Monday's game was just the second time
in school history the Illini played a game at home while owning the
No. 1 poll position. The other previous home game took place during
the magical 1989 season that culminated in a Final Four appearance.
The opponent Monday was Chicago State, which entered the game 0-4 on
the year and was blasted by Northwestern on Saturday in Evanston.
While "Paint the Hall Orange" night
is finished for another season, the Assembly Hall was still plenty
orange and still plenty loud. Illinois didn't look particularly
sharp for most of Monday night but still rolled to an easy 78-59
victory over the Cougars.
The game marks the second of four
games for the Illini in an eight-day stretch that head coach Bruce
Weber has called "their exam week." Illinois will travel to
Washington, D.C., for a road game against a young Georgetown team on
Thursday before finishing the week with their annual United Center
game in Chicago against Oregon, a team coached by Rockford-native
Ernie Kent. The four-game stretch began Saturday with a 12-point
victory against Arkansas, a game played in Little Rock.
Illinois will then have eight days
off to take their actual final exams before returning to action
against Valparaiso on Sunday, Dec. 19.
The stars of the game Monday were
the usual suspects: Dee Brown again for scoring from long range and
dishing out a team-high nine assists. Seniors Roger Powell and
Luther Head continued to score early and often. Coach Weber and crew
once again went deep into the bench, continuing to develop such role
players as Rich McBride, Warren Carter, Nick Smith and Jack Ingram.
And the fans -- wow -- they continue to be that much-needed "sixth
Today, however, we want to break
down what we like and what concerns us after seven games in what we
hope will be another fabulous and fun season of hoops in the college
basketball capital of the Midwest (yeah -- I'm calling you out,
Lawrence and Lexington).
Things we really like
Defense. Lost in the shuffle of a great and explosive offense team
is a group of players that understand basketball games are won
first and foremost with great lockdown defense. The Arkansas game
was a great example of this -- Illinois went ice-cold for periods
of play, but it was their defense that kept a good Arkansas team
from scoring a field goal for almost seven minutes late in
Saturday's victory. We are especially impressed with the post
defense of Roger Powell and the great improvement Luther Head has
shown on the perimeter.
Team. One worry we had going into the season was in the area of
egos and attitudes. Rumblings out of Champaign spoke of a rift
between stars Dee Brown and Deron Williams. Insiders spoke of the
selfishness of certain senior starters. Pouting and bad attitudes
were known to exist in the past. So far -- so good! This team
really looks like a team. Teammates seem to be more excited about
an assist than a bucket. There is no "I" in team, and early on we
really like the chemistry, at least on the court.
The saying goes, "You live by the 3, you die by the 3." Well,
after seven games, Illinois is living large by the 3, with no sign
of slowing down. Mark it down -- if this Illinois team can
consistently make 10-12 3-point baskets each game, we have an
unbelievable chance to dance together in St. Louis the first
weekend in April.
Reserves. We knew coming in that the starting five of Head,
Powell, James Augustine, Brown and Williams were pretty good --
maybe the best starting five in America. Many guessed seasoned
vets like Nick Smith and Jack Ingram would help
-- as they have. But, we are thrilled to see Rich McBride shoot so
well, all the while improving his defense. And what about Warren
Carter? I almost laughed when former coach Bill Self referred to
him as a "Walter McCarty clone." I'm not laughing now, but I am
excited to see Carter's development and look forward to an early
January return for Peoria's Brian Randle.
- The Coach and Coaches. We LOVE
the motion offense. We LOVE the lockdown defense. We are so glad
it is Bruce Weber in Champaign as we watch coaches all over
America underachieve with really good talent. Even with assistant
coach turnover, this group, including Wayne McClain, Jay Price,
Gary Nottingham and newcomer Tracy Webster, seem to really have a
handle on their team and their regular excellent preparation.
[to top of second column in
Hot sophomore Warren Carter
tickles the twine for two of his eight points in last night's
victory for the No. 1 Illini.
What concerns us
Inside Game. While we love the 3 and the manner in which our
guards can dominate night in and night out, we are concerned the
Illini will need an inside presence to go far in the postseason.
Even more concerning is the lack of scoring from James Augustine
for much of the past four games. Powell is a force, but he stands
only 6-foot-6, and Augustine must establish himself in the paint.
While Smith and Ingram are not "back to the basket" scorers, the
Illini must find someone who can score in a typical post fashion.
Could freshman Shaun Pruitt seize the opportunity to join the
Superstar. We are probably worrying about nothing (we are really
good at this), but it seems as if the Deron Williams of 2003-2004
is missing in action? Could the curse of the Preseason Player of
the Year honor be striking Deron early this year as it did Cory
Bradford in the fall of 2000, Frank Williams in the fall of 2001
and Brown last season (all preseason honorees)? We sure hope not
and wonder if the junior from Texas is trying too hard to make
this season in Champaign his last on the way to an early entry
into the NBA. Williams will probably be fine, but we look forward
to a 30-point explosion we witnessed twice last year, against
Wisconsin and Cincinnati.
of Focus (at times). OK, so maybe we are reaching a bit, but we
needed at least four things to complain about. At times, this team
almost seems uninterested if the final outcome is no longer in
doubt. Maybe it is too many nightmares from our Illini past, but
we hope this Illini version follows the Mayfield plan -- bury them
early so the walk-ons are playing shortly after halftime.
- The Schedule. Maybe it seemed
great in July to play this four-game stretch in eight days with
games in Little Rock and D.C. and the United Center. Our hope is
Illinois will make it through these games unscathed and not miss a
beat as they move toward the Missouri game on the 22nd in St.
Louis. Illinois plays 14 non-conference games and, if they can
make it through this week, will have a great chance to play
Cincinnati on New Year's Eve in Vegas with a 13-0 record.
Overall, Illinois is 7-0, ranked No.
1 in the country and treating their fans to a great start to their
season. The No. 1 ranking is just the third in school history, and
the other two seasons where such a ranking has been achieved has
ended with a trip to the Final Four (1952 and 1989). It is a great
time to be an Illini fan, and we close with this invitation: Even if
you have cheered in the past for Tar Heels or Blue Devils or
Wildcats or Jayhawks, hear us loud and clear -- THERE IS ROOM FOR
YOU ON THE ILLINI EXPRESS! Join the bandwagon today!
Think Orange. Live Orange. Go,