Thursday, February 05, 2004

Fading Illini

Illinois’ big win at Bloomington the other night has momentarily smoothed over Bruce Weber’s rocky start down in Champaign-Urbana. The Big Ten campaign started off with a bad loss at home against Purdue and even worse road loss at Northwestern, stopping a 14 game win streak against the Wildcats. Illinois was also lucky to pull out an OT win at home against a very bad Illinois State team just prior to conference play. To top it off Illinois fell out of the AP Top 25 leaving them unranked for the first time in 64 polls. It wasn’t long ago when a national championship just seemed a matter of time at Illinois. Now they will have to win a couple more road games just to ensure an NCAA berth.

Their record at 13-5, 5-3, in not as good as it looks. They have not had a tough schedule and 5 of their first 8 Big Ten games were at home. Two of their remaining three home games are against conference leaders Wisconsin and Michigan State. They currently have an 39 RPI ranking and will probably need to win one of those games to make it to the tourney.

Back in the late nineties it looked as though Illinois might break through to become one of the elite national programs. They had successfully recruited the top three players from one of the best high school basketball teams in state history, Peoria Central, who won three consecutive state titles. It was thought the nucleus of Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin & Frank Williams would lead Illinois to the promised land. Add to the mix Big Ten freshman of the year, Corey Bradford, Lincoln HS (IL) recruit Brian Cook, tremendous role players such as Damir Krupalija, Lucas Johnson, Robert Archibald and Sean Harrington, and it wasn’t hard to imagine multiple trips to the final four.

Finally, after Lon Krueger left to coach the Atlanta Hawks, Bill Self took over the reins of the program in 2000. While Krueger put the program in good shape, Self seemed to take them to the next level. Coming off an Elite Eight appearance at Tulsa there was no telling how far he could take the Illini.

The 2000-01 season saw Illinois make it to the Elite Eight, where they lost a tough game to the eventual runner-up Arizona. It was the third game against Arizona and the teams were pretty evenly matched. Illinois ended up losing 2 out of the 3 meetings, but I do not doubt that if Illinois could have gotten past the Wildcats in the rubber match they very well could have won their first national championship.

Yet after the loss, there was still reason for optimism. Both McClain and Griffin were gone, but two new recruits Luther Head and Roger Powell were supposed to bring new life to the club. And Frank Williams, Brian Cook, Robert Archibald, and Corey Bradford still made up a solid nucleus. Alas, 2000-01 would be the closest Illinois would come to the Final Four for the foreseeable future.

The last players from that 2000-01 season, Brian Cook and Sean Harrington, have now graduated. Bruce Weber is already taking heat from disgruntled fans. But the problems of the Illini are not entirely his fault. Bill Self left the frontlines without a lot of muscle. Charlie Villanueva may have helped but he bolted along with Bill Self. So after years of pounding people inside with Griffin, Archibald, Cook, Krupalija, and Johnson, Weber is trying to make due with a tall but perimeter oriented player Nick Smith and a talented but young forward James Augustine. After that, the frontcourt is basically made up of swingmen such as Powell, Head and freshman Brian Randle.

The weakness upfront could be overcome with some better guard play but Illinois' talented guard duo of sophomores Deron Williams and Dee Brown have both had problems. Williams, their best defensive player and an improving offensive presence, suffered a broken jaw in the early season. Dee Brown, the “human fast break” is not living up to the potential he flashed his freshman year. Most likely, he was a bit overhyped by the fans, media, and most importantly himself. He will definitely need to work on his outside shot before he can be considered one of the nations top point guards.

I think the Illini will be able to make it to 9-7 in Big Ten play and make it to the tourney. But with a suspect frontline I would look for another second round exit. As for the future, I think it will be a while before Illini fans can again daydream about the final four.