Bruce Weber's Illini have lost only once this season - a one-point setback at the buzzer at Ohio State - winning 36 of 37 games. They won both the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles, and surged from behind last weekend to knock off Arizona in the Chicago regional final to reach the Final Four.
"Illinois is just a great basketball team," Pitino said. "They have outstanding talent. And (Bruce Weber) is a great coach. They play hard defensively, and they have great character."
With so few weaknesses, if any, to exploit, Pitino and his staff have been working around the clock watching as much game tape of the Illini as humanly possible. As of yesterday, Pitino said he'd already watched 10 of the Illini's 37 games. And Pitino is certain of one thing after watching the Illini in action - they're good.
"It's going to take some time to develop a game plan," said Pitino. "We'll have it in by Saturday but it's going to take some time. We're going to have to watch a good twenty tapes – right now I've watched ten – to find a weakness. They're a hell of a basketball team."
"I'll watch just about every game that they've played this year," added Pitino, who normally watches 4 or 5 tapes of opponents before games. "And Kevin Willard will probably watch some games that they played last year."
Much like his own team, Pitino said Illinois' strength derives from its talented backcourt trio of 5-11 Dee Brown, 6-3 Deron Williams, and 6-4 Luther Head. The three combine for more than 45 points per game, and scored the last 20 points against Arizona when the Illini overcame a 14 point deficit with just over four minutes left to force overtime.
"Their (backcourt) threesome, and their frontcourt are outstanding," said Pitino. "They're all triple threat people, even their big people. So they're very difficult to defend, and we're going to have to switch up our defenses and play great defensively every possession – including transition."
The Cardinals will have to find a
way to slow Illinois' top
three-point shooter, Dee Brown.
"It's a bumping-zone, the same one Syracuse uses," explained Pitino. "We put it in every year, and in prior year's at Louisville we've used it 2-5 percent of the time if I thought a team was a weak shooting team or we had foul trouble. But we've had injuries this year and we've had to play people 30 minutes. And we've gotten good at it, so we'll continue to use it."
With both teams seemingly evenly matched in the backcourt, the difference in the game might prove to be the rebounding and turnover battles. In fact, Pitino says his team will need to handle the Illini's pressure to avoid digging an early hole.
"When we have struggled it's when we've turned it over early in the game and teams have gotten leads on us," said Pitino.
Turnovers contributed to first half deficits against both Washington and West Virginia - the Huskies built an early 7 point lead, while the Mountaineers built a commanding 38-18 lead - last week in Albuquerque. Pitino, though, said Tuesday that he views that adversity as a positive for his team as they head to Saint Louis, especially considering the ease with which they defeated both Georgia Tech and the top-seed Huskies.
"Our road to the Final Four was much more difficult than the roads I have faced in the past," Pitino said. "This road was the most difficult and it prepared us."
Once they arrive at the Final Four, the Cardinals will find three other teams - starting with Illinois - that have as much experience as do they. What's that mean? It means the team that ultimately cuts down the nets next Monday night likely will be the team that handles adversity, and executes the best.
"I think you've got four teams that are very experienced," said Pitino. "There is a lot of experience showing up in Saint Louis, and a lot of talent."
Fortunately, Pitino can count on two senior and two junior starters to provide the leadership necessary to win two more games.
"This year's team is very good," Pitino said. "We've got talented ball players, and really terrific seniors."