NORTH LITTLE ROCK - There is no doubt that No. 3 Illinois, who could be top-ranked college basketball team in the country as soon as Monday, is "there."
The University of Arkansas is not "there" just yet, but they sure are getting closer.
That's why seconds after visiting Illinois' 72-60 win over the Razorbacks Saturday afternoon, many in the appreciative crowd of 13,140 at Alltel Arena stood and applauded as the home team left the floor.
"Our kids played hard," Arkansas head coach Stan Heath said. "They left it out there on the court so when your team does that, you can't do anything but move on and give them credit for doing that. That is a very good basketball team we played in Illinois."
Indeed the Fighting Illini (6-0) had buried both Gonzaga and No. 1 Wake Forest in the previous seven days - leading both by 30 in the second half.
Ronnie Brewer led Arkansas (5-1) with 21 points while freshman center Steven Hill swatted six shots away and the Razorbacks were within 57-53 with 7:49 left in the game.
But they would have only one field goal from that point on and Illinois put the game away from the free throw line on a day when both teams missed 15 each from the charity stripe.
Roger Powell had 19 points and a game-high 11 rebounds while Illinois junior All-American guards Deron Williams and Dee Brown had 13 each.
The visitors, who had only committed 13 turnovers in their first five games combined, had 14 on this day - including seven alone by Brown.
"I'm proud of us," Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said. "We didn't play pretty and the stats weren' pretty. Arkansas was very athletic and didn't let us get to our shooters."
Heath, whose team trailed 40-31 at halftime, said he and his program were not looking for moral wins.
"It wasn't a moral victory," Heath said. "All it was was a game that we could guage ourselves and learn from and hopefully put ourselves in position to win. It just didn't happen."
Arkansas shot 36.5 percent from the field - certainly its lowest total of the season - while Illinois hit 42.3 percent of its shots - also a season low.
Illinois has played nearly 500 minutes of basketball this season and trailed for just nine of those.
One of those minutes came when Eric Ferguson - who had seven points and six assists off the bench - scored to put the Razorbacks up 14-13 with 14:11 left in the game.
But Illinois came back to take the lead and never reliquished it from that point on even as Arkansas made runs at them on several occassions.
"Our goal was to do the best we could in the first hald and try to get into the second half because we thought we could wear them down and get them a little tired," Heath said. "To be honest with you I thought that happened. I don't think they had the same energy level. We were coming at them and it was a five-point game and we just needed a couple plays here and there and couldn't quite get them."
Freshman Charles Thomas and sophomore Olu Famutimi scored nine points each and Rashard Sullivan added six points and seven rebounds for Arkansas.
It certainly was a much better effort than the Razorbacks had while getting hammered 84-61 in Chicago last year.
"They are a much, much better team," Weber said. "If they can get the young ones going inside they are going to be very good. I bet they would have liked to have played us another month down the line."
Brewer, whose only flaw was going 1-of-7 from the free throw line, certainly impressed his foes.
"Brewer is shooting the ball much better," Weber said.
Brewer was 9-of-14 from the field, 2-of-4 from 3-point range, had four rebounds and four steals and an assist.
"I played okay, but I just thought we had a great chance to win a game against a great team and just didn't get it done," Brewer said. "We're going to get there soon."
Heath said the fact that Illinois has three great guards who are effective both offensively and defensively makes it hard to deal with them.
"What makes them so tough is they are not only good offensively shooting the ball, but they have so much speed and quickness that they match up very well defensively," Heath noted. "You can't get some of the kind of looks that you might get against other teams.
"...Still I thought our perimeter defense was outstanding," Heath said.
Arkansas will travel to face Missouri on Tuesday before taking a nine-day break for finals and then playing 7 games in 16 days to finish up its nonconference schedule.
UA freshman football star Marcus Monk,who dressed out but did not play, is expected to see his first action Dec. 16 when the Razorbacks host Tennessee State.
"He'll help," Heath said of the young man who was Mr. Basketball in Arkansas last year and who will be in New York Tuesday night accepting an award. "We're getting there. Just got to keep getting better."
No. 3 Illinois 72, Arkansas 60
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