Last season in Evanston may have been the lowest point in Bruce Weber's tenure as Illinois head coach when the Wildcats upset Illinois 70-60 on January 14, 2004. The fans were restless and people were beginning to think whether or not Bruce Weber was the right man for the job at Illinois. What a difference a year makes. After that fateful loss in Evanston, Illinois came together as a team and went on to win the Big Ten Conference Championship and a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA Tournament. This season, the Illini have been nothing short of spectacular while stringing together seventeen straight wins to open up the season including statement games against Wake Forest, Cincinnati, and Gonzaga. Would the demons come back against the Wildcats in Evanston on Sunday? Illinois answered that question with a resounding no.
The Illini only trailed twice in the game, both early in the first half, and built up an eight point lead heading into the break. The eight point half time lead was eerily familiar to last season's nine point half time lead, but the Illini are a different team mentally than they were just one season ago. The Illini built up their eight point halftime lead with Deron Williams, Luther Head, and Rich McBride all picking up two fouls defensively on Northwestern's Vedran Vukusic.
In the second half, Northwestern would cut the Illini lead to within five points a few different times, but it would just spark another Illinois run to extend the lead and take the wind out of the Wildcat sails. In the second half, thanks to foul trouble, Illinois was not able to play as tough of defense against Vukusic as they did in the first half, and the Northwestern forward scored 18 of his 20 in the half, but it was not enough for the Wildcats to upset the Illini.
Illinois saw a balanced scoring attack led by Luther Head's 26 points as Roger Powell, Jr. added 15 points and Dee Brown scored 12. On the inside James Augustine and Nick Smith also gave Northwestern fits as they scored 9 and 8 points, respectively.
ILLINI OFFENSE / DEFENSE BY THE NUMBERS
To win this game on Saturday afternoon, Illinois had to do two things: (1) control the game's tempo and (2) slow down Northwestern's Vedran Vukusic.
Despite the Wildcats desire to keep the game at a slow pace, Illinois was able to push the tempo of the game on both sides of the court on Saturday afternoon. The Illini scored 78 points (just over 19 points more per game than Northwestern has allowed on the season) and Northwestern scored 66 points (just under 7 points more than they average per game). This was not because Illinois played poor defense, but because the game was played faster than Northwestern was used to. This game was played at a pace of ten possessions per team more than Northwestern was used to, but still slower than the Illini have played so far this season.
Offensive Efficiency: 121.80
Defensive Efficiency: 103.06
Illinois' Points per Shot Attempt (Adjusted): 1.16
Northwestern's Points per Shot Attempt (Adjusted): 1.35
Illinois' Defensive Rebounding Percentage: 80.0%
Illinois' Offensive Rebounding Percentage: 40.7%
While the defensive efficiency numbers show Northwestern scoring more than one point per possession (the benchmark that I use for a good defense team & bad defensive game), I thought the Illini played solid defense for the game, especially on Vedran Vukusic.
When it came to defending Vukusic, Bruce Weber decided in the first half it would be better to make sure Vukusic could not defeat Illinois by having defenders shadow him than providing help-side defense. There were times on the afternoon when a Northwestern guard would get past his defender and into the lane, and since the help was not there on the rotation he was allowed a free lay up. The help was not there because one of the guards (Deron, Luther, or Rich) were basically shadowing Vukusic throughout the first half. In the second half, the Illini went back to their standard defensive by shading into the lane for help and it allowed Vukusic more shots, but it also allowed Illinois to tighten the defensive reigns across the board with players in foul trouble, specifically Deron Williams.
- I was able to hear some of the WDWS post game show over the live Internet feed of the radio broadcast, and one of the topics of conversation was whether or not Brian Randle should red shirt. I think the answer is obvious, no. Yes, I know the Illini are 18-0 and it appears as if they don't "need" Brian Randle this season to achieve the ultimate goal of a National Championship, but if there is one game in the NCAA Tournament against a team with a lanky wing forward or inside / out power forward (say Kansas' JR Giddens or North Carolina's Jawad Williams), Brian is Illinois' best match up against this player defensively. For this reason I want him playing.
When it comes down to it, I know the "future" would look better were Brian Randle to have three years of eligibility, but I now right now would look better to me if Bruce Weber was able to look down the bench, grab #42 and throw him in the game. Many people that look towards to "future" say it would be better to have him for three years, but when I look at the "right now" I want all hands on deck as the ultimate goal of an NCAA Championship is within the Illini's grasp.
Ultimately, the decision will come down to Brian Randle. I know if I were Brian Randle, I would rip off the red shirt even if it meant playing one second in one game in College Station, PA. This is a special season in Champaign, and I would do anything to play in one second for Illinois. I am sure Brian is thinking the same thing.
- Reading the Northwestern Game Thread and hearing the discussion between Wayne Larrivee and Mike Kelley talk about the Deron Williams "phantom" foul in the first half, I am wondering if I was watching the same game as the rest of the world. Did Dee Brown commit a foul? Yes. Did Deron Williams commit a foul? Yes. Watching the play live I saw Deron give Vedran Vukusic a forearm, then Dee Brown reach in, and then the whistle blew. I figured the call was on Deron, and I was not shocked it was (outside of the fact that the wrong official made the call, it was a foul). Vedran and Deron were going at it all game until that point with forearms and elbows (in fact Deron's first foul was retaliation for a Vukusic elbow) on the Northwestern side of the ball, so the refs were trying to clean that up, and it worked.
- 18 straight wins to start the season (Illinois School Record).
- 8 straight road wins in conference play
- 14 straight Big Ten Regular Season wins