Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Time of Year We've All Been Waiting For

Finally, it's here!!! The NCAA Tournament begins tomorrow (forget the so-called play-in game--the real action starts tomorrow). This is what the Illini and its fans have been waiting for all season. Everything that has happened to this point was to prepare for what really matters to any college basketball team and its fans--a national championship.

If you have been reading the predictions of the so-called experts, casual fans, and even Vegas, you will find that many people believe Illinois will make it to the final four and quite a few believe they will win the title (other than the ACC loving, east-coast biased, too good for the midwest snobs at ESPN--excluding, amazingly enough, Digger Phelps who I hear actually picked Illinois--guess that is because Notre Dame already lost in the NIT). The staff of Illinitalk obviously falls into the category of believing Illinois will win the national title.

Some of today's articles discuss why the Illini are one of the favorites to cut down the nets. Reasons range from this season's performances of the Illini Big Men to their three outstanding guards to the terrific defense Illinois has been playing despite some shooting that is below normal for them. MSNBC also points out how nothing tops experience come tournament time and the Illini have that in abundance. Finally, it appears we have DePaul to thank for bringing the regional to Chicago/Rosemont.

Illinitalk believes Illinois is going to win the title for all of the reason above: Solid play from the big men (who have been underrated all year), three outstanding guards, and terrific defense. Despite all the coverage on the Illini's shooting woes during the Big 10 Tournament, what was overlooked was the Illini defense at the tournament. It was outstanding at disrupting opponents and holding them at or close to season lows in several categories. Defense wins championships. The Illini will have to shoot better to beat the best of the best but we believe that will happen. Thursday's game will help them relax, get back to their crisp passing, and get some confidence making shots. Finally, keep in mind the following, which we posted earlier this year:

"Prior to the Penn State game, people were pointing out that the Illini's scoring was down in the conference games as compared to the non-conference games, other teams like North Carolina were at times scoring over 100 points per game, etc. Over the past couple of weeks, I have been pondering why that might be the case. Here are is my theory. The teams we are playing in conference have now played us multiple times over the past two years and have some familiarity with the Illini offense. Thus, they have a better idea of how to TRY to defend it. That's it. That's my theory. Probably not too deep of one but it is the one that seems to make the most sense. Think about it--the non-conference teams we played had either never played against Illinois' version of the motion offense or had maybe played against it once last season. Only one of those teams challenged the Illini and that was Missouri. However, once you hit the Big 10 season, those teams were much more familiar with the Illinois offense. Thanks to our personnel and a great coach, the offense is never easy to defend but it is at least slightly easier to defend when you have seen it two or more times before and have a little feel for what the Illini are doing. Say what you will about the Big 10 Conference this year but, unlike most ACC teams and a lot of teams from the other power conferences, virtually all of our conference's teams play tough, hard-nosed defense. Illinois has shown it can play any style other teams want--up and down, grind it out, slow it down, you name it. They have won games playing every style and they will continue to do so. Don't worry about a slump from an individual player or the team. They simply know how to win."

I think that about covers it. Tune in tomorrow for picks from Chief and from me.

P.S. I forgot to mention over the past couple of weeks how impressed we have been with the people who vote in the AP poll and the USA Today/ESPN poll. Illinois is back to a unanimous number one in both polls this week. However, the previous week's poll is the one we are most impressed with. So often when a team loses a game, they are knocked down in the rankings regardless of what they have done earlier in the season. Despite Illinois' 1 point loss to Ohio State and UNC's win that same weekend, both polls kept Illinois #1. It wasn't unanimous but they weren't bumped down to #2. We respect the writers and coaches for doing that. We think it was the right decision and we appreciate it. Voters in those polls often get knocked when we are upset so they deserve praise when they do something like this. Let us simply say thanks.

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