Teen Scene
Calendar | Letters to the Editor