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Alexander, 'Birds feast on another win; thankful Illini kick the stuffin' out of the Zags     By Jeff Mayfield          Send a link to a friend

[NOV. 29, 2004]  Lincoln's Gregg Alexander and his ISU running mates appear to be making the most of Alexander's senior campaign. In their 80-51 beating of Tennessee-Martin, Alexander continued to display the defensive tenacity that this year's 'Birds are trying to build on. Apparently his defensive intensity is contagious to his teammates. He also knocked down three more 3s while leading the team in rebounding with seven caroms. Not bad for a two-guard, huh? Due to Thanksgiving vacation only one LDN staffer was present, but nothing can take away from the Redbirds' sizzling 4-1 record to start the campaign. However, a true test looms tomorrow night (Tuesday), as ISU will host UI-Chicago, which narrowly missed upsetting Georgia Tech just a week ago.

Speaking of tests and challenges, how 'bout the one coming up for the Illinois Fighting Illini on Wednesday night? Oh, haven't you heard? The No. 1 team in the nation, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons invade the Assembly Hall before a national TV audience.

Illinois won the Wooden Tradition trophy by beating Gonzaga. Here, legendary coach John Wooden, who led UCLA to ten NCAA titles, hands out more of his trophies and awards. Many of these went to Indiana elementary and secondary teachers who have demonstrated excellence in the classroom.

But first… a recap of Saturday's game with Gonzaga…

Legendary coach John Wooden, who was the host of the Tradition Tournament, called Illinois' performance "one of the best that he had seen in a while." Gonzaga coach Mark Few called it "a thoroughly dominating performance." No-namer Jeff Mayfield called it "an awesome sight to behold." But whatever you called it, it was convincing. No one has been beaten more soundly since Custer and his troops made their last stand! And since we're talking hoops and troops, the Illini corps started everything from the defensive side of the ball.

Illinois employed a swarming, stifling pressure defense that rattled the Bulldogs early and often. A relentless combination of big men, starting with James Augustine and Roger Powell Jr., did not miss a beat when Jack Ingram and Nick Smith took their turns terrorizing the paint. All-Universe Ronny Turiaf basically had no answer for Illinois' defensive siege.

From there it was just a matter of Illinois' three-headed guard monster of Deron Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown doing their thang. And what is their thang? It's whatever they want it to be. If you want run-outs (fast break easy layups and dunks), they've got that for you. If you want unselfish play, an extra pass each possession and a multitude of assists, they've got that for you. If you want a steady rain of 3-point buckets, they can oblige you on that too. In fact, how 'bout these lines: Deron Williams, 20 points, five 3-pointers, three assists and two steals; Luther Head, 20 points, four 3s, nine assists and four steals; Dee Brown, 17 points, three 3s, eight assists and two steals. Not a bad day's work.

Powell threw down 11 points, and Augustine chipped in six points and five rebounds.

Illinois was a sizzling 14-of-28 from 3-point land and 7-of-8 from the charity stripe. They led in assists 24 to 12, in steals 13 to 4 and won the turnover battle 7 to 19.

People not close to the Illini were buzzing about Illinois' speed, their guard play and their solid defensive pressure, but here's what I took away from the contest:

1. Illinois looked to be a VERY hungry team. My son likes me to read him a book about "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," who eats all day and night and never seems to be satisfied. That is how the Illini looked on Saturday. Furthermore, if they continue to not only look like that, but play like that, this will be a very special season indeed.

2. With all that being said, I STILL would NOT want to face Gonzaga come tournament time. Coach Few's kids are young, and by then they will have won 25 games and have a whole 'nother season under their belts. Mark me down as someone who considers them very dangerous in March!

3. IF Illinois' big guys can get some rebounds, score enough to keep defenses honest and play the kind of D that they did against the Zags, this will be a very special season indeed.

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4. Illinois is in the process of developing a herd mentality. I am speaking of the Illini fans. I have always held that they were worth our following, but now the grass roots are rumbling and everywhere we go our numbers are growing. There are legions of followers and our base has grown into a virtual army. It is a beautiful sight to behold!

5. Since I believe that, you fans will hold part of the key for Wednesday night's contest. IF you all can bring relentless energy, that might make the difference. The onus is on your shoulders!

6. Larry Bird (and Pacer CEO Donnie Walsh) scouted the game from just underneath my perch. During EVERY timeout dozens of kids and women descended on Bird for photos and autographs. Bird obliged everyone. He is not only a superstar athlete, he appears to be a superstar person. That was very impressive to me.

7. While football and Thanksgiving have always gone together, is there anything sweeter than spending part of that holiday watching Illinois thrash a top-25 opponent?

Railers rolling

I can't write much about the Railers, since I was out of town for most of the holiday action. I do know that they are off to a 3-1 start, with a rescheduled game against Danville on Wednesday night. Lynn Laughlin said it best when everyone was squawking about how athletic all of the tournament teams were compared with the Railers. Lynn responded by saying, "Will anyone play better 'team' ball than Lincoln?" In a word, NO!

I have no other reports on Lady Railer action, LC or LCC hoops at this time.

Bears set to sign Jeff George

I like this deal, so mark me down as someone who does. He can't be worse than what the Bears have gotten out of that position so far this season. I don't say that I love it, because if it fails, the skeptics will be all over me. I just don't understand why Chicago didn't make this move before the season started or just a few weeks ago. I agree with Sean Salisbury: The NFC is not showing parity but mediocrity, and the Bears' late deal may make them miss a golden opportunity to have slipped into the playoffs.

Dec. 1 showdown

I'm taking a real low-key approach to this game Wednesday night with Wake. While I would love to win it for the shear pleasure of forcing Dick Vitale, Digger Phelps and hosts of those other rummies to sing Illinois' praises, the whole season doesn't hinge on that game for me. As a matter of fact, I told Greg Taylor that I hope Illinois has at least one more performance in them like the one we saw on Saturday -- reserved for that final Saturday or Sunday before Final Four weekend. Know what I mean???

State football playoffs

I had an opportunity to see the Indiana Class A championship game on Friday afternoon. It pitted the big, bad Indianapolis Ritter team, the defending state champions, versus the small-town Seeger Patriots from West Lebanon, the defending state runner-up. How often do both teams make it back to a state title game? Coach Moore of Seeger may have called the game of his life, making the right play choices at the right moment, time after time, and Seeger got redemption, coming away with a 20-7 championship, the school's first in any sport! It was as entertaining a football contest as I have ever witnessed. What a ballgame!

Non-sports item of the week

We tried to get away Wednesday afternoon in the midst of the blizzard. Twenty minutes later, after seeing a couple of dozen cars in the ditch, my wife agreed with me that it would be safer to return home and wait to travel on Thursday. We were granted safety and made it over and back. However, what always impresses me is how people help each other out -- people pushing out others who were stuck, offering a drink, food or housing to those stranded. Please be cautious out there and look out for one another. The life you eventually safe may be your own.

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

[Jeff Mayfield]

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