When Skip Prosser walked onto the Assembly Hall court to shake Bruce Weber's hand, he just had to laugh, but it would be his only laugh of the night. Prosser saw Bruce Weber's bright orange sports coat, matching the orange in the stands and knew he was in one of the best atmospheres in college basketball. In the previous four Paint the Hall Orange games, Illinois has gone 4-0 and there was only one close game.
The first ever Paint the Hall Orange was February 6, 2001 against Michigan State. The Illini defeated the Spartans 77-66 in what would be the closest outcome of any PTHO night. The next year Illinois defeated Iowa 77-66 in a game that Dick Vitale called the 'Frank Williams Show, baby!' The next two years Michigan State was the victim of the Illini again with 30 and 24 point losses in consecutive seasons. Wednesday night, Wake Forest's Skip Prosser found out what it was like to be Tom Izzo against Illinois during Paint the Hall Orange. He realized that it was not a good feeling at all.
But, this all could not have happened. With 17:15 left in the first half Illinois' best player, Deron Williams, picked up his second foul with Illinois only up 9-5. The crowd inside of Assembly Hall silenced, and they were all wondering how the Illini would react. My initial thoughts were: 'I just hope they can get to half tied or only down four without Deron in the game.' You could cut the tension in Assembly Hall with a knife. Then something happened, Illinois' Rich McBride hit a three pointer. Then Illinois' Roger Powell, Jr. hit a three pointer. The fans knew what the players already knew; they could win this game and win big without Deron Williams on the floor.
The vaunted match up between the Illinois and Wake Forest back courts was not that good of a match up. The Illini dominated the game in the back court. Illinois' Dee Brown and Luther Head each scored 16 points to take up some of the slack for Deron while he was on the bench, but it was not them that stepped up their game the most on Wednesday night; it was senior forward Roger Powell, Jr. Roger led Illinois with 19 points and he did it on the inside and the outside. Whether Roger was hitting the mid range shot, the lay up, or the three point shot, he was every thing the Illini needed on Wednesday night.
The Illini headed into the half with a 54-33 lead, scoring fifty points in the first half for the fourth time this season. Everything was going right for the Illini, and Wake Forest just could not slow them down. The question was what type of adjustments were we going to see after the half? What did Skip Prosser have up his sleeve? Since I am an Illinois fan, I was thinking the worst, and actually going back to the Arizona comeback on Kansas in Allen Field House a few years ago. Arizona was down big in the first half, and just lit up Kansas in the second half to win the game.
The Fighting Illini would not let that happen. They are too mature and too focused this season to let up on an opponent when the game is still on the line. Sure, there are lulls, like when the Illini only scored four points in the first six minutes of the second half, but they also only allowed eight points. When this Illinois team is sensing the opposition is starting to feel like they may come back in the game, they put their foot down on their throat and just close off all possible life from the opposition. On Wednesday night that was done with a 9-2 run that extended the Illinois lead to 72-45 with 10:48 left in the game that essentially ended the game.
ILLINI OFFENSE / DEFENSE BY THE NUMBERS
Once again, the Illini offense was simply amazing. The Illini scored 91 points on 56% shooting from the floor. On defense, the Illini were not as crisp as they have been earlier in this season, but that is to be expected against one of the better offensive teams in the nation.
Offensive Efficiency: 130.67
Defensive Efficiency: 104.82
Points per Possession (Offensive): 1.31
Points per Possession (Defensive): 1.05
On Wednesday night, the Illini were crisp in all aspects of their offense. For the first time all season, Illinois faced a team that would pressure the ball and force the Illini offense out farther on the perimeter. The question as to how they would respond was answered with a dominant performance. Illinois took Wake Forest's pressure and used it against them by cutting back door and ball faking to create open shots. The Illini picked apart what it known as a weak Wake Forest defense, and they did it with a precision that is rarely seen against an opponent the caliber of Wake Forest.
People wondered if Illinois' offensive output against Gonzaga was a fluke, tonight they showed the country that it wasn't.
Defensively, Illinois hounded the Demon Deacons all over the court. Chris Paul and Justin Gray combined for 7-27 shooting, 8 assists, and 3 turnovers. The only player that was able to really score at will against Illinois was Erik Williams who added 18 points on 7-13 shooting against the Illinois front line. Like the Illini did against Gonzaga's Ronny Turiaf, they double teamed Williams with the other post man and rotated down with the weak side guard to slow down the baseline pass to an open big man. These traps definitely frustrated Williams on the inside, but he was still able to get open and score over the Illini front court whenever he saw the ball.
The only thing that can stop Deron Williams this season will be Deron himself, or foul trouble which is normally caused by Deron himself. The second call with the block against Deron made by Ed Hightower was a terrible call, but it gave Illinois a chance to play the large part of a major game without Deron.
When Deron came back into the game late in the first half, I wondered why Weber was bringing Deron in. I thought he should have stayed on the bench for the whole first half. Then I thought, well, if he is coming in and giving Dee a rest that is a good move. But, he was coming in to replace Rich McBride. I was confused. Deron showed what type of handle he has on the game when he was able to play the minutes he was in the first half without fouling. There was one point when he let a Wake Forest guy score on the inside when he was the weak side defender. Deron realized that two points against his team were less important than him being on the court.
In the second half, we saw more of the Deron Williams that we are used to. Deron was driving to the basket and scoring in the mid range to complement his outside shot. He was also finding the open man, as was evident by his 11 assists on the evening.
