Over the years Illinois has played some of the best teams in college basketball: Kansas, Arizona, Maryland, UCLA, UNC, and now Duke, again. But for some reason when the Illini play Duke it brings out the best in both universities. So this week, as the Illini prepare to play Duke for the right to move on to the field of eight, I decided to talk with some fans from both schools and hear what they have to say on the game.
My first victim was former Big Ten player Kevin Skillett who said, "Ked, I have to be honest with you here, when I was completing the bracket I had no problem picking Illinois to beat Duke. Let's face it, Duke gets all the press with their players but Dee Brown and Deron Williams are as good if not better then most players in college basketball. I love how they get out and push the basketball."
We know about slick shooting guard J.J. Redick and just-named 3rd team AA Chris Duhon, who recently injured his back in the ACC Championship game against Maryland. Don't think for one minute that Duhon will not be ready to play against Illinois.
Duke fan Jeff Tice, who resides in Bettendorf, Iowa said, "Illinois fans can be tough. I know living here in Iowa how they feel about the Hawks, but this weekend should be a war. Also, when the Dukies win maybe they will understand why Shaun Livingston chose Duke over the Illini."
This game is not only about recruits, even though the Illini have been beaten a few times by the Blue Devils with Sean Dockery, Michel Thompson, Corey Maggette and now Shaun Livingston. But the game is about more than that. It's about conference pride - Big Ten Champions vs. the ACC Champions. People said the Big Ten was down this year. The Illini are trying to prove they belong with the nation's best teams.
People can sit here and break down match-ups all day long, but what will decide this game will be which team can execute, convert, make free throws and defend. The team that does all of those things will win this battle.
Tony Moreno, a fan of neither team, feels that head coach Mike Krzyzewski may be the real difference-maker in the game. "What I've noticed about Coach K is when his teams get down or teams prove they can play with his teams he really starts to bark at the officials and more times than not, calls can go his way." This week so much has been made about the "special treatment" the Duke teams can get from time to time. I don't need to explain it all, but just in case see Maryland's Gary Williams and Arizona's Lute Olson.
Just remember, Illini fans, what the outlook on the season was back in December and where it is today. Bruce Weber has done wonders for Illinois basketball and it appears he is not yet done.