A few thoughts on Illinois and the state of the Big Ten after the 71-65 Illini victory over Minnesota:
1) The Inside Game Has Improved Dramatically – Last season, Illinois rode its perimeter players to the national championship game and that emphasis on outside shooting continued into the first part of this season. In the last few weeks, however, the Illini have shifted to getting more points in the paint, which I personally think is great. James Augustine, who had a fabulous performance last night with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists (leading the team in all of those categories), has become more consistent on a game-to-game basis. Just as important has been the development of Shaun Pruitt, who is really becoming a force inside. He still has some problems handling quick interior passes, but when he is able to catch the ball in the post, he’s been able to use his size to power in for points.
2) A Dickie V Reprieve – If my memory serves me correctly, the only Illini game that Dick Vitale called this season on ESPN was our tilt with North Carolina. While Steve Lavin wasn’t exactly sparkling (must he make the Road Runner “beep beep” sound every time Dee Brown touches the ball?), I was enthralled to see the great Brent Musburger and the even greater Erin Andrews work most of the Big Ten Super Tuesday games this year. Thank you, Bristol!
3) We Need to Root for Northwestern Tonight – Illinois now needs Ohio State to lose one of its last 2 games in order to have a shot at bringing a third straight Big Ten title back to Champaign. Tonight, the Buckeyes travel to Evanston to face Northwestern, which puts me in the semi-awkward position of cheering for the Wildcats. Here’s my Illini/Bears fan analogy to this situation: having to cheer for Indiana or Michigan is the equivalent of rooting for the Packers (which is about as pleasant as a root canal, cleaning a port-a-potty, or watching the Blackhawks), while having to cheer for Northwestern is like needing to root for the Detroit Lions. The Lions are a rival of the Bears on paper due to history and proximity but are pretty harmless on the field, so there’s not quite as much animosity and makes the situation, while not ideal, a little more palatable.
So, Go U Northwestern (just for today)!