Monday, January 03, 2005

Undefeated in the Big 10? It could happen

And so it begins. The Big 10 Season starts Wednesday for the Illinois Fighting Illini. For anyone unfamiliar with the Big 10, making it through the conference schedule is a brutal ordeal. The games are physical and any victory you can get on the road should be considered a good one. That being said, I believe this Illinois team has the best chance of any team since Indiana in 1975-76 of going undefeated in the conference. Some people may say this is crazy talk and they are probably right. History has shown that it is almost impossible to make it through league play undefeated (in any league, not just the Big 10) and Illinois is going to have some very tough games on the road at Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Iowa. Purdue is never easy on the road either and Northwestern upset the Illini last year in Evanston.

However, consider the following. Illinois has already beaten teams from the ACC, Big East, Pac 10, Big 12, SEC, and Conference USA plus Gonzaga. Illinois has crushed 3 ranked teams including then #1 Wake Forest and handed Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Arkansas, and Gonzaga (until Thursday when Missouri--who Illinois beat--upset them) their only loss of the season. Illinois has shown it can handle virtually any style of play and a variety of defenses. To Coach Weber's credit, the Illini have bought into total team play. To date, Illinois has been credited with assists on 66.7% of its baskets and they lead the nation with an average of 20.6 assists per game. They almost always make the extra pass that gives them a good shot. They have 3 outstanding starting guards in Brown, Head, and Williams. Powell plays bigger than he is on the inside, has shown some surprising versatility, and brings toughness. Augustine has also played fairly well and if he becomes more confident in his scoring ability, watch out. Interior play is not the Illini's strongsuit but it is continuing to improve. Depth is a slight concern but the reserves have done okay and should get a boost when (hopefully) Brian Randle comes back from his injury. The Illini play as a team and have shown they can handle the pressure of being number one. Unlike previous Illinois teams (with apologies to the 1989 Flying Illini who are one of my all-time favorite teams and should have been the NCAA Champions) that have lost immediately after achieving the number one ranking, this team has held onto that ranking for 6 weeks. After some defensive lapses against Missouri and Longwood, Illinois turned up the defensive pressure against the Bearcats of Cincinnati.

If they can keep up this defensive intensity, continue their strong team play, and stay free of major injuries, they have the best chance of any Big 10 team since the 1989 Illinois (Some may argue that point but you are on Illinitalk so you should expect a little bias now and then) to make it through the conference schedule undefeated. Is it likely? Probably not. Could a loss ease some of the pressure going into the Tournament and turn into a positive for the team? Possibly. Is this the best team in the country? Absolutely. And that answer won't change even if they do drop a game or two during the conference schedule. Get ready for a fun and special season.

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