Column: Top of the arch

By BobLa Gesse

Can a team win the NCAA Tournament without playing at its peak?

No. 1 Illinois must ask itself that question after earning the No. 1 overall seed for March Madness.

Illinois peaked weeks ago. They went on the road and beat Wisconsin and Michigan. They blew out Northwestern and Purdue at home.

The Illinois team of the last two weeks has not resembled the team taking the court in those four games.

The shooting isn’t the same. The killer instinct isn’t there. The Illini still have the “refuse to lose” attitude. It just hasn’t produced the game-dominating results lately.

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Illinois has fallen back a little towards the rest of the country in the last two weeks.

I’m not trying to bring Illinois down. They are the No.1 overall seed. There is some good news.

The rest of the country still isn’t that close to Illinois.

No one is a slam-dunk guarantee to make the Final Four this year. Most years have at least two. This year, it will be tough to get two great teams to the title game.

North Carolina? They can’t turn it on and off for six games. They couldn’t do it for two games in the ACC Tournament.

Duke? They have little margin for error. Guard Sean Dockery is injured. There is no depth.

Wake Forest? Struggled – with and without Chris Paul – in its final two games.

Everyone else? They all have major weaknesses. Final Four-inhibiting weaknesses.

At least Illinois improved at the Big Ten Tournament.

A colleague of mine said Illinois looked like a Final Four team for 34 minutes against Wisconsin.

But it was not 40 minutes.

Thirty-four minutes is still better than the combined five minutes from the first two weekend games. That was part Dawn Weber’s death, part sloppy play on Friday.

Junior forward James Augustine and senior forward Roger Powell could have split Augustine’s tournament MVP award. They both did that much. And got out of late season funks.

The guards, that is another story. But as Weber noted, “We did (win) without the guards playing well this weekend.”


To win six more games, the guards will need their shooting stroke.

Dee Brown – the Big Ten Player of the Year – hasn’t hit anything since Ohio State.

Neither has Deron Williams.

Luther Head hit at least four threes Saturday. But he went 2-for-8 Sunday.

Inconsistency does not equal tournament success.

But defense and rebounds, which Illinois used to win the Big Ten Tournament, add a deft shooting touch. Illinois could easily raise one more trophy this year.

That is also called playing top-notch basketball.

“Defense is something we really have picked up late in the season,” Powell said. “It has become a focal point.”

Well, shooting is the bigger point now. Poor shooting. Close game. Illinois losses. It’s possible. Just ask Ohio State.

It seems strange a team that did not miss a shot in all of December must stop finding only the rim to reach St. Louis.

But this entire basketball season has been strange. I mean Washington, a No. 1 seed?

No one saw that in November. Not even Nate Robinson.

Washington snagged the fourth No. 1 seed by leaving its conference tournament playing better than when it entered it.

Oklahoma State is the only other top team to do the same.

Yes, the Cowboys are in Illinois’ bracket. They are a two seed. So is Arizona as a three and Boston College as the four.

The opponents will not matter if Illinois finds its shot.

Things will be interesting otherwise.

Then Illinois will find out if peaking at the right time is really that important in March.