Big 10 Regaining National Respect

Now the fun really begins. The Fighting Illini have accumulated a sparkling 12-1 record in the nonconference schedule, but now they begin the grueling Big 10 season. After a few down years, it appears the conference is regaining its status as a premier league. Illinois will be hard-pressed to continue its winning ways.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber speaks for the conference in describing its success against outside competition so far this season.

"The Big 10 has helped itself alot. Marquee wins such as Purdue on national television against Davidson, shutting them out for quite a bit of the first half; Michigan State's good win against Texas; Michigan's two good wins; Minnesota's win against Louisville.

"You can be 7-0, 8-0, or 9-0, and nationally they don't always pay attention. But then you get a marquee win and everybody's talking about it. I got text messages from people all around the country, media and everything (after the Missouri win). And I got calls on Christmas Eve telling us we're pretty good.

"I think we really have helped ourselves. We'll probably be #2 RPI, and that's a positive thing. We got much closer in the ACC-Big 10 Challenge, and we were a couple points away from maybe winning that. I think people have a little more respect, talking about us."

Weber thinks there are several reasons for Big 10 growth.

"We're a year older. There's better depth. Some of the coaches who are new to their programs, whether it's Coach Beilein (Michigan) or Tubby (Smith, Minnesota), they have their systems more in place. I think we've surprised some people.

"People have felt Purdue and Michigan State are so much ahead of everyone else. They still might be, but right now there's a little bit of doubt. We'll find that out. You win the Big 10 if you win on the road. So we're gonna have our first chance right away."

That first chance is at Purdue Tuesday, followed by another road game with Michigan, conqueror of UCLA and Duke. For all their early success, the Illini face the possibility of beginning the conference 0-2. A split would be acceptable.

Illinois' entire conference schedule is not conducive for a young team fighting for postseason play. Two teams expected to be tail-enders this year, Indiana and Iowa, play the Illini only once each. The Illini need 8 more wins to reach 20, but even that might be tough if they get off to a poor start and lose confidence.

What have we learned about the Illini to date? On the positive side, they have good senior leadership in Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock. They have excellent chemistry and play well together. Their assist/baskets made ratio is one of the best in the country. For the most part, their shooting is good, especially their free throws. And they have decent depth.

On the negative side, their big people lack strength and will have trouble banging on the boards against rugged Big 10 foes. Their team defense is pretty good, but they suffer breakdowns when quicker opponents penetrate. They lack a defensive stopper on the inside. Their rebounding is inconsistent. And they don't have players who can create their own shots when needed.

Still, the Illini can have a good season if they can get off to a good start and work hard without giving up. Their success will depend on teamwork and not individual play. They are highly motivated to reverse the bad taste in their mouths from last year, and this focus will be essential. And according to Weber, senior leadership is vital.

"The key word in the Big 10 is consistency. And that's where we've got to grow up. Find that emotion to play hard every day. It's within. Older teams win because they've been through it and know how to deal with the unexpected. They get ready for every game, they have that emotional lift.

"In Chester, Trent, and Calvin's case, their careers are coming to an end and they don't have many games left. It's hard for a freshman or sophomore to see that clock ticking away and the number of games slipping by. We've got to get everybody playing at Trent, Calvin and Chester's level."

Meacham is a seasoned veteran who knows what to expect.

"The Big 10 is tough. We've had a good nonconference at 12-1. We're excited about the upcoming season. There's no doubt we've got to step it up a little bit, but we'll be ready to go."

And sophomore center Mike Tisdale is optimistic.

"I think this team is a lot more confident than last year. We're deeper on the bench. We have a lot of guys who can come in and produce both offensively and defensively. I think we're ready. We've just got to go in with the right mindset. As long as we play hard, we'll stay close."

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