Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Illinois Plays the Giant-Killer

With the way Illinois has been playing, I had almost zero hope that they would come into last night's game against Ohio State and be competitive, let alone win the matchup. Ohio State was everything that Illinois had thus far proven themselves unable to be, a basketball program that recruits very well, but at the same time develops players and consistently wins basketball games. I've gone on here to talk about how Bruce Weber and the Illini have loads of talent, but just need to play within a system, develop that talent, and translate it into wins on the court. Much of the time, I focus on G/F Brandon Paul within this context, noting that although he is a Junior and has untold potential and talent, that he is far too inconsistent. Well, hopefully we can take all that talk and shove it, for I think we just witnessed Paul and the Illini's coming out party.

Paul with one of his 8 threes
Paul dropped 43 points and had 4 tremendous blocks in a nationally-televised game against a top 5 opponent. Now, I hate the fact that Brandon Paul, a terrible career three point shooter, got 24 of his points launching threes. But still, when you're hot, you're hot! And really, when's the last time an Illinois player dropped 8 threes? I'll forgive Paul's usual three point shooting problems, and his inability to recognize it for a night like this. There was even that ridiculous sequence down the stretch where Paul drained an impossible three as the shot clock was expiring, and then came down and blocked a huge shot of Jared Sullinger. Sure, it was a single-handed victory based on the part of Brandon Paul, but really, isn't that what great players are supposed to do? Paul was given the defacto leadership and "best player on team" label when the season started, and perhaps that was too much pressure at first. He struggled to find consistency as he appeared to press hard to make things happen at times. But really, if Paul lets his game come to him, he can drive to the basket and give himself a better opportunity to develop the outside shot he loves so much.

To be sure, Illinois as a team showed all those things that have been so frustrating to the fanbase all year - weak rotational defense, waaaaaay too many turnovers, bad shot selection, and one-dimensional offense that must befuddle Weber. But still, it's impossible to nitpick on a team that just beat the best team in the Big Ten and the 5th ranked team in the country. I just hope that this win is foundational- Illinois builds off this win and finishes the season strong enough to get a high seed both in the Big Ten and the NCAA tournament. The talent is surely on the roster. We can be encouraged by the fact that this is a young team that had pretty much zero experience playing together before the season started, and we're only in the first half of the season. Could this Illini team be gelling at the right time? If they start to "get it," the sky is the limit. I don't foresee any grand success this season anyways, because of all the things that I listed at the start of this paragraph. However, there is no reason why Illinois can't go on a run based simply upon the talent on the roster. It's happened several times in college basketball history, and this is a down season regardless.

If Illinois can get a top 4 finish in the Big Ten, which is entirely reasonable, they could get a decent seed in the NCAA tourney and win at least the first round game, if not the second as well. And that is something that this program desperately needs right now. Illinois hasn't advanced to the Sweet Sixteen since the 2004-2005 season, and hasn't made any real impact in the tourney (besides last year's win over UNLV) since my freshman year in college, 2005-2006, when the remnants of the 04-05 National Championship game team was still on campus. That year, Dee Brown and James Augustine ultimately lost to Brandon Roy and Washington in the second round of the tourney, but the team overall finished 26-7 and you could just tell was a great team. They just ran into a great player in Roy, ending their tournament hopes. Now, Weber needs to show that he can take a team comprised entirely of his own players, develop them, and transfer it into NCAA tournament wins. Epic wins like last night against Ohio State are great for the program and a step in the right direction. Just look at the momentum that Indiana has this season since their huge victory over Kentucky earlier this season. A huge win can be a team-building effort, something that sparks the rest of the season. Here's hoping that last night's win over Ohio State does the same for this Illini team. Illini Nation needs it.