Illini In Win-Win Situation Vs. Kansas

From the frying pan to the fire. The Fighting Illini basketball team, fresh off an impressive and heartwarming triumph over UNLV in the NCAA Tournament, must now face #1 seed Kansas and former Illini coach Bill Self in Tulsa Sunday night. Self has assembled an extremely talented and deep squad that expects to reach the Final Four.

Kansas has everything it needs to win another National Championship. It has a strong inside presence with junior twins Marcus Morris (6'-9", 235) and Markieff Morris (6'-10", 245), who are the team leaders both in scoring and rebounding. And they have a bevy of talented guards who can knock down shots, especially when defenses collapse on the Morris twins.

Marcus Morris leads the team with a 17.3 scoring average, while Markeiff is right behind with 13.7 points. Both average around 8 boards a game, both shoot nearly 60% from the field and can knock down open threes. Sophomore Thomas Robinson (6'-9", 237) backs them with an 8 point average, while fellow soph Jeff Withey (7'-0", 235) is insurance for foul trouble.

Guards Tyrel Reed (6'-3", 193), Tyshawn Taylor (6'-3", 185), Josh Selby (6'-2", 183) and Brady Morningstar (6'-4", 185) all average between 7 and 10 points a game. Three of them shoot around 40% from three, while Selby checks in at 36%.

Reed and Morningstar are cagy seniors, Thomas is at times inconsistent but leads the team in assists, and Selby was a consensus All-American last year who didn't gain eligibility until a third of the way into the season.

Chicago senior Mario Little (6'-6", 218) was recruited by Illinois out of junior college but preferred Kansas. Travis Releford (6'-5", 207) and Elijah Johnson (6'-4", 195) are sophomores who provide good depth. Kansas is shooting 51% as a team, and 40% from the arc.

The Jayhawks have lost only two games this entire season, and they are now past first game jitters. They have proven over time to be a dominant team that is especially good in the clutch. Illini concerns include handling the physicality of the Morris twins inside and the talent, athleticism and depth of the front court.

Besides the importance of the game, which will propel the winner into the Sweet 16, there is the issue of Bill Self's time at Illinois. In three years, he won 78 of 102 games. He won two Big 10 championships and a Big 10 Tournament championship. He made the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 in two of his three tries at the NCAA Tournament.

More than that, he became somewhat of a pied piper for recruits, bringing in talent from near and far and gaining the interest of nationally prominent athletes unheard of before or since. He was a top practice coach and bench coach with an extremely intelligent basketball mind. Of course, he still is.

More than that, he can charm the bark off trees. Like the evangelical preacher, he gathers a large following wherever he pitches his tent. His magnetism is so strong, he draws friends like moths to a flame. They are helpless in his presence, as if mesmerized by his engaging smile and disarming, good ol' boy approach.

He has media eating out of his hands. He feeds them inside information, and they reciprocate with undying loyalty. If he wanted to spin a story to his benefit, few if any would question his veracity. That is a powerful tool available to few. One suspects it must be difficult for Self to remain honest when deception is so easy to manufacture.

He had everything going for him at Illinois when Kansas came calling. He claimed he wanted to stay at Illinois even when it appeared inevitable he would move to greener pastures where long-term reputation, minimal previous NCAA scrutiny and friendly admission standards allowed him opportunities unavailable at Illinois.

When he finally announced he was leaving, Athletic Director Ron Guenther kicked him out of his office before he could say goodbye to his players, who were on spring break. Self has stated publicly his frustration at being unable to say a proper farewell, but it appeared to those on the inside Self was hiding his true intent just so he could stay around to see the players again.

The truth of what happened at that time will never be known. Guenther refuses to discuss negotiations in the press, but insiders claim he went to bat for Self only to find out his efforts were never considered. Since a search for a new coach was being delayed, it was imperative to begin that process before it was too late.

Illini Nation exploded in negative reaction to Self's departure. The fans saw Self as the one who could lead them to the promised land, and they felt jilted. They began to revise history with all sorts of incorrect descriptions of the coach. Many still resent him today and want nothing better than to defeat him in Tulsa.

Self likely made the right decision for himself. And his record of seven straight Big 12 championships and a national crown attest to that. Whether it hurt Illinois in the process is the main sticking point. That is of no concern to him, but it remains a concern to many Illini fans and administrators.

As for the Illini, Self's replacement Bruce Weber helped take the 2004-05 team to the National Championship game and is back in the NCAA chase after some up and down years since. Self was a hard act for anyone to follow; Weber has struggled with gaining acceptance.

Now is his chance to demonstrate his skill as a coach by direct comparison with his predecessor, although he is entering the Sunday game at a disadvantage. He does not have the talent or depth Kansas presents, and his team lacks the swagger that comes with repetitive success.

Few if any predict victory, so it is a win-win situation for Weber's Illini. If they lose, it was expected. If they win, it will be glorious. Of course, losing big would cause the boo birds to return. But the Illini have been up and down all year. One more down game would not be a total shock.

An Illinois loss will not mean Self is a better coach than Weber, just that he had a better team this year. A win will not prove Weber the superior coach either. But it would sure give him a little temporary peace of mind. That is, until the next game.

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