Monday, March 14, 2005

Frightening Illini

Yesterday, I sourced out a relatively inexpensive ticket and attended the Big 10 Championship game between Illinois and Wisconsin at the United Center. Illinois won, but not particularly impressively, especially for the #1 team in the country. Though they built up a sizable lead, largely through an incredible defensive effort, toward the end they looked like a boxer just trying to hang on, as Wisconsin cut it to a 5 point game, and had good looks at shots that could have gotten it even closer. Fortunately for the Illini and the sea of orange in the UC crowd, Wisconsin couldn't convert when it needed to, and UofI walked off with the win, their #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament firmly in hand.

Certainly some slack could, and should, be cut the Illini if their subpar performance through the Big 10 tourney had something tangibly or intangibly with the tragic death of Coach Bruce Weber's mother on Friday (after she had arrived at the UC for the game, she was taken to the hospital with chest pains, and died during surgery to repair her aorta). But even prior to this weekend, the Illini has appeared a far cry from the team that blew out Wake Forest, Gonzaga and Cincinnati early in the season. Their shooting is hit or miss, their inside game isn't dominant and though they have 5 excellent players, they don't have one outright superstar and that could be a problem.

Today, I filled out a NCAA tournament bracket and wound up with Illinois winning. If they play their best, this really should be a reality. But it also wouldn't be too shocking for them to lose anywhere after the first round. If someone were to offer me a straight up bet of Illinois or the other 64 teams in the field, I don't think I'd put my money on the Illini. Though I must note that there isn't any other team I'm as familiar with as the Illini -- in terms of players, strengths and weaknesses. And other "powerhouses" like North Carolina, Wake Forest, Kentucky and Kansas all lost during their conference tournaments; Illinois didn't.

So, we'll watch and see. Let the madness begin.

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