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By Jeff Mayfield

[NOV. 1, 2004]  And not a second too soon. I never even got the license plate number of the truck that hit us last week. It sorta looked like maybe a Massachusetts plate, but I am still so woozy I am not sure if that is right. I do remember that I was having the most wonderful dream. Our dear Redbirds were trying to making the improbable comeback over the Houston Astros.

Then the dream got better… We were facing perhaps the greatest pitcher of our era, Roger Clemons himself, in the decisive Game 7, and we knocked him and the 'Stros back to Houston. It was almost as sweet as dreams can get.

But then I rolled over and realized in my dream that we were going to our first World Series in 17 years. Could it get any better?

Not until the games (if you want to call 'em that) started. My stomach started to churn. When Game 1 slipped away, I got a real bad feeling in my gut. Then Schilling in Game 2 and Martinez in Game 3… My stomach was really hurting by then. Just when I thought I'd get a little relief in Game 4 Derek Lowe decides to do his impersonation of a MLB pitcher. I thrashed in uncontrollable pain (that's what I get for eating clams before I fell asleep).

I cannot seem to wake from the dream that turned into a nightmare. However, it is Halloween and we are coming off a lunar eclipse. Maybe when I wake up, the REAL World Series can begin.

What's that, you say? How's Illinois football? I'm going back to sleep!

Seriously, I just can't make myself write about Illini football. I know I have a responsibility to you loyal LDN readers, but I just can't do it… Hate me if you must. It's hard enough to watch, much less rehash. If it makes any of you feel any better, I did the dad thing Saturday (instead of the game) and took my son to a friend's birthday party. Boy, did that kid bail us out?!

But take heart, Illini Nation, we are less than five days away from tipping off the 2004-5 season. I have NEVER needed a basketball season to start any quicker than this one! I sure hope it's the wild ride that every expert in the world is predicting… Wouldn't that be fun? I'm sure that Greg and I will have some features over the next few weeks, but for starters let's take a quick preseason glance.

What to look for:

1. My contention is that Illinois will go as far as their inside game takes them. That means if James Augustine's time at the Big Man's camp this summer was well spent and if he becomes an animal in the paint, that will be a good start.

Rumors from Champaign say that Roger Powell picked up where he left off dancin' on Dookie heads even though his teammates refused to join him. Powell is a man without a country, as he is undersized and appears to this semiprofessional scribe as one who gets a lot out of his limited beef. His ability to shoot over people and snake around people to get rebounds will be a huge contribution to this edition of the Illini.

Something you will read here and NOT in the big-money magazines is that I am NOT projecting NBA-like moves from Nick Smith. If he continues to improve, that will be more than enough to make me happy. Last year I predicted that he would be an instrumental source for us in winning a few games… and Nick came through. Not as often as the Nation would've liked, but the realistic fans know that he gave us what he had to give. His ability to knock down 75 percent to 80 percent of his free throws, especially during crunch time, is a huge bonus. I repeat, IF he can help us win five or six games, that will give us a huge lift, and there's no need putting pressure on him by expecting more.

IF Warren Carter, Brian Randle, Shaun Pruitt and anyone else can eat up quality time in the post, not to mention lend Illinois a few more fouls to give, that could help as well.

Lastly, don't forget the humongous contributions Jack Ingram put forth toward season's end. If he does anything remotely close to that this time, then this category will take care of itself.

2. I was never much of a defensive pundit as a coach, but I loved playing tenacious defense as a player (well, it seemed pretty tenacious to me anyway). If this team wants to contend for another Big Ten title and a deep NCAA run, it will have to be a ferocious pack of wolves on the defensive end of the court.

You may think that I'm dissing last year's effort. Quite the contrary. What I learned from last year's edition is that these guys are capable of being stifling… when they wanna be! There were times when they handcuffed other teams and put such a tight lid on the bucket that I thought they were just giving free defensive clinics (the IU and Purdue games come to mind). All I am saying is that they need to improve it even more this season, as teams have had all year to draw something up to expose the Fighting Illini.

I hope that they can't do it… that we're too quick… that we have too many hands in the passing lanes… that our footwork is impeccable… and that we body and block-out as if we're covering and protecting the last piece of pizza! This component alone could win us a dozen games and is something that should never slump.

Staying out of silly foul trouble is also a must under this category.

3. If I ever write a book on basketball (and believe me, it'll be a very short book), one of my commandments will be that "Good shooting covers a multitude of sins!" For example, if we go through a time when we aren't getting any offensive rebounds, we can just go to our "60 percent shooting package of plays."

It's pretty simple when you stop and think about it. We have seen what can happen when Deron Williams, Dee Brown or Luther Head get hot. We'll need a lot more of it this time around. Rich McBride's contributions and maybe Calvin Brock's could also be an "x" factor.

