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You guys have played a lot of close, meaningful kind of games with Illinois, as far as those games go, what sticks out about, you know, those contests?
"Just always two teams that go after each other every possession in a competitive way and teams that have done things nationally, players that have worked extremely hard in those particular contests. I can only talk about the last five years. So two good teams working hard against one another and it's helped both teams nationally. I would think. You get a lot out of those, you get a lot out of every game, but those games have been particularly competitive. Which you just said, but I'm agreeing with you."
Bo, nobody should be surprised that the Big Ten top spots, it's all jammed up like it is, right? Nobody should be surprised by that?
"Well, we're never going to be people that said we told you so. That's for you other guys to do when you're right. We thought it would be a competitive league. It is a competitive league. We never, the coaches and the people that play in this league have never doubted its potential or its competitive nature.
"So when you, was that a question or is that a statement, Brian? I mean, it's a tough league. Great attendance at every—that's why we set attendance records, and every place you go and play it's always pretty hostile on the road. Teams that know one another, teams that match up, in some cases better than others, but play at a high level. So it'll sort itself out a little bit here eventually, but don't be surprised to see it still be a puzzle after another two or three weeks."
Is this the toughest it's been, in your estimation?
"Well, we knew coming in, when the questions were asked before, so you don't look like you have a better idea later for me being, when I was asked that in the media day, I said, well, from what I see about returning players and from the position that we're in of maybe losing more players than other teams, I felt that in order for us to compete we'd have to get some contributions from younger guys that were going to have a play a little older.
"So when I look at the other teams though, where they are, I don't think to me there's any surprises, Tom, in the competitive nature of those other teams that have all the veterans, that have more veterans back. I like the fact that we're in the mix with them. That's what I can say about our team. Our team has played competitively and to be in the mix and it's early yet, so we'll see how the rest of it plays out, but I just like to look at what's going on and say, hey, you know, our guys have had a dent here, made a dent in the league, and now we've got to try to do it in our next one and the one after that.
"But we knew it was going to be competitive and we knew that it was going to be a pretty good league because of the returning players and the fact that you've got two teams in the Final Four and one in the Elite Eight (last year) that always when they said the name of the team, from the Big Ten, from the Big Ten, from the Big Ten. So that's always nice to see too."
Is it a cyclical thing, the strength of conferences?
"But if last year we were down, how do you have three teams do what they do?"
I'm not saying last year was down. But just kind of a general cyclical thing…
"It will be. It will be. You know, they say now because of a tall recruit coming into the league, that it'll do this and that. I remember recruiting Magic Johnson and taking our whole team over there to watch him practice and walking out of Lansing's gym going, ‘holy smokes, that guy, wherever he goes, he's going to have an impact.' Did people know the impact he was going to have?
"So cyclical, yeah, maybe there's some players that get more notoriety and if you can win a national championship or be in a national championship game, like Illinois was last year. Indiana was in one not too long ago, a championship game, and I think when you say cyclical, I think for publicity it is because unless you win it all or unless you have a player that's, look at what St. Joe's got. They didn't get to the Final Four, but they had a little old guard from Chester, Pa., and everybody knew about St. Joe's when he was done.
"So in a cycle, people said, oh, yeah, name the good teams of the past five years, when I talk to people they do mention St. Joe's. So it's either a player or a team that gets to the championship game.
"It's not even the Final Four anymore. Pretty much if you don't get to the championship game, you're forgotten so quickly it's like, ‘oh, yeah, and by the way.' It's the nature of the fan and of the notoriety of the game."
Coach, how big of a concern are Illinois' big men?
"Well, Pruitt is active. Pruitt has gotten better, from the films I've looked at already. His feet are better, his eye-hand, he's learning. And that's nice to see, when you see a young man in a program, and he's a super guy. So, you know, he's definitely added. I don't know if you consider some of their players bigs or not, but everybody knows Pruitt and Augustine, but Augustine has been getting better each year. He has a little bit of that baseball gene in him, good hands.
"Of course, I never did ask Jerry when I was at UWM if he had good hands. He was a pitcher. You've got to have eye-hand coordination. Did you know that, that Augustine is related to Jerry Augustine, the pitcher, and who was at UWM, by the way, as a coach, for those that care.
"But their big men, they're good. Am I impressed? Of course I'm impressed. I'm impressed with, I was impressed with Michigan's big men going into the game. I'll tell you what. I can't remember the last time I was unimpressed by anybody's players in the Big Ten."
Have you ever had a similar situation to what they have at Illinois, where Dee (Brown) was primarily not the ball handler last year and now he's handling the ball the majority of the time on the offensive end?
"What do you mean, have I ever seen that?.... You're asking me that? Do I know of any situation?" No. When you were coaching, did you have a player . . .
"From not like the point guard to being the point guard? Yes…. Are you just setting me up or what? Let's see… Devin Harris. You're setting me up. You're playing me. You're playing me. Devin Harris. Have I? Yes."
What does it take to make that transition?
"Well, you've got to take care of the ball and you've got to have people believe in you. You know, you've got to be a leader on the court, and Dee has always been that."
You sort of talked about Augustine improving over the years. Dee Brown, who was, you know, pre-season player of the year . . . and, you know, what has he done to improve in his years at Illinois? I mean, he was good when he got there and, I mean, he's really coming into his own even more now.
