The Illini Can Still Do It

<p>All of the pre-season hype is over, and it's getting to be crunch time for all those who plan to attend the "Big Dance" in March. It's safe to say Illinois controls its own destiny.

"No disrespect to Wisconsin and Michigan State, but we are the best team in the Big Ten." Those were the words of sophomore guard Dee Brown before the season started. Currently Wisconsin and Michigan State are the leaders in the conference with only one game separating the two.

Illinois has gone through everything you can possibly imagine this season. Player suspension, Coach Bruce Weber having to stand up for himself, another player suspension, point guard Deron Williams breaking his jaw, Nick Smith fighting everything Weber was teaching, and now James Augustine is having nagging injuries. Things in Illini Nation blew up bad when they lost to Providence by twenty. Then the uninspired home effort against Purdue where Coach Weber seemed almost relieved that the game was over. The next faze was falling out of the nation's elite teams Top 25, compounded with a whipping from the conference leader Wisconsin in Madison.

Having said all that, if you look at the standings the Illini are only 1½ games out of first place right now. Let's be honest here. If they can take care of their home court and get a little help from other conference foes, the Big Ten title is possible. How sweet would that be for a first year coach?

All the naysayers can criticize the Big Ten all they want, but when tournament time comes around, Wisconsin, MSU and Illinois won't be the teams you want to play. My reasons are simple: all three of those teams can defend and have the players to compete with the best teams in the nation on a neutral court. Wisconsin's Devin Harris is as good a player there is in college hoops. MSU's Paul Davis is playing just like he did to end the season last year. The Illini still have one of the nation's best backcourts and both Brown and Williams can carry a team; and let's not forget about junior guard Luther Head.

But first things first: taking care of business in the league is their number one priority. On Sunday the Illini travel to Minnesota looking for its second consecutive road win. If they plan to make a title run, they need to keep the Gophers winless in league play.

When Ron Guenther hired Bruce Weber my first thought was, "This dude does well in the NCAA tournament." That's what most of us remember anyway, right? In a month I will say it's about "Weber time" and he can enjoy his off-season for a while. At least until the high schools' state tournaments.

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