Better shot selection will be an extraordinary key toward the success for this team.

Sadly, you can't predict when our shooting will go in the dumpster… That's why if you rely on it too much, there is no doubt that it will bite us (i.e., we looked pretty good against the Bearcats last season but not so good against the Blue Devils).

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Good shooting also needs to rear its beautiful head at the table of free-throw shooting. This team needs to shoot between 72 percent and 76 percent from the line, and there is no reason that it can't do that. If they do, they will win some important games that will make the difference between being a good team and a great one!

4. Team chemistry and role play. I was worried about this aspect early in the season last year. In fact, one day I ran into Dee Brown and he was miserable. I will always think that our season was within a week or two of totally unraveling. Luckily, the fellas got together, fabricated an "us against the world" mentality and went on to win 14 of their last 15 regular-season games to claim their first outright Big Ten title in 52 years.

Most of the experts and many of the locals think that this aspect is incredibly overrated. Obviously, they are entitled to their own opinion, as here at the LDN that is highly respected and regarded. However, if they think that, they are wrong!

I have been around the game all my life. I didn't just play it, coach it and spectate it. I studied it laboriously (in fact, my mother always wished that I would've studied school work with that kind of passion, BUT, if she could only see me now…). AND I am telling you, my LDN friends, that you HAVE to be, you MUST be, a well-oiled machine when you are between the lines.

I am not saying that you have to be best friends off the court. I am not even saying that you have to like each other necessarily, BUT what I am saying is that once you hit the cage, EVERYONE must be pulling on the same end of the rope.

At times early last year that was clearly not the case. By the end of the season, likewise, it was the reason that Illinois was one of the 6-8 best teams in the country. It will be a critical factor in Illinois' ascent to one of the top spots this season. When the players finally listened to Illini coach Weber and his staff, they did a magnificent job of defining individual roles.

Here's to everyone liking their defined role THIS season and to playing it with passion and the relentless pursuit of perfection!

5. Intangibles are another area that I see as critically important but that many people have labeled me crazy with over the years (should I be worried that I see more people with white coats walking around near my office?). A lot of dudes (and dudettes for that matter) will sarcastically say in my general direction something like, "Intangibles never won any ballgame."

If they are right about that, why is Illinois something like 63-3 over the last five years in the Assembly Hall? Do you think it's our slick unis (I love 'em, but c'mon)? The pep band? The Orange Crush? It's ALL of 'em! At Illinois WE truly are the sixth man! IF we don't keep it up, and I mean if we're not whipped into an absolute frenzy and we let the team down, we will have no one to blame but ourselves… and whoever is elected president.

Avoiding the injury bug is another aspect that could take on epic proportions… but, that's all I'm gonna say about that.

Ease of travel and how the schedule plays will also be factors to toss into the mix. I for one see some tough stretches, but hopefully our guys will continue to rise to the challenge.

There are dozens more in this category, not the least of which is officiating, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it. In fact, I prefer not ever having to talk about it, but since not nearly enough attention is given to it on the Big Ten or national level, I doubt that any of them will listen to the LDN's ideas on how to improve it (I will get with Greg and we'll give our suggestions in an upcoming feature).

Well, that's just my starter package on a second's notice, just throwing it out there for your consideration.

I am not predicting another Big Ten title. I'm not predicting a trip to the Final Four. I'm not predicting that Illinois will win 16 of their final 18 and be dancing in the streets (but believe me, I don't care if I dance like Mark Madsen, IF the Illini give me a REASON to dance)! I AM predicting that it could be a lot of fun and no nation deserves an ecstasy ride like this Nation does!

I had precious few updates this weekend… but, I do know that LCC's Angel volleyball team won their district title for the 100th time and they will host the national tournament here Nov. 11-13.

I was amazed and a little puzzled that more local people didn't come out for the tournament last year. This is some of the best volleyball you will ever see in this part of the country. If you don't know how to get to the Laughlin Center or are struggling for tickets, PLEASE give us a call and we'll help you leap as many of those hurdles as we can.

Since most kids in our area that want to pursue college sports after high school will probably play at a small college, what better way to introduce them to small college sports than by attending a national tournament right here in Lincoln? I know of NO better way!

Non-sports item of the week: PLEASE VOTE!

Unlike every other media outlet in the world, I will resist the temptation to presume to tell you who and what to vote for. I will say that this is a critical election on many fronts.

I hope that leadership issues are not left out of the equation when voters evaluate who they will vote for. As local, state and national leaders are analyzed, the one characteristic that I hear that most people are looking for is genuine visionary leadership by leaders with integrity. It seems like it would be hard to go wrong if all the leaders we choose have that as a foundation.

Well, that's all on that because I'm the sports guy, not the political pundit.

Have a great week, everybody, and I'll see you at the polls/poles!!!

[Jeff Mayfield]

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