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March 15, 2008

Fighting Illini... Two Wins from Elimination

In the immortal words of George W. Bush (the Will Ferrell version), this is hard!

With additional time on my hands, I believed that contributions to this page would increase. And in some senses it has. But for the most part, I have discovered that in searching for my voice, I first need to determine what I want to say... I have always considered myself more of a writer than a blogger, trying to evaluate and analyze the depths beneath the obvious surface. I felt I owed it to myself and all my non-readers to provide more information than just a series of quick hits or brief updates readily available on any news site. But the internet isn't exactly the place for slow and deliberate information. Countless news stories have come and gone, yet the thoughts in my head regarding each have remained just that... thoughts, never believing that I had enough information for a full-fledged posting.

So, does that leave me as a writer trapped within a blog website, or does that make me a blogger without anything to say? That's my conundrum. Do I continue my steady pace and maintain a stream of long articles? Do I succumb to the blogger life of quick thoughts and quicker posts? Should I even be using the word 'conundrum' in a sports blog? These are the questions I have faced in the time since my last post.

However, in these uncertain times, I can take solace in one familiar and comforting scenario. It's Big Ten Tournament time - the Illini must be in the semifinals.

Sure enough, as I sit here, my Illini are indeed once again in the final four of the Big Ten, for the 10th time in the 11 seasons of the tournament. After suffering through what can best be described as a disappointing season (and can at worst be described by words I shouldn't use in either articles or posts), Bruce Weber and Co. have once again strung together a couple wins to make things interesting.

After knocking off Minnesota for the second time this season - still not sure how that happened - to close out the regular season, the Illini squeaked out a last-second victory over young Penn State in the first round, then battled Purdue for 45 minutes before finally sending the Boilermakers to March Madness on a losing streak.

You can't blame me for having thoughts of 1999 race through my head, when the 11th-seeded Illini won three straight tournament games after having won only three Big Ten games all season, and nearly crashed the NCAA party before finally losing to Michigan State in the championship game. Could it happen? Could this team somehow put together two more victories and make the tournament?

For a few hours, it appeared that to do it, the Illini would have to once again go through Indiana, whom they have played tough, but finished on the short end of the scoreboard each time. (I won't even get into the Eric Gordon/Kelvin Sampson thing) But after Indiana's stunning loss in the quarterfinals, Illinois' path just got a bit easier. And lo and behold, who is this squaring up against my team in the semis?

As the only team to have lost to Illinois twice this season, Minnesota can't exactly feel good about themselves, but with this Illini team, I'm not taking anything for granted. Nevertheless, Bruce Weber has to like his chances in this one. And then? Sunday may bring another matchup against either Wisconsin or Michigan State, who, shall we say, handled Illinois this season. Do I think the Illini pull out the upset? Well, no...

But let's just take a moment and reflect on this possibility. Illinois, as flawed as it is, has a legitimate shot of reaching the tournament. A team that has blown leads of all sizes this season... A team that cannot close out games... A team that goes cold for several minute stretches at least twice a game... A team that had no go-to guy until a late-season emergence of freshman Demetri McCamey, and even that is streaky at best... A team in which Brian Randle and all his athleticism has a seat ready for him when he inevitably fouls out... A team in which Chester Frazier stays healthy as well as he scores, neither a good thing... A team, if not for that pesky foul limit, you would actually consider fouling every time down the court knowing that that's essentially a defensive stop. And even then, I think I would still foul Shaun Pruitt. This team is a mere two wins away from post-season play. Apparently, that's why they call it March Madness.

I will root for them. I will cheer for them. I will hope that they can overcome the odds and win these next two games, causing chaos in the selection committee office Sunday evening. But even after all that, I have watched this team enough to know one thing for certain...

The Illini will be eliminated in the first round, but at least they had the chance to dance.

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