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Illini charting a course     Send a link to a friend

By Jeff Mayfield

[FEB. 23, 2004]  The Illinois Fighting Illini, left for dead a month ago, are now charting a course toward another Big Ten title. It won't be easy to accomplish this time around, but is it ever? Illinois must still hit the road for games that will be much tougher than fans drinking the Illini Kool-Aid could ever imagine.

First the Illini must navigate the trip to Iowa City. I went over there for last year's contest, which was a pathetic performance, to see how tough it really is to play over there. While I didn't come away thinking it was the most intimidating place in the world, I still didn't like it very much.

And since the Hawks appear to be playing a little better and may be fighting to save coach Steve Alford's job, I don't like the timing of this game. I liked the timing of playing Penn State, mired in a huge losing streak, a lot better!

From there the Illini will close the home portion of the schedule by taking on the most improved team in the league, the Northwestern Wildcats. Hopefully, the revenge factor will be more than enough to dust off the pesky Cats. Anyway, if you can't beat them at home, you don't deserve to win the league championship… End of story!

Then Illinois will finish the season with one of the toughest two-part road trips available. They will go to Purdue's house of doom and then onto the beautiful arena at Ohio State. I still feel that going two out of three on the road and taking care of business at home will be enough, but the Kool-Aid drinkers say we should run the table. I wonder how many of the Kool-Aid brigade ever played or coached college basketball?

I don't want to sound critical, but winning college basketball games on the road is one of the hardest things I have personally ever been a part of. You have to play extremely well, not perfectly, but with a limited amount of physical and mental mistakes. A few calls and bounces need to go your way. Making a few shots doesn't hurt. A certain amount of luck doesn't hurt either. The coach must be clicking, and solid overall team play is a must.

When you can put that kind of a package together, you have at least a chance to win on the road. Notice that I said you have a chance! That is how hard it is. Even the 1989 Flying Illini that reached the Final Four did not win the league title, because they couldn't get it done on the road.

This Illinois edition has already surprised me, as I predicted a 9-7 or 10-6 at the best for a high-water mark. They have already assured themselves a 9-7 record and are looking to make me a liar with every win from here on out. The other great things about winning late in the year are tournament positions.

As the Illini keep winning, their seeds in the Big Ten tourney and in the NCAA tourney continue to improve. That is critical only if you want to do well and run deep in either event. I still have one big question regarding this team. A month ago, fans ripped Illinois coach Bruce Weber so hard and so much, I wondered if he or the team would survive the onslaught. Now the critics have gone quiet, lurking in the shadows to show their ugly heads the next time the Illini stumble.

My question, though, is this: How in the heck did Coach Weber get so much smarter in just three or four weeks' time? Did he go to some coaching clinics? Did some of the fans who criticized him from x's and o's to wardrobe selections visit the coach with their suggestions? Did someone slip the coach and the players some of the Kool-Aid?

My hunch is that Weber knows what the heck he is doing! And once (and finally) the players sold out to his plan and strategy, good things began to happen. If he could do it at SIU, he should REALLY be able to do it with the personnel available in those orange uniforms.

It's just one semiprofessional reporter's opinion, but I like Weber. I will probably always miss Coach Self, because he befriended me and allowed me and the LDN close access to the team and the program. However, in the long run, I'm not so sure that we didn't end up with a better coach!

I like the course Weber charted from the very beginning. Do I still question some of things he does and the team does? Yes. I'm a sports reporter… That's what we do! But, do I admire and respect Weber? Without a doubt! I am happy that things turned around for him -- not just for the team and the fans, but mostly for him. That harsh criticism he took was over the top and totally uncalled for. I hope it doesn't leave a bad taste in his mouth. I hope he sees that most people are on board the ship (a wagon is too slow!) now, believing in his course and ready to take the greatest Illini ride ever.

