The dust has settled and my fit of blind rage has ended. I am now ready to think objectively about the fact that the Fighting Illini, the best basketball team in the country, fell 1 point, 5.1 seconds, away from finishing the regular season undefeated.
Bruce Weber has stated all along that going undefeated was never a goal for this team. It was just something that got thrust upon them because they just kept winning every time they set foot on the court. Until sunday.
What happened yesterday was simple. Illinois was hesitant. They lacked confidence at times. They did not play the style of basketball that brought them to 29-0.
There have been games when Deron Williams didn't look like the highly touted player that he is. Same for Luther and Dee. But in the past, what has kept this team winning is that there was never a night when all three were off at the same time. Until Sunday.
Deron went 1-7 from the floor and ended the game with only 2 points. Usually when he performs that poorly offesively he dishes out double digit assits and plays iron clad defense. Yesterday he dished out only 3 assists and his last minute leap toward the three point arc failed to disrupt that smug bastard Matt Sylvester's game winning three pointer.
Dee Brown started the game strong and finished with 13 points, which is about average for him. But what was below average for Dee yesterday was his mental toughness. When he badly missed a three point shot late in the first half the crowd began to chant "air ball" every time the ball was in his hands. He didn't score from the field again. Brown is the Illini's source of energy and confidence. They can't afford to have him let other people get in his head like that. Usually when he makes a mistake and follows it up with some amazing feat, like he's got something to prove. Yesterday, he just looked timid. I didn't realize that word was even in his vocabularly.
Luther had the most solid game of the three guards with 12 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists. But it wasn't enough. We've all come to expect more from him when the other guards struggle offensively.
As far as the Illini's so called week interior, Roger Powell posted a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Rebounding was supposedly a big concern following the blowout of Purdue in which the Illini were beat on the boards. But the Illini beat the Buckeyes in both rebounding and second chance points. The Illini did show some interior weakness on defense with Sylvester and Terrence Dials combining for 46 points. But Augustine sat out for 19 minutes because of foul trouble. I think it's also important to remember that when the teams met earlier in the season in Champaign, Dials was held to just 7 points. Roger Powell's size seems to be a concern for many people but he has made a career out of defending people bigger than he is and doing it well.
What was really the difference yesterday was a sub having a career game on a day the Illini struggled mentally. Personally, I think they beat themselves. Sure, Sylvester's 25 points and game winning three, that he supposedly fantasized about to a teammate early this week, helped. (Personally, I think that claim made by Sylvester after the game is a pile of bovine feces). But what was really the story of the game was the Illini not going for the jugular and putting away an inferior team when they had the chance. I don't expect to see that again from this team.
If we've learned anything by watching this team all season, it's that they handle pressure well. They also thrive off being doubted. They play the best when they have something to prove. In the last few weeks the doubters have mostly disappeared. But now, some of the newly converted believers are likely to become naysayers once more. In my opinion, that will fuel the Illini to the first National Championship in school history.
SONG OF THE MOMENT:
War Chant - The Univeristy of Illinois Basketball Band