Tuesday, March 07, 2006

MSU, BTT, and Awards

Lot's of news since we last posted. First, congrats to the team on their big win over Michigan State on Saturday. This win was important for several reasons which are as follows:

1) It kept Illinois' conference title hopes alive and assured them of finishing no worse than tied for second. As it turned out, with the Buckeyes win over Purdue on Sunday, they clinched the title outright. This end result is why Chief and I will continue to be big proponents of a balanced conference schedule in which every team plays the other conference teams twice. It is tough to complain too much because Illinois hurt themselves with the upset loss to Penn State at home and two very tough road losses to Indiana and Michigan. However, the Buckeyes had a very kind schedule to say the least and that certainly didn't hurt their cause. That being said , tOSU played well and won when they had to so give them credit. If you are wondering why the schedule change won't happen, in summary it is because few, if any, other conferences have a balanced schedule and by moving to that type of schedule, you likely lose some home non-conference games that would be probable wins. These wins help the teams and the league come tournament time.

2) The win reinforced that the improvement we had started to see offensively against Iowa and Minnesota was not an illusion. Coach Weber believes the team is playing their best basketball right now and is hitting its stride.

3) Illinois ended the Big Ten regular season with 3 straight wins, two of which were on the road in tough venues. How you finish is very important in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee and Illinois finished well. The road wins were particularly key as it enabled Illinois to even their conference road record to 4-4. I believe with these last 3 wins, Illinois has likely locked up a 3 seed and has positioned itself for a potential 2 seed if they play well in the Big Ten Tournament.

Speaking of the Big Ten Tournament, there is some good news and some bad news. The good news is that everyone seems to be jumping back onto the Illini bandwagon as Herb Gould of the Sun Times has picked Illinois to win the tournament over tOSU as has Skip Myslenski of the Tribune. The bad news is that Illinois will likely have to play MSU for the second time in less than a week in the quarterfinals and, assuming they win, will have to turn around and play the early game on Saturday, which provides them with very little rest and preparation time between games. This is a result of a change that the Big Ten coaches and athletic directors agreed to last year but now regret.

With the quality of the Big Ten this year, the conference tournament should be very entertaining. Even the teams at the bottom of the standings have the potential to pull off some upsets. Right now, as many as seven Big Ten teams could make the NCAA Tournament so that speaks to the battles we will likely see this weekend. It will be interesting to see how the teams fair against each other on a neutral court. Personally, I like the way Illinois is playing right now offensively and defensively (although teams have shot a little better against them lately, Illinois has been able to clamp down and hold teams scoreless for several minutes at a time lately). Even Illinois' free throws have started to improve. Anything can happen in a tournament like this where a team has to win three games in three days (or potentially four for the lower seeds) but Illinois' momentum and depth positions them well. It would be great to go into the NCAA Tournament with a Conference Tournament title and six wins in a row but the most important thing for Illinois this weekend is to stay healthy.

Moving on, the All-Big Ten teams were announced today as were the various individual awards. Congrats to Dee Brown on being a consensus first-team selection and to Augie on also being named to the first-team by the coaches. Dee also made the media's first-team while Augie was named to the second-team (come on sportswriters--where's the love?). Dee was also recognized as Illinois' recipient of the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award. Congratulations also go out to Jamar Smith on being named to the All-Freshman team and to Brian Randle on being named to the All-Defensive team. Last but not least, the Illini got some recognition (good and bad) as the Tribune's college hoops reporters examined the best and worst of the Big Ten this year.

Finally, in keeping our status as the only comprehensive Illini sports blog on the web, congratulations to the Illini Wrestling Squad on finishing second at the Big Ten Wrestling Championship. Last but not least, here is an outstanding article from Illinisports about Coach Zook's recruiting efforts. It really gives hope that the Illinois football program is about to turn around and become a team that will compete in the Big Ten and perhaps nationally. Wouldn't it be great to have both outstanding football and basketball programs at Illinois? Very few schools are good in both--for this Illini fan, it would be something to celebrate. Until later, Go Illini!

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