ISU back in the win column

The ISU Redbirds beat the Loyola Ramblers 77-71 in what turned out to be a hard-fought Bracket Buster contest Saturday afternoon in Normal. Lincoln's Gregg Alexander continued his stellar defensive play by limiting several of Loyola's best players throughout the contest.

Alexander finished with five points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals in 30 minutes of action. The 'Birds now sport an 8-16 record and hope to hit their stride as they ready for the upcoming Missouri Valley tourney in St. Louis. Up next for the 'Birds is a Wednesday night home contest with Evansville.


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Railers win a thriller

Twenty or 50 years from now people will still be talking about this one. First, they will ask you how a team that had graduated nine seniors the year before was even in contention for the league title the next season. Then they will ask you how the team went on the road to win the CS8 title. They might even ask you if Matt Schick, who hit the game-winning shot with four seconds left in the game, was running a play designed for him to shoot? They will then remind you that if the Railers take care of business and win their home game on Friday night, a magical season has another big story. Regardless of what happens, this has been a season for the ages.

The Railers also hammered Peoria Woodruff on Saturday to take their record to 19-9, and I believe they are 10-3 in the CS8. Usually newspapers and sports organizations rank their top 10 stories of the year. If the Railers hold serve at home Friday night, it will be hard to knock this story out of the top spot when this year's top 10 is calculated!

Good luck, Railers!

Lady Railers end solid campaign

The LDN salutes Lincoln coach Anne Stoltzenburg and her first year15-10 Lady Railers! While I'm sure they hoped to play a lot longer, I felt they made some nice strides under the first-year coach. I personally saw several of the games and liked how hard the girls worked and performed. I believe that intensity coupled with some more physical and mental toughness will vault these girls into the limelight next season.

CONGRATULATIONS, ladies, on a fine season!

One and you're done…

Time has hit the Lincoln Christian College basketball men. They will travel to Maranatha in Watertown, Wis., where they will have to navigate past the home team, Moody, and Grace to advance to the national tournament.

The Angels, on the other hand, have destiny within their own hands, as LCC is hosting the NCCAA regionals right here in Lincoln!

Note to the community: Come on out and watch these girls play! I'll even buy! That's right. Tell them that I sent you and to put it on my tab, and they'll charge me for your tickets. How's that for a free night out? (I'll do just about anything to improve any Lincoln team's home-court advantage!)

The regionals get under way on Thursday night as No. 4 Maranatha takes on No. 5 Moody at 6 p.m.

Then on Friday night the host school, LCC, will take on Thursday night's winner at 5 p.m. At 7 p.m. No. 3 Grace will battle No. 2 Northland.

The championship game is set for Saturday at 1:30 p.m.

Ticket prices for the NCCAA regional at LCC are $5 per game or $10 for the entire tournament!

Lynx riding high

According to unidentified sources, the Lincoln Lynx won again -- this time over former Railer Cory Farmer's Lincoln Land squad 72-66. The Lynx are turning up the heat, much to the satisfaction of Lincoln College coach B.J. McCullum, just in time for a postseason run.

The Lady Lynx lost to Lincoln Land Community College 65-61 on Saturday afternoon.

Brian Cook watch…

He's back! Lincoln's Brian Cook saw 17 minutes of action in the Lakers 116-88 ambush of the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night. Cook had two points, four rebounds and a steal to help LA keep its stranglehold on second place. Cook also had two points in yesterday's 104-92 waxing of the Phoenix Suns.

We might find out just how good the Lakers are this week as they tackle the Sacramento Kings!

Mike Weir...

...held on to win the Nissan Open.


Don't forget that Mel Gibson's new movie, "The Passion," opens up here in Lincoln, starting on Wednesday. I had a chance to preview it last month in Chicago and it is the most powerful movie I have ever experienced! It will truly be a classic.

For a good basketball read, go to
. There you will find the story of former Illini assistant basketball coach Billy Gillespie's unbelievable coaching job this season at UTEP!

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

[Jeff Mayfield]

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