Tuesday, January 31, 2006

On the road to special (UPDATED)

Illinois took a big step towards winning their third straight outright Big Ten title tonight. Winning by 15 points at Wisconsin is a huge statement to the rest of the league that the Illini have no intention of relinquishing their hold on the conference. The performance this evening brought back a lot of memories of last year's team. They are not the same by any means, but this year's team demonstrated the mental toughness, poise, and killer instinct that last year's team had in abundance.

In the first half, the Illini found themselves down 11 with Augustine in foul trouble, shots not falling, and Tucker playing well for the Badgers. Then, finally, the Illini pulled it together and decided enough was enough. They settled down and by the time halftime rolled around, they held a 6 point lead. They would not trail again. In fact, after being down by 11, Illinois outscored the Badgers 53-27 the rest of the way. I loved to see them finally show that killer instinct to close out the game decisively. Last year, Illinois won this game by 10 points. This year, they won by 15. Statement game indeed!

So how did the Illini do with regards to our keys to the game (see the post below for the keys)? Take a look:

1) Randle, with help from his teammates, did a decent job on Alando Tucker. Tucker got 19 points but he had to work for most of them and Illinois forced him into some bad shots at times. In addition, Randle was very active on the boards (13 to be exact) and had some nice baskets as well. Although he got into foul trouble late in the second half, he didn't have the early foul problems that usually plague him and with the way the game started, that was critical.

2) Dee and Augie didn't have partiuclarly great games from a shooting/scoring stand point but they provided the senior leadership that the team needed and steadied the team throughout the game. Dee did a great job playing the point on offense and really seems to have settled into that role and the responsibilities that come with it. His defense continues to be outstanding. On a side note, it was good to see the team still perform well despite an off shooting night for Dee (6 of 18 if I heard the stats right). As for Augie, he had some early foul problems and that probably helped Wisconsin build that 11 point lead. However, when Weber gambled by putting him back in the game near the end of the half, Augie played smartly and was key to the team turning it around. I think sometimes people underrate just how important it is to the team to merely have him on the floor but tonight showed how critical it is for him to stay out of foul trouble so he can be out there. Also, kudos to Weber for getting him out for the last minute or so of the half once Illinois had taken the lead.

3) The bench. I don't know that we necessarly wore the Badgers out but the contributions of Smith and Frazier were invaluable. Other reserves also gave the team key minutes while some of the starters battled foul trouble.

4) Fouls and free throws. Although Illinois had some foul problems tonight, their depth allowed them to weather it. You expect some of that when you are on the road and the team played through it. Free throws didn't cost the team tonight but they continue to be a concern.

5) Randle, McBride, and Smith stepped up. Each of them had very good all around games and picked up some of the scoring, which took pressure off Dee and Augie. I already talked about Randle but Smith shot 100% from the field (12 points I think) and McBride had his second outstanding game in a row. If he continues to play like this, it will be a huge boost to the team. Chester also played well as I mentioned earlier.

Overall, this was Illinois' fourth straight win over the Badgers and this was a great one. One thing I noticed was Weber used the 3 guard line-up again at times with Randle and Augie playing the 4 and 5 positions. The team looked good with this line-up. It is a nice change of pace and can cause some match-up problems for the other team. There are times when we need to go big with Pruitt or Arnold out there but it is nice to have this flexiblity. Finally, as Chief and I discussed over email, this may very well be a turning point in Illinois' season. This was a huge road win in a hostile environment and should provide them with a big boost of confidence when they have to go to Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State. They have put themselves in a very good position in the conference and can build on this moving forward.

Random Thoughts:

1) Did everyone hear Musberger compare Bo Ryan's looks to that of a Badger? Pretty funny stuff. I really like it when Musberger does the play by play for our games and Lavin and Andrews are good as well.

2) Overall, the officiating was seemed fair and that is all you can ask for (and often more than you even hoped for in a road game)

3) Joe Lunardi, ESPN's "Bracketologist," has Illinois as his fourth number one seed and that was even before tonight's game was over. He had some nice comments during his brief interview during the game and it is good to see the Illini, as well as the Big Ten, continuing to get respect from the national media.

I am sure we will have more on the game tomorrow but for now, good night and GO ILLINI!!!

Wednesday Update:

Not a lot to add from a commentary standpoint today but there is a lot of good Illini coverage in the Chicago papers today, especially in the Daily Herald. Only thing I will add to what I wrote last night is that I love Bruce Weber's motivational tactics. I like the idea of the new T-shirts that say "Illini Basketball--New Team, Same Result." We occassionally get to hear about how he motivates his players in different ways. This is a public way and I can only imagine the private and more subtle things he does behind the scenes. Anyway, click on the links below for today's articles:

Game Recap from the Daily Herald

Overview of Brian Randle's excellent performance from the Daily Herald

Lindsey Willhite wonders if the Final Four might be in reach again. Fun to think about but let's see how the rest of February goes first.

More on Illinois' appeal to the NCAA regarding the Chief (Daily Herald)

Game Recap from the Tribune

Skip Myslenski wonders which personality represents the real Illini

More on Illinois appeal to the NCAA regarding the Chief (Tribune)

Game Recap from the Sun-Times

More on Illinois' appeal to the NCAA regarding the Chief (Sun-Times)

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