All of Dee's 16 points came in the first half when Illinois pretty much closed out Wake Forest. For most of the game Dee was guarding Wake Forest's Chris Paul, and he held the Pre-Season All-American in check. Just looking at the box score Dee put up, it is not hard to see why Illinois was so dominant on the offensive end of the court: Dee had no turnovers. With Deron out of the game in the first half, Dee took over the role of running the Illinois offense by his lonesome, and he delivered just like Bruce Weber knew he could.
The most interesting aspect of Dee Brown's game on Wednesday night is that his scoring did not come the same way he had scored earlier this season, the three point shot. Dee scored on the break, in traffic, and with the mid range jump shot more than he did with the three point shot. Only six of Dee's 12 shots were three pointers, a stark contrast to some of the earlier games this season. Starting late last season, and continuing through to this season, Dee has improved his mid range game to where defenders need to honor it.
The changes in Dee that have been seen from the beginning of last season to right now are directly related to the challenges that Bruce Weber laid out for his outspoken point guard. Dee has responded, and it has helped make Illinois' backcourt a group that can call itself the best in the nation after Wednesday's performance.
If you want to point to one player that is the reason for Illinois' success so far this season, it would be senior guard Luther Head. Luther has changed from a highlight reel player to a three point shooter and now to an overall player. The groin injury that hampered Luther during his freshman and sophomore seasons is gone. The off the court issues that hampered him last season, and Luther is playing an all around game.
Offensively, there was one play with Luther and Deron Williams that showed just how much chemistry there is between these guards. Deron was making a cut towards the basket, and Luther took a dribble right and had his man beat, but he saw Deron so he threw the pass and hit Deron in the hands. Sounds like a normal play, right? Well, Deron did not even know the ball was coming until it hit him in the hands, and then he converted it to an Illini basket. The chemistry between the players on the court, and especially the guards is why this Illinois team is special.
Defensively, Luther is like night and day when you compare him to himself from just two years ago. There were glimpses last season of his defensive ability when he checked Bracey Wright in the final minutes in Bloomington, but nothing like what he has shown so far this season. Luther has been able to guard smaller and larger players, and guard them effectively.
Roger Powell, Jr.
If you had to point to one player that stepped up more than any other on Wednesday night, it was senior forward Roger Powell, Jr. Roger played with aggressiveness on both the inside and the outside. He scored from every where on the court, and had one of the prettiest moves of the night from an Illini offensive player. When Roger took his man off the dribble and did a spin move in the lane for the lay up, I was in awe. He had never done that before, and it was something that will make him even more of a threat if he does this consistently.
Unlike last season where Roger was scoring on the inside for the most part, tonight he looked for his shots every where on the court in the flow of the offense. He took two open three point shots and made both of them. He was deadly from seventeen feet, and he was solid around the basket. The only mistake that one could point to with Powell against Wake Forest was his missed dunk that came off of a beautiful back door cut against the Wake pressure.
The IlliniBoard.com Game Ball for the Wake Forest game goes to Roger Powell, Jr.
For the second game in a row, James was going up against one of the better big men in the country in Wake Forest's Erik Williams. Williams was able to score on Augustine when he wanted, but James was able to stay out of foul trouble and generally bother others on the inside. Defensively, James had three blocked shots in help situations, something that he will need to do all season.
If there is one thing I saw on Wednesday night that I did not like, it was James trying to block shots after an offensive rebound for Wake Forest. The only reason I don't like that is that it puts him right out of position to get the rebound on that missed shot. If he just gets his hands up to bother the offensive player, and then knocks him out of position, we would not see as many tip drills after missed shots on the defensive end of the court for the Illini.
All in all, a very solid performance from the Illini big man. If he continues to perform like this for the rest of the season, stopping interior players might not be the big issue that many of us thought it would be.
Rich McBride told every Illini fan to not worry with one shot in the first half. Rich hit a three point shot just one minute after he replaced Deron Williams after he went to the bench with two fouls. That shot eased the tension in Assembly Hall and basically told Illini fans to not worry, the Illini would be okay. The one thing missing from Rich last season was confidence, but he seems to be playing with that confidence this season. He is looking for his offense, and taking shots. Now, if he can just pump fake and take the ball to the basket more.
Great game from Rich today, as he showed that when he is needed to play the guard position for Illinois, he will be a valuable back up for Dee, Deron, and Luther.
Nick has been in sort of a funk this short season, but he played a solid game tonight. He did not do anything spectacular, but he seemed to be in the flow of the game. He was looking for his shot, and he was taking the open shots, they were just not falling.
Jack played how you would expect Jack to play in a game like this. The pace was a little too quick for Jack, and he just could not get into the flow of the game. He was used to spell either Roger or James for a few minutes here and there, and he performed his role dutifully.
Do you want to know my biggest disappointment with the game? Warren Carter did not see about two minutes in the game when Illinois was up twenty in the first half. I think Warren has the potential to be a player that could break into the Illini rotation that would flourish in a game like this. I would have liked to see what he could have done in a different atmosphere than the final six minutes.
- The best quote from any article comes from the Associated Press story: "There were stretches the Illini were so dominant they looked like the Globetrotters against one of their many patsies."
- Once again Paint the Hall Orange night was a giant success. Now, we need to remind Illinois fans to "Keep It Orange"!
- The Arkansas game has trap game written all over it. Let's see how the Illini react in Little Rock after their dominating performance this evening.