"Right. Yes, he is. And, OK, how did he do that or….
"You come to practice every day. You commit to being better. He has a goal. He wants to play at the next level too, but he also wants where he's playing to be successful. Those are the best kind of athletes and competitors that you want. And, you know, there's nothing wrong with having goals in mind. Get your degree, make sure that you take care of business, and hopefully be able to play this game later. Nothing wrong, that's great.
"Better take care of where you are first, and Dee has done that. So he's steadily contributed to a program that's been successful and it's very admirable. Everybody else takes shots at other things with people, and then when somebody does it right it shouldn't be a surprise, but it should be rewarded, and he's getting his reward. He's having fun. He's being successful. His team is successful. And he'll probably have a chance to play later. That's great."
Coach, with all the, not all, with some of the academic troubles that, you know, have crept into the team, is it going to be harder for you to sell the, you know, student-athlete to a recruit and their parents on future recruiting trips?
"No. I'll tell you what. It is absolutely amazing the response that we've had. I want you to go back 15 years, 20 years, go back as far as you want. When is the last time the best player from the City Conference in Milwaukee wanted to come to the University of Wisconsin and Wisconsin get them? Because a guy like me who didn't group in a lily-white neighborhood, isn't afraid to go into place and recruit people and give them a chance if they're qualifiers.
"As you know, unfortunately, Marcus's brother did not. But there are people who, when given the opportunity, it's amazing what they can achieve. Not everybody, not all the time. But when you say troubles, and for something to happen as Marcus described by a whisper, but it's losing by a point, you lose a game. You lose your eligibility by this much. You think people can learn from that?
"But I'll tell you what. When I sat down with that young man and told him that he'd be facing the toughest competition in the world, not in the country, but in the world. And he says, ‘Boy, coach, I knew your basketball program was pretty good, that's why I want to be there.' I said, ‘Marcus, that's not what I'm talking about. You're going to go against the best students around.'
"I had a gentleman up in my office just recently with his son, two generations of Wisconsin grads. The dad tells what it took for him coming out of high school to be admitted to the University of Wisconsin. The son told me what it took for him to be admitted to the University of Wisconsin. I told them what it took for my daughter to be admitted here at the University of Wisconsin. And now I told them what it takes to be in the University of Wisconsin.
"This school right now is the toughest it has ever been to compete in the classroom. And you know what? If we have a player that comes up a little short and he was given an opportunity and he'll have another opportunity here to do it again, and you talk about in recruiting, we're talking to people right now that are like, ‘First of all, coach, at least you give these guys a chance.
"Well, that's me, because I was just with one of the guys from my high school team that got a chance. And his one son is a doctor and the other one is a lawyer, his daughter is a lawyer, or the other way around. It's one of each. And I said, ‘Bobby, do you remember when you were in high school, did you ever think that you would have a son and a daughter that were doing what they're doing now.' No. It's, ‘Bo, we were first generation, first generation in college.' So a lot of the guys that we recruit are people who are first generation.
"And I know all these other experts out there with all your big diplomas sitting up on your walls and all of you that have your great degrees and were magna cum laudes, clap for yourselves. It is the greatest thing going. But there are people in life who have to work so hard for everything they get.
"And that's part of the reason we're here, to help them. And when you say in recruiting, it has been everybody that we talk to and have talked to, it was, wow, and you guys, this is what you're doing to help them, this is what, it has gone completely the other way. You know why? Because they know my background, success rate, graduation rates, the type of town I grew up in and the way I am with people, I'm fair. And actually, it's gone completely the other way, from people going, wow, if they can get that kind of help and if other people understand and if these young men are willing to admit they have a problem and, it's actually been so far the other way that it's not even close, because not everybody has all the answers.
"There are some people with some questions. And as long as you've got questions, then you know you can always move on. And I'll tell you, it's been pretty good from the standpoint of people who are open-minded, intelligent, discerning individuals who know, number one, that this is one of the toughest places in the world to get a degree and one of the toughest places for a student-athlete to compete in, and they're willing to do it.
"Not everybody knocked on Brian Butch and (Joe) Krabbenhoft and all those guys' doors for any academic stories to help our recruiting or anything, and that's OK too because you're not supposed to.
"But it's amazing you asked that question because if anything, the people out there think that those that have the other things to say are just people that, you can never disappoint in life if you've never done anything. You ever hear that expression? You don't have to worry about disappointing anybody if you haven't done anything.
"So, if you meet some adversity and there's some disappointment, boy, you must have done something then to get to that point to not be able to proceed temporarily. So that's what these two guys are fighting to do. I can live with that, again, because we do live with it every day. We're with these young people every day. We don't talk about it or dissect it afterwards, that everybody else has the opportunity to do. That's OK too. But we're in it every day and so are they.
"And you've got to admire those that successfully get it done, and those if they don't, if they can come back and successfully get it done.
"I'd like to help them. But success will always have the backwinds blowing from the other end if there's a bump, if there's some adversity. These guys know that too. When they played in high school, when they played, if their team didn't win, oh, well, you guys were supposed to be so good, you weren't supposed to lose a game, blah, blah, blah.
"They know what it's like to take bumps, because they've done something. As I said, some people aren't fortunate enough to ever be in that position."