Column: Like a fine wine

By Ian Gold

CHICAGO – Ifyou learn something new everyday, spend most of your time playing basketball and have been playing at a Division-1 level for four years, you get the Champagne Dom Ruinart Blanc de blancs 1982; creamy, fragrant, delicate, quite fine. Butterscotch background to greengage fruit. Completely fresh with a long finish.

Around Champaign you keep hearing you’re only as good as your seniors, the group that has had time to fully soak in all the nuances of college basketball. Xavier brought back its top seven from last year and made Illini fans remember a time when they were the veteran team.

Now Illinois might not be as battle hardened as they once were, but a few players used their leadership and experience to shoulder the load and get the win 65-62. Because when it comes to getting better with age, James Augustine, Dee Brown and Marcus Arnold are a very fine wine.

Apart from the guys who have played college ball for four years, we scored 15 points. When the lead needed to be cut, Dee waited until he felt the time was right and buried back-to-back threes; when the game got tight the ball wisely found the possession of Augustine and when Illinois needed a third option, Arnold stepped up and made not only the big plays but the small ones, too.

It was the experience factor that brought the Illini out of the mess they created for themselves in the first five minutes. The three fourth-year players had been in a similar ditch, with four minutes left to go in the instant classic against Arizona; this was no sweat.

Speaking of ditches, my experience Saturday was quite similar to Illinois’. Everything was clear sailing until an icy stretch on I-57 put me in a ditch, along with about 50 of my unfortunate new companions. This is where I would say Illinois was in the United Center as they looked up to a goose-egg on the scoreboard with five minutes already off the clock.

As a younger driver, I might not have had the skill to direct myself to such a comfy dwelling; guardrails or semi-trucks are much more imposing. As younger players, the three veterans might have stressed out and not gotten out of the game that brought them in ranked No. 12.

While in the ditch, we both stayed composed. I called AAA and they punched the ball inside for easy baskets. Following a brief period where I was elected president of the ditch people and advised one of my cabinet members to hitchhike home, the moment of truth struck a similar truth to the Xavier struggle.

I realized that I would be waiting around for hours and hours to be rescued by a tow truck, and the Illini veterans realized they would be waiting forever before somebody else took charge.

When Dee stepped up his defensive intensity, Jamar Smith stepped up his intensity. When both guards applied heretic on the ball defense Xavier saw their ridiculous shooting percentage fall. When Augustine got the ball he attacked, realizing that he is no longer a role player but a star, a potential All-American and first round pick. Maybe most importantly Arnold, who had trouble falling asleep he was so excited for the season to start, got quality minutes and played like the athlete they thought they were adding to the team.

I finagled my way out of the ditch and drove cautiously home. Illinois fought its way out of Chicago and stretched the undefeated record to 7-0. The trio that had slowly been adding value in their cask busted out and put the Illini on their shoulders.

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