Late this afternoon, my boss walked by my desk and struck up a quick conversation about the Illini with me and a colleague. They more or less agreed that the Illini are somewhat overrated in the middle of the top ten. It sounded about right at first, mostly because I think we're all still comparing this team with last year's team, and let's face it, we're not used to losing hardly ever. But just look at their resume. They're 18-2, with both losses coming on the road against teams who are either entrenched in or have sniffed the top 25. They have wins over Michigan State, at Oregon, Georgetown, at North Carolina, and Xavier. They have 10 wins of 19 points or more, and a few over 30. Sure, some of those came against no name opponents, but give them credit for taking care of business (ya listening, Wisconsin?).
So are they really overrated at #7? I think we see them play ugly games like at Iowa, and at Northwestern. We remember the one point win against Wichita State. We see them trying to force the offense a little too much, and we see them waiting for Dee to take bad shots at the end of the shot clock, and we can't fathom why they're rated so close to last year's near perfect team. Honestly, we might never see an Illinois team run an offense as smoothly as the they ran it last year. But the defense, by all accounts, may very well be better, as Bruce Weber believes. They're deeper, and Brian Randle is a true shut down small forward who can guard bigger players as well as smaller, quicker players, without missing a beat.
Tonight, especially in the second half, we saw just why they're ranked in the top ten. The moved the ball on offense. They passed out of the double team in the post. They worked for and hit open threes, and individually, they started playing like we've wanted to see them play. Sean Pruitt was more active in the post than his numbers indicate. Brian Randle, who finished with 10 points and five rebounds, attacked the basket on numerous occasions, including a high flying alley-oop dunk on a great lob by Jamar Smith. Smith was on fire himself, hitting 5 three pointers on 8 attempts and finishing with sixteen points. And like they must be for the Illini to win, Augie and Dee were solid yet again, Augie finishing with 13 and 9, while Dee added a team high 17 points to go along with five rebounds and five assists. The hilight for me was the lazer beam Dee threw to Augustine in the post from the top of key for an easy dunk. Now granted, Minnesota is not a great team by any means, and the Illini were at the Hall, where, for opponents, stealing a victory has become tougher than scaling Everest (I believe that's 32 straight).
This conference is going to be filled with battles night in and night out, as Iowa showed Indiana and Michigan showed Michigan State (who blew a 10 point lead in Ann Arbor). There's no shame in losing on the road. But tonight, the Illini showed that the pollsters are getting right so far.