Illinois is gaining momentum. After an astonishing win against Missouri in which they almost blew a 21 point lead, Illinois is ready to take the court again. In what has been some weird scheduling the Illini have played only 2 games in the past 17 days. But has the scheduling been a blessing in disguise? Perhaps. With Deron Williams out the Illini have had to do some searching. Bruce Weber has been able to play around with the lineup a bit and Illinois could be better off in the long run because of it.
Weber decided after the Providence game that it was time to just coach. He had seen and heard just about enough so it was time to roll up the sleeves and lay down the law. His team has responded beautifully as they have united and put their previous differences aside and endorsed Coach Weber. Even Dee Brown who has long been publicized as the one that wasn't buying in to Weber's system has come around. Dee had to learn the hard way as he tried to rebel against Weber before realizing that coach had the best interests for Dee and the team. It's hard to fault a college sophomore for being this way. When you step back you realize these are all just kids trying to find their way in life and on the court.
What Williams injury has done is allowed for the emergence of Richard McBride. It is yet to be seen how Weber will juggle the lineup once Williams returns, but McBride has moved his way up the depth chart. In fact with this last game he might have passed Luther Head in the rotation. Regardless, Illinois will need all of their guards to play significant minutes for them to be successful.
As the Illini look ahead to the matchup against Jimmy Collins led UIC Flames, they see a team that is excited to knock off a ranked opponent. The matchup gets more interesting as there is a definite Chicago flavor to the atmosphere. The trash talk will be in full effect as you can guarantee Dee Brown doesn't want to go back to Chicago this summer and hear about how he lost to UIC. What Illinois should not do is overlook this talented UIC squad. UIC should contend for the Horizon League title and have a chance of gaining an NCAA tournament berth. A win over the Illini would speak volumes for them.
The teams both rely on jet quick, pass first mentality guards in Martell Bailey and Dee Brown. Bailey led the nation in assists with 8.1 apg. Brown is the preseason Big 10 Player of the Year and finally broke out of a little slump against the Missouri Tigers. Look for Brown to consistently push the ball up the floor to create fast break opportunities. Brown is also not afraid to bomb from deep 3-point range. If he gets on a roll, the Flames will be cooled off.
The UIC leading scorer is Cedric Banks who is averaging 19.6 ppg. At first glance he seems undersized for a forward. This would be the perfect matchup for Deron Williams but he will not be in action. Look for Richard McBride to get the call early on to stop Banks and if he can't then Weber will most likely throw Roger Powell, Brian Randle, or Head at him.
UIC will have problems defending the much bigger Illini. James Augustine should come close to a double double again. Look for Nick Smith and Jack Ingram to get some quality minutes as well. Weber was quoted after the Mizzou game that they had a hard time getting Smith to realize that every game is a big game and that he can't just play good in those types of settings. Look to see if Smith buys into that philosophy and takes it to the Flames.
On paper it looks like the Illini have too much for the Flames to handle. I thought the same thing was true when Illinois played Missouri but look what happened. Illinois needs to come out as aggressive as they did in the 1st half of the Braggin Rights game. If they can get through these next couple games with an unblemished record without Deron Williams, they will be ready to roll come Big 10 season time.
KEYS TO WATCH:
1. See if Illinois can finally close out a 1st half strong.
2. Check out Weber's rotation to see if McBride passes up Head on the depth chart.
3. Watch to see if Nick Smith comes out with a chip on his shoulder.