Column: Soul Searching

By Ian Gold

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Bruce Weber is a better philosopher than he is a gardener. Before his young squad left to face North Carolina he addressed them about playing in late November.

“We told our guys we are not going to be pretty on offense early, we have so many new people, but we can guard, and we can play hard and that will always give you a chance,” Weber said.

It turns out that Weber is also a better coach than he is a gardener. The gardening part left him hobbling on the sideline, while the coaching part allowed his team to win 68-64 and improve to 6-0 on the season.

For most of the first half, Illinois fans watched the team that limped by Wichita State, and for most of the second half, it watched the team that beat down on Rutgers.

It was the tale of two halves in the Dean Dome and it was initiated by two major swings. At no point did it look like the young North Carolina team could make the plays needed to win the game, but for a good portion of the game it looked like Illinois was going to hand it to them.

The Illini squad at times looked sloppy, other times they looked inexperienced and for most of the time, they looked frazzled.

Remember, the Illini only have three players who have seen crunch time minutes and Chapel Hill is properly named. With numerous national championship banners and retired jerseys of the likes of Worthy, Carter and Jordan bearing down on the court, it’s not far from a religious experience.

But with all the knocks you can put on the Illini, they always, always, played hard, and were well managed from the sideline.

Playing hard and playing good defense is not always the same thing. In the first half, Illinois allowed North Carolina to score 35 points without having to leave the paint. It’s hard to win on the road when your opposition’s hardest decision is what kind of dunk to execute.

But in the second half, Illinois was able to make adjustments to rattle the young Tar heels and limit easy basket opportunities. Instead of layups North Carolina was forced to shoot, their shooting percentage dropped from 55.6 in the first half to 33.3 in the second.

Offensively Illinois was able to score inside – the problem was getting its big men in position to work. With trouble getting players like Augustine and Pruitt on the blocks, they used the threat to open up the outside shooting of Rich McBride, Jamar Smith and even Brian Randle.

Again, the tale of two halves. With this adjustment, Illinois’ three-point shooting went from 20 percent to 54.5.

Weber was right, this offense wasn’t pretty, this defense wasn’t pretty, but watching the Illini fight in a tough environment left an impression. Brian Randle was in foul trouble, but his effort on loose balls led to Illinois getting second and third possessions.

Calvin Brock played only two minutes but was able to dive out of bounds and knock a ball headed out on the Illini, against a Tar heel before it fell to the border. It’s plays like that Illinois can count on. Without the veteran team, sometimes the shots don’t fall and occasionally mental lapses stall the offensive attack; but hustle is non-wavering.

This year the Orange Krush shirt displays the slogan, “heart of a champion.” Dee Brown said the legacy from last year will eventually turn into a refusal to quit. Last night it was a combination of both that sent home the Tar Heel faithful a different shade of blue.

Ian Gold is a senior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]