Illini Send Panthers Back to Milwaukee

A win on Thursday night against Cinderella University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee would put the Illini just one win away from the program's first Final Four since 1989. Despite all the hoopla surrounding the Illini playing Bruce Pearl for the first time since 1989, the Illini played a calm and collected game thanks to their guards. Both Dee Brown and Deron Williams scored 21 points on the evening leading Illinois to a 77-63 win, putting the Illini into Saturday's Chicago Regional Final.

The last four days have been a time when the press was able to dredge up every bad memory Illinois fans have ever had of the Fighting Illini basketball program. Illinois playing Bruce Pearl's University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers allowed the story to focus on Pearl coaching against the team he turned into the NCAA in the Deon Thomas Scandal. The scandal that happened 16 years ago is still right there in the mind of many Illini fans because they believe (and probably rightly so) that had that not happened, Illinois would be a perennial power in college basketball. Thursday night provided the Illini fans with a chance to exorcise the demons of Bruce Pearl with a new team and a new coach.

To Illini fans, Thursday night was much more than a chance to play in the Regional Finals. Sure, Bruce Weber and the Illini players ducked the questions all week of what it would be like to play against Bruce Pearl, but the aura of the topic was all over this game. Jimmy Collins was interviewed on The Rick Telander Show on the Score in Chicago stating that he would be at the game wearing an Illinois shirt and a UIC hat cheering for the Fighting Illini against the man that he believes cost him a chance to succeed Lou Henson as Illinois' Head Coach. Deon Thomas said he "wanted Illinois to kill [UWM] when they play on Thursday night". The back story for Thursday night's game was set 16 years ago, but the story of this game itself was not set until Saturday afternoon.

When the media allowed both Bruce Pearl and Bruce Weber to talk about anything besides the Deon Thomas Scandal, they kept bringing up whether or not Pearl's Panthers would use the vaunted Dr. Tom press against the very talented backcourt of the Fighting Illini. Pearl told the media that his game plan would not change, even going up against the Illini's backcourt trio. Weber talked about how the Illini were practicing against six and seven defenders to simulate the pressure that the Panthers would put on the Illini in the full court. The only question remaining was how would Illinois' guards handle the press if the Panther's actually attempted to press them.

Early in the game, UW - Milwaukee was not pressing the Illini, but they were pushing the tempo. Off of the defensive glass, the Panthers were beating Illinois down the court on nearly every possession and that led to easy baskets or a trip to the free throw line for the Panthers. The Illini would tighten up their transition defense in the second half, but that would still be the only way the Panthers could score at will. When the Illini actually got back on defense, UW - Milwaukee could not get a clean shot off towards the basket unless the players name was Joah Tucker. Outside of Tucker's career high 32 points, the Panthers only scored 31 points on the evening. (Tucker was 12-18 from the floor for the game while the rest of the Panthers combined for 10-29, including a horrific 4-17 from leading scorer Ed McCants).

ILLINI OFFENSE / DEFENSE BY THE NUMBERS
This was an interesting game when you look at the numbers. When UW - Milwaukee decided to press Illinois, the Illini struggled inbounding the ball, but not against much else. Once the ball was in play, the Illini guards normally broke the press with relative ease, and then set up the offense. The press did not really increase the tempo of the game, nor did it wreak havoc on the Fighting Illini. After beating the press, Deron Williams normally just set up the Illini's offense and started the half court game like nothing happened. There were no open court run outs off the press, like I had expected, just a methodical break of the press that led to the Illini's brilliant half court execution.

Offensive Efficiency: 117.38
Defensive Efficiency: 96.04
Offensive Rebounding Percentage: 25.9%
Defensive Rebounding Percentage: 59.4%

The two biggest problems for Illinois on Thursday evening were transition defense and defensive rebounding. Yes, the Panthers were cherry picking, but the Illini were also not hustling back on defense. I believe it was the first or second basket of the game, and Deron Williams just scored a lay up. UW - Milwaukee inbounded the ball and just beat Illinois down the court for an easy lay up. It had to drive Bruce Weber nuts, especially as plays like this happened for about the first ten minutes of the first half. The only thing that could drive a coach even madder is the inability to box out, and the Illini did just that.

Despite having the distinct size advantage, especially after the Panther's biggest player Derrick Ford was carried off the floor in a stretcher after slipping on the slick surface in warm ups, the Illini could not keep Wisconsin-Milwaukee off the offensive glass. Roger Powell and James Augustine struggled to clean up the boards against the quicker Panther front line. Augustine did end the game with ten rebounds, nine defensive, but that was more of a factor of the Panthers not being able to hit a shot on the evening. The Panthers pulled down 13 offensive rebounds, or 40.6% of their missed shots. In an average game this season, Illinois has been pulling down defensive rebounds at a 69.1% clip, just under ten percent better than they did against the Panthers.

When looking at Illinois' offensive efficiency, one does not have to look much farther than Deron Williams and Dee Brown. Both guards played nearly flawless games. Dee broke out of his slump by starting out the game with 4-4 shooting and scoring 10 points en route to his 21 point performance. Deron Williams took over the game for the Illini at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half en route to his 21 point, 8 assist performance. As Greg Doyel of CBS SportsLine put it …

Then it was over. Pearl had resurrected his career after that 1989 ugliness by sheer willpower, leaving Iowa for a Division II school and winning big there before leading UW-Milwaukee to the first two NCAA Tournament appearances in school history -- but Pearl met his match in Williams. And he seemed to know it from the start.

Pearl was calling for his team to press the Illini in the first half, but after a few half-hearted swipes at the linebacker-sized Williams, UW-Milwaukee retreated into a defensive set. After Williams drove into the lane for another assist, Pearl turned to his bench and yelled, "Are you afraid to press him? Because you can't guard him!"

Couldn't guard him, couldn't press him, couldn't rattle him. Tough luck, UW-Milwaukee, but don't hate Williams because he's beautiful.

RANDOM NOTES
  • Illinois' bench did not score a point in Thursday night's game while picking up seven fouls in just 17 minutes of total play between the four players. The Illini bench players would combine for 0-4 shooting from the floor and just 3 rebounds. Thursday night will not go down as one of the better performances for this group of players, but UW - Milwaukee presented numerous match up problems for the Illini big men reserves, especially Nick Smith and Jack Ingram.
  • James Augustine recorded his third straight double double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, giving him a double double in every game of the 2005 NCAA Tournament further proving that Illinois is not just a guard oriented team.
  • Despite the bench not scoring, Illinois had a balanced scoring attack as each starter scored in double figures. Roger Powell, Jr. scored 12, Luther Head scored 12, and James Augustine scored 11.



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