Tuesday, November 20, 2007
All my life, when pressed on the issue, I have said that if I could only have ONE championship for ONE of my favorite teams I would take a Padres World Series victory over a Chargers Super Bowl, an Illini BCS title or an Illini NCAA Championship.
But here's the thing: watching Bruce Weber's boys play so well last night in Maui, passing the ball around and getting open shots in a way that - dare I say it - resembled at times the artistry of the '04-'05 team, made me so damn happy that I think I can now say with complete and total confidence that what I want most in sports is an NCAA Championship for the University of Illinois Men's Basketball Team.
There. I said it. And you can't make me take it back.
(Aside to Peavy, LT and Zook: On the million to 1 chance you are reading this please understand this does not absolve you from working your butts off to win a championship. I expect continued greatness from you and will support the championship effort in any way I can ... as if writing this blog wasn't already enough.)
But let's everybody calm down. I'm not saying this Illinois team is as good as the '04-'05 team. What I am saying is that last night the team played with the type of smooth execution that I haven't seen much since the '04-'05 team. It certainly wasn't present with last year's team - a team beset by injuries that clawed its way into the NCAA tourney but couldn't finish off a sneaky Virginia Tech team - and really wasn't there much with Dee and James's '05-'06 squad that never quite got things together without Deron and Luther. But last night it was there.
Specifically, here are a few things I saw that I haven't seen before or haven't seen in awhile:
1. MJ in the orange Illini golf shirt. This has to get a mention. I mean it's MJ. In an Illini shirt.
2. A healthy Brian Randle. To paraphrase Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, 'tis better for Brian Randle to be healthy ... than to not.
3. The long cross-court skip passes. Where were these last year? In the motion offense this is the way to get open looks. Is Pruitt just that much better a passer now? Have Meacham and Frazier finally figured it out?
4. Randle will dunk in your face. When healthy, you can count on one or two ridiculous dunks a game from Randle. I'd almost - almost - forgotten about that.
5. Tisdale and Cole ... Cole and Tisdale. I see opposing coaches starting to agonize about these guys like Jack Palance agonized about Tango and Cash in Tango and Cash (can't you hear Palance wheezing: "Tango and Cash ... Cash and Tango"). Are they the most athletic big men around? No. But they both can shoot, pass, rebound and play a little D. Good luck tonight, Kyle Singler.
6. Frazier shooting. Last year Frazier could not shoot the rock. That's not news. But last night he shot well from beyond the arc. If he hits those shots with a degree of consistency this year ...
So, to sum up, ASU might not be great - Sendek will turn them around - but the Illini never looked this good all last season. Even against the little guys last November and December.
Bring on the Duck Blue Devils.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
But look here. We've got some players in Champaign now. Guys who hit the field and flat out play. You know their names by now. Guys like Norwell, Davis, Miller and Harrison. J Leman. Guys like Benn and Dufrene. Eddie McGee. Jeff Cumberland. Some freshmen who are waiting for their time, guys like Josh Brent and Martez Wilson. A few more guys who can catch, Hudson and Gamble. The big kids on the o-line: Xavier Fulton, Jon Asamoah, Martin O'Donnell, Ryan McDonald, Akim Millington. And who do they move mountains for? Mostly a guy named Rashard and a guy named Juice.
Players. All of them. I'm just proud to be able to go out on Saturdays and watch these men play hard, play to win, and leave everything out on the field.
(pause as a single tear rolls down his cheek)
I'm just real proud.
Well, that's all the time I'm going to take for now. I'd say see you in Orlando on January 1 but I've heard some folks say we may go out to Tempe. You know what? It doesn't matter. Wherever they send us we'll be there.
We. Will. Be. There.
Monday, November 12, 2007
Some quick context: I watched the game in the living room of my apartment in the same Illini stocking cap I ran five miles in earlier in the morning. Tasty. Needless to say it is unlikely I will ever watch another game without that Illini stocking cap, and that includes a possible Cappy One Bowl appearance in Orlando on New Year's Day.
Query: will they let me into Pleasure Island wearing a stocking cap? Only a stocking cap?
But I digress. On to the game.
Early on it was a game of Buckeye punch/Illini counterpunch.
Buckeye Punch: Boeckman finds Hartline on the first play from scrimmage for a 65 yarder and then a play later Chris Wells runs 11 yards for the score. 7-0 Bluckeyes.
Illini Counterpunch: Daniel "Danny" Dufrene runs untouched for 80 yards before a sneaky push tackle from behind trips him up a few yards short of the end zone. A play later Juice flips a little pass to Bloomington's own Michael Hoowamanawanui for the score. 7-7.
Buckeye Punch: The other running back named Wells on the Bluckeyes scores on a 19 yard run. 14-7 Buckeyes.
Illini Counterpunch: After a Dere Hicks INT Juice feathers a pass 33 yard over the middle to Jacob Willis who falls into the end zone. 14-14. I'll be honest. Until that point I wasn't sure Juice could "feather" anything, least of all a football. But he did. And I am thankful.
And from there it was just a great game.
The defenses tightened down and players hit hard. Vontae Davis smacked a guy so hard he knocked himself out of the game. Kind of like how in Good Will Hunting Robin Williams said his wife used to fart so loud in her sleep she would wake herself up. What a monster.
The first half closed with Juice hitting Brian Gamble for an 8 yard touchdown and the Illini lead 21-14.
Highlights of the great great second half included:
- the Antonio Steele interception in the end zone after the Buckeyes had driven to first and goal at the Illini 9. The first two plays from goal netted the Buckeyes nothing and then on third down Marcus Thomas batted the ball in the air and Steele made the INT.
- Juice taking over and running 5 times for 33 yards and then lofting a 31 yard TD to Marques Wilkins that stayed up in the air for so long that the DB almost got to it but then ... didn't.
- Juice taking over again after the Buckeyes scored in the 4th Quarter to pull to 28-21. The Buckeyes had the ball again and were driving for the tie when Marcus Thomas snaked an INT (the kid was filling in for the monster that is Vontae Davis and made two huge plays) allowing Juice to get the ball back. Then Juice pulled a little Vince Young impersonation and used a series of handoffs, options and quarterback runs to bleed out the clock.
The only thing left was for a little scrum at midfield (just a little shovin' among competitors) and then an emotional, watery-eyed interview with the Zooker, Juice and Bonnie Bernstein. Just all around good television.
Monday, November 5, 2007
Just a disgusting display. Topped off by the Raider fan standing behind me at Time Out saying over and over again "you gotta love this hat trick" as the Bolts, Chiefs and Broncos all lost early games on three TV's hanging above the bar.
At least my friend and his wife completed the marathon and then we housed some appys at P.D. O'Hurleys and watched the Colts-Pats.
Friday, November 2, 2007
The Illini obviously didn't need me as they rolled to the win in Minny. The most improbable thing about the game were the reports that Juice had some touch on his passes. I haven't seen any of these "passes with touch" but if it's true they exist that's about the best news the Illini could get.
On to Columbus ...