In Utah we hit a series of winter storms. One stranded us on a mountain highway because a semi jackknifed and we had to wait for a snow plow.
An hour later we swerved off the road and into a snow bank. We had to walk to a gas station in an attempt to get a tow. No one answered and we got a pair of shovels from the attendant. On our way back a pair of locals gave us a ride and offered to pull us out of the snow. That was nice, but the car skidded right at us and Matt Messina and myself had to dive into the snow to avoid being hit.
With the various delays we spent almost 24 hours in or around the car. In Kanab, Utah we learned that unless you are local, you don't get good service in the local diner and that it takes three cans of ‘Fix-A-Flat' to find one that isn't so old that the pressure is so depleted that it does not work.
Two days in Tucson and it was off to Chicago. Luckily the trip was mostly uneventful, save for the shady rental car company we used. Let's put it this way, you won't find a sign for them in the airport and I think one of the rental agents was taking bets on various sporting events.
We are staying in a motel in Elk Grove that wasn't exactly the Ritz-Carlton. We had to rearrange the room just to get the roll-away into the room. The high-speed internet they promised turned out to be a single high-speed station in the lobby that was not working.
We headed off to the arena early, only to learn that there were no media parking permits. After getting our credentials we went to lunch. Chicago is one of the best cities in the world for food and where did we go? That's right, Chili's.
The set-up of the arena is strange. The media center is across the street and you have to travel underground to get to the actual arena floor. They have a fleet of golf carts to drive you, but it is similar to an underground military bunker minus the armed guards and security codes.
There have been several ‘celebrity' sightings. Working behind me was Jay Mariotti, of the Chicago-Sun Times and ESPN. Later on I saw former Georgetown coach John Thompson show up. Talk about a guy with presence. Later I spotted Michael Wilbon (thankfully minus Tony Kornheiser) and Jay Bilas.
One odd aspect is the request that you put your beverages in a blue NCAA/Dasani cup. I guess they don't want cans of Coke products getting fee publicity at press row, but they also make you pour your bottle of Dasani water into a Dasani water cup.
The arena is a sea of orange, and few appear to be Oklahoma State fans. Although there are several thousand UW-Milwaukee fans in the house, they are drown out by what must amount to about 13,000 Illini fans. Before the game Panther center Derrick Ford hurt himself during warm-ups. It appeared as if the floor was slick and he went down hard on a lay-up attempt. The floor is over a sheet of ice. All-State Arena is the home of the AHL Chicago Wolves. For those of you who forgot, the AHL is a minor league hockey federation. Hockey is a sport that is popular in Canada and thrived in the mid-90's.
Because you demand it, another installment of Cheerleader Watch. The UW-Milwaukee crew does not really stand up. I would have to say that overall they are below average. Most of them would not fall into the cute category.
We have the requisite drunken fans who hate the refs behind us. After every call they don't like they ‘demote' the offending official. "The next game you work is going to be a high school practice game," was their last blast. They haven't liked a call all night long. When Deron Williams grabbed a streaking Panther player from behind in a bear hug, they protested loudly.
My impressions of Illinois is that they are good, but are in love with the three. I'm not sure they can win without the three-pointer. Almost every possession looks for a three.
I am impressed with their size and strength. I knew Deron Williams and Luther Head were big, strong kids, but I did not know that Dee Brown was as put together as he is. They have great quickness, but I don't know if they are as athletic as Washington.
Bill Murray is in the house. I am 150 feet from comedic greatness.
UW-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl looks like he could be on the ‘Sopranos'. He's not in full-on gangster mode, but he does have the really nice suit and an air of toughness about him.
The Panthers are scrappy. They have some nice looking athletes and appear to be very well coached. Joah Tucker is 6-5, 220 and solid. He can hit from the outside but can battle inside.
Dee Brown just drained a three and at the 12:23 mark the Illini are up 58-45. As tough as UW-Milwaukee has played, they just don't have enough to beat Illinois in what is essentially an Illini home game.
Someone told me that the arena holds 16,900 fans and I don't see it. It is long, but not very high. It has the length of our typical hockey arena, but the lower stands are not nearly as high as McKale's. Their upper deck holds a lo of fans and both levels have a very gradual incline, possibly giving it the illusion of being smaller than it really is.
Funny stat: at the end of the first half seven of the eight Panther players had two rebounds apiece. Only Ed McCants failed to register two, he had one.
I also like the fact that UW-Milwaukee has a player named "Boo", not quite as good as "Squeeky" but still a good nickname in this day and age of cookie-cutter nicknames like "D-Wil", "K-Dub" and the like.
For all you who argue about whether Williams, Brown or Luther Head are more important, the Panthers went on a 7-0 run when Brown went to the bench for a rest.
I just realized with 7:30 to play that neither team is wearing white. Illinois, the home team, are sporting orange unis. UW Milwaukee is in black. This leads me to wonder if the Cats are wearing the red or if they will revert to the blue. They have not worn a road uniform in five games.
It may come as no surprise but of the 27 players on either roster, only five hail from somewhere other than the Midwest. Four of the five are from Texas. The rest of the players are from Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin. Illinois center Nick Smith is from Florida. These are the things I look up while Illinois is up 15.
Panthers within nine and Pearl is going nuts on the sideline. He jumping up and down and screaming at his team to make a stop. They actually get one when Roger Powell is called for a travel. They have 3:56 left to make a near miraculous comeback.
Despite some nice defense, UW-Milwaukee can't do enough on offense to get over the hump. It is all but time to ink Illinois into the Elite Eight on your bracket.