The Illini destroyed border rival Missouri last night in the biggest blowout in the history of the Braggin’ Rights series. The combination of the Illini moving the ball with authority on the offensive end of the floor, a complete shutdown of the Tigers by the orange-clad defense, and the youth and inexperience of Mizzou created the 6th straight win for Illinois in the annual neutral site matchup in St. Louis. Last night’s game highlighted a few items I’ve observed so far this season:
1) Dee Brown Can Play the Point – Whether Dee could adjust to moving from 2 to 1 was probably the biggest question mark for the Illini coming into the season. Now, after a 12-0 start and #6 ranking, we hardly even remember that this ever was an issue in the first place. I’m not sure if Dee will become the NBA-level point guard that he wants to be and this year’s offense isn’t as polished as last year’s offense yet (and may never be), but the way he has handled this huge role change in running the show is a tribute to his effort and talent. If the national media ever stops going ga-ga over whether J.J. Redick or Adam Morrison ought to be national player of the year, I hope they overcome their collective A.D.D. to bring last year’s Sporting News Player of the Year into the discussion.
2) Jamar Smith will be a Star – Bruce Weber said before the season that Smith was a better shooter than even Dee and the coach has been proven right. Just as important, however, is that Smith brings as much spark to the defensive end of the floor as he does beyond the arc on the offensive end. Speaking of defense…
3) Defense Still Rules – For all of the talk about the backcourt play and passing game of last year’s Final Four team, that club propelled itself to a 37-2 record because they brought defensive intensity to the floor every single game. Likewise, as inconsistent as the scoring has been for this season’s Illini, they are still bringing on the heat defensively on a nightly basis. The Illini aren’t going to shoot like last night every game or even in a majority of games, but they know that they always have a chance to win as long as they keep up the defensive intensity no matter who their opponent is.
4) Charity Stripe Ain’t That Charitable – If there’s one glaring weakness with the Illini this year, it’s the performance at the free throw line. Last night, the Illini made 16 out of 24 free throws. Only making 2 out of every 3 free throws isn’t going to cut it against upper echelon teams like Michigan State. This needs to be improved or else it’s going to be the team’s Achilles heel all season.
5) Big Men Are Key – When James Augustine, Marcus Arnold, and Shaun Pruitt have games like last night when they combine for 30 points, the Illini are a Final Four-caliber team. However, when Arnold and Pruitt only combine for one field goal attempt as they did against the City of Coppin (State) on Sunday, the Illini struggle to beat guarantee game opponents. The degree of success of the Illini this year ultimately hinges upon the guys in the frontcourt getting touches almost every time down the floor. Even if they don’t ultimately score, this allows the Illini to spread out the offense and get guys like Dee, Jamar, and Brian Randle to spring free for open shots or easy buckets.
All in all, it was a fantastic game last night and an equally fantastic season so far for the Illini. There’s no easing into Big Ten play, though – the conference opener is at home against Michigan State, a team who’s way underrated because of their blips in Hawaii. Nonetheless, if we play like we did last night, we can wipe the floor with anyone.
P.S. I might be the only person in the world that believes this, but every time I see (soon to be ex) Mizzou coach Quin Snyder, I always think he’s the long-lost son of Christopher Walken. Maybe it’s the coach’s piercing eyes or the way he barks out at players on the floor – I really can’t explain it. All I know is that I’m positive that every time Snyder takes a 20-second timeout, he’s telling his team that the key to the game is more cowbell.