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Alexander, ISU stampede the Herd;
Illini STILL No. 1      
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By Jeff Mayfield         

[DEC. 13, 2004]  When the state's flagship university is located less than 100 miles away and their hoops contingent has a 9-0 record and is ranked No. 1 in the nation, it's hard to get some love. That is the situation the Illinois State Redbirds currently find themselves in. However, they are oblivious to the Illini. Why? Because they are too busy celebrating themselves. Lincoln's Gregg Alexander and his Redbird mates are making their own noise just up the road in Normal.

When a sportswriter (even a semiprofessional one) goes to another town to cover one of the local athletes trying to make good on a bigger stage, they can often be criticized for being a "homer." For those unfamiliar with the term, we're not talking about Homer Simpson. It's just that the media can be construed as being overzealous in their props for the hometown kid. Writers can lose their objectivity, their sense of fairness and forget totally about impartiality.

I think I recognize it when I see writers do it. I'd be the first to admit it to you if that's what I was doing in regard to Gregg Alexander. But, after his 10-point, 10-assist performance (his second career double-double), in which he may have even sold 50-50 tickets and dots (the ice cream of the future) at halftime, I realized he took ALL the pressure off me.

Again, he and the Redbirds don't care. Because after he started the stampede that led to their 79-67 victory over the Marshall Thundering Herd (if that's not one of the best college monikers, I'll eat my hat), ISU's record currently stands at a sparkling 7-2! Yes, I know they now have to go on the road. Yes, I know the schedule gets tougher from here. I know, I know, I know. But, did I mention that the Redbirds now sport a 7-2 record?!

The players were whooping it up after the game like they had just received word that they got a postseason invitation; AND if they keep playing the way they are playing, that invitation will eventually find its way into their postal box!

Alexander is doing all he can to make sure that invitation comes. In his 10-point, 10-assist performance, he added two rebounds and a steal while committing zero turnovers in 37 minutes of the best action you can imagine. In fact his coach, Porter Moser, called Gregg's night "the most solid game he has had since I've coached him," and added, "I didn't want to take him off the floor."

Alexander himself would not go that far in assessing his game, but he did offer this comment on the difference between this year and last: "The difference is our mindset. We've added new pieces to the puzzle, which has helped out tremendously. But we knew we had to get our edge back like we had in Milwaukee and pick up a win tonight." And that is exactly what he and the 'Birds did!

Illinois should stay No. 1

BUT, never underestimate the voters. If coaches and media experts can lobby for votes like Texas did in football, don't be surprised to find that Kansas or some other "worthy" team leapfrogs the Illini. However, Luther Head and the boys are doing all they can to keep that No. 1 ranking for as long as they can.

Saturday's game versus Oregon at the United Center was more of the same. Since we're at the busy time of the year, LDN primary correspondents were not on hand, but our sources at the scene indicated that it was another solid showing for the nation's most elite team. As a matter of fact, the 83-66 drubbing of the Oregon Ducks allowed Illinois to climb to 9-0 and, barring tragic voting decisions, should keep the Illini in the top spot for another week.

All five starters finished in double figures (talk about balance), led by Luther Head's 23 points as he missed only two shots. The death of Deron Williams' game, which had certainly been overexaggerated, produced only 17 points to go along with seven assists. Dee Brown continued his stellar play, adding 13 points to the mix, and James Augustine had 10 points and eight rebounds. The Illini gave Roger Powell the afternoon off, but he still wound up with 12 tallies.

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Most impressive in the decisive win was Illinois' ability to overcome tired legs. Many have asked, "How can 18- to 22-year-old kids get that tired?" That's a good question but an easy response. Yes, they would be practicing or playing every day anyway. BUT, when you mix that all in with classes and homework (not to mention finals), travel (not sleeping in their own beds, different food and water, and so on), sleep changes, and then trying to have a life (relationships and such), there are plenty of ways for a team to get tired playing four games in eight days. Illinois simply showed the power of their depth and balance Saturday and emphatically stated a solid message. These guys don't plan on being denied. Oh, and by the way, I love saying, "We're No. 1!"

How 'bout those Railers?

I don't know if Railer coach Neil Alexander is making his guys watch the Illini on tape or not, but they sure seem to be following Illinois' template for success. Incredible balance, teamwork (and I do mean work), unselfish play, extra passes and the list goes on and on. Friday night Lincoln drilled an undefeated Chatham-Glenwood squad 58-30 to lift their record to 6-1 (2-0). Coach Al always likes to get those early wins to help seeding later, to provide a game or two league cushion, and that list is endless too. Lincoln will host two home contests next weekend, entertaining Taylorville and Decatur-MacArthur.

The Lady Railers lost a heartbreaker to Bloomington 48-53 to go to 3-5. They did show a lot of life and potential according to sources at the scene, so we'll hope for better days around the bend.

How 'bout those Lynx?

The Lincoln Lynx steamrolled Shawnee 86-69 at the Carl Sandburg Classic in Galesburg this weekend. The victory allows Lincoln to now claim an impressive 11-1 mark to start the year. The Lady Lynx were also victorious with a 68-54 win over Elgin.

LCC not so charmed

LCC suffered a 65-59 setback at the hands of Concordia-River Forest and is really struggling early in the season. The Angels took a loss 71-47 to Maryville.

NFL news

Colts won, Rams and Bears did not; what else is new? Greg Taylor was right once again when he told you in week one to get on the Colts' bandwagon. The only hitch for them may come in the AFC championship game, where they will likely have to go on the road to play Pittsburg or New England.

Non-sports item of the week

Congratulations to Bill Hull for being selected the Citizen of the Year. Hull has been a solid supporter of our sports guys and is truly richly deserving of the award and honor.

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

[Jeff Mayfield]

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