They might as well just call the place Assembly Hall North. After breaking Wisconsin's 38 game Kohl Center win streak last season, the Illini returned to the scene of the crime and did it all over again, this time with a stifling defense, timely shooting, and excellent rebounding. The numbers don't lie. A plus 14 rebounding edge, a plus five turnover edge, and a shooting percentage six points better than their hosts. Those numbers are a recipe for success, and you don't seem a team put those numbers up very often on the road.
Balance was a key for the Illini, as four player finished the game in double figures with Dee and McBride leading the way (16 each). In case any potential guard recruits out there are wondering if if they can flourish in Bruce Weber's offense (as if last year wasn't enough), take note that Jamar Smith threw in 12 points as well, six coming on clutch three pointers, one near the end of the first half which pushed the Illini lead to five points, and the second of which pushed the lead back to seven points not long after the Badgers had cut it down to two. Wisconsin was really never in the game after that.
Shortly thereafter, the teams exchanged free throws, and the Illini shut the door for good. Following an offensive rebound on a missed free throw, Dee fed James Augustine for crowd deflating (at least, whatever air was left) dunk, followed by a McBride three that stretched advantage to 12. Wisconsin would not get closer than nine the rest of the way. About that dunk, note to Bo Ryan, you got your sh** worked on that Augustine slip screen TWICE last year in your gym. You really ought to have been prepared for it this time. It wasn't quite as perfectly exceuted as the Deron to Augie play that sunk Wiscy last year, but that's mostly because Krabbenhoft wasn't as dog tired as Wilkinson was last sesaon when Bruce Weber unveiled it. But it's still a thing of beauty when done correctly.
Speaking of Bruce Weber, how good is he? I mean, seriously. He simply outcoached Bo Ryan in this game. Illinois ran the right sets at the right time, and Weber subbed beautifully considering the foul situation. He got Augie back in the game when the Illini were struggling, and protected him well enough to keep him out of heavy foul trouble the rest of the way. No lllinois player fouled out, which is kind of surprising at Wisconsin. Give some credit to the officials as well. I thought they were way too quick to call fouls on anyone within breathing room of Alando Tucker in the first half, but they let the teams play in the second half. When an out of control Jason Chappell bulled his way into Augustine three times early in the second half as Wisconsin tried to pick up that third foul, the refs swallowed their whistles and recognized the ploy for what it was.
A couple of other quick points: 1) Does Bo Ryan ever look happy? I mean, EVER? It must be awful being that guy. Bo, you're coaching at a major university in one of the best conferences in the country. You have a good team. Lighten the hell up. 2) Hey, did any of you know that today was Super Bowl Media Day? I was a little unclear after the first 78 promos, but around promo number 83, it started to sink in.
The good things from tonight? Dee continues to be a major factor even when he's not shooting well, as he added seven assists, grabbed four rebounds, and had two steals. The shooters (McBride and Smith) shot the ball very well, especially Smith (4-4), which is rare on the road. I liked that McBride took 10 shots, as he continues to assert himself. Brian Randle was a monster on the glass with 13 rebounds and three tip in baskets in the first half. More importantly, he continued to attack the basket on numerous occasions. McBride, Smith, and Randle are the weapons for next year's offense, so to see them take steps and make major contributions this year is very important and very encouraging.
The bad? Well, the free throw shooting is still awful. They missed their first five, and although they made nine of their next eleven, six of those came after the game was out of reach, with four coming from Smith and McBride, who don't shoot them all that often. At some point, that's going to be a big problem, and I don't know if they have the time to really do the volume shooting that they need to make some improvement in that area. They've already lost one game thanks in no small part to bad free throw shooting, so keep on eye on that area.
Aside from that, this was a near perfect performance from this team. This would not have been near perfect for last year's team, but this team plays better defense, so they can afford to be a little more ragged on the offensive end. It makes the Illini the true front runner for another conference championship, but there are still pitfalls along the way. Hold serve at home, steal another big road win, and they'll be hanging another banner in the Assembly Hall. Or rather, Assembly Hall South.