Monday, March 14, 2005

Winning Ugly? Illini Just Winning

Is there a difference between winning beautifully and winning ugly? And, more importantly, does it matter?

Of course not.

Illinois continues to win, adding the Big Ten tourney title to the regular season championship it earned, but it currently barely resembles the team that rightfully earned the nickname the Stylin' Illini earlier in the season, a fitting tribute if ever there was one. That Illini team was artful to watch, poetry in motion. They were all steals, fast breaks, selfless passing, and a barrage of three-pointers that, more often than not, hit nothing but net. They were fun, inspiring, and playing basketball about as beautifully as it can be played. They were prettier than Keira Knightly.

The Illini team that successfully banged its way through the Big Ten tourney over the weekend has been much less pretty, its shooting gone cold, its glorious guards seemingly missing their magic touch, and everything it earned accompanied by a cacophony of referee's whistles, grunts, and colliding bodies.

In other words, they've been playing Big Ten basketball.

And winning...still.

Dee Brown, apparently still recovering from the SI cover jinx, was a perfectly ugly 0-for-8 against Wisconsin, his shooting touch gone the way of Major League Baseball's integrity. Deron Williams hasn't been much hotter, and Luther Head, though slightly less in a funk than his backcourt buddies, hasn't been his normal self, either.

So what?

There seems to be a growing concern that this Illini team may be getting cold at the wrong time. Of course, this is what Chicago sports fans do best. They worry. They prepare themselves for the worst, having so often experienced the worst in the past. It comes naturally. Self esteem in this town is more fleeting than the Kansas City Royals atop the standings in April.

But let's remember a few things here:

1) In three Big Ten tourney games, the Illini never really trailed. Oh, they may have briefly fell behind in the early moments, but in each game they quickly jumped ahead and never looked back. This is called taking care of business. Minnesota and Wisconsin, as competitive as they were, both trailed by double digits in the second halves of their respective games before making late runs, which the Illini weathered. Ugly or not, it's hard to find fault with a team that rarely trails at any juncture in a game.

2) All season long critics of the Illini have expressed concern over their inside presence, or lack thereof. The general consensus has been that as go the guards, so go the Illini. It was openly wondered, by myself included, if the Illini could withstand a stretch in which all three guards went cold at the same time.

Well, the Big Ten tourney provided some answers. As the guards struggled, James Augustine quietly earned the tourney MVP by scoring some, grabbing plenty of rebounds, blocking shots, and helping shutdown Wisconsin's Mike Wikinson.

Roger Powell, meanwhile, came up with 15 points and 12 rebounds yesterday and even earned some consideration for tourney MVP himself.

Jack Ingram continues to provide a spark off the bench and Nick Smith...well, he gets in there and looks real tall.

If everyone was so quick to dissect the weaknesses of Augustine and Powell as the guards were orchestrating college basketball's greatest show, they should also praise the pair for doing what needed to be done when games got ugly and brutal.

3) The last week has seen the Illini embark on an emotional roller coaster that no team should ever have to endure. First, it was the devastating loss to Ohio St. Then, it was the death of Bruce Weber's mother. The Illini's journey, which had previously been nothing but the best of times, was suddenly somber and full of heartbreak. How would they handle it?

Well, all the while, the team spoke of "family" and helping guide one another through a troubled time. Watching the Illini players comfort Weber and walk him off the court with their arms draped around him has been just as inspiring to witness as the mesmerizing basketball they play when they're at their best. I'm not one for sentimentality...ah, hell, who am I kidding? I am one for sentimentality, and watching the Illini exist as a tight nit family has been enough to put a lump in my throat.

Whatever doesn't kill you...

4) As for the Illini’s suddenly cold shooting touch, there is one positive way to look at it: perhaps they are getting it out of their system now. Surely, Brown's shot will start falling again, as will the shots of Head and Williams. Everyone goes in slumps, and, hopefully, the Illini shooting touch has endured such a slump. Now, the guards just need to hit the gym and shoot jumpers endlessly - or at least until their touch returns.

Bottom line: The Illini continues to win. It hasn't been pretty of late, but that doesn't matter. And if they manage to win the national title, it can be the ugliest national title ever, for all anyone in Chicago would care.

More NCAA tourney thoughts later as they come...


Blogger marcythewhore said...

Poor Illinois. Will they ever get over the ignominy of the Cyril Pinder Slush Fund Scandal?

Will OJ be exonerated before Illinois is?.......

10:02 AM  
Blogger UnknownColumn said...

Cyril Pinder? Was he a guard?

And OJ will never be exonerated.

10:44 AM  

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