Column: Athletic revelation

By Ian Gold

I was watching a particular game from the Maui invitational and marveling at the excess of athleticism and the lack of skill. Kansas was playing Arizona and each player could jump out of the gym but couldn’t hit a shot to save a life.

While watching this game I was thinking of how good these teams could be if only somebody had taken the time to develop their skills. It was at some point in the first half of the 58-48 win over Georgetown that I realized the product I was imagining was this year’s Illini.

The Illini proved against a very tough, disciplined and fruitful bunch that they can play many different styles. Tonight, it would be a combination of disciplined, pressure defense combined with aggression in all areas. Illinois is very fast; led by Dee Brown, it’s a no brainer. But the sick athleticism is most evident with their frontcourt. James Augustine is out guarding future lottery small forward Jeff Green. Six-foot-nine-inch Brian Randle is sprinting up and down the court and attacking the rim, while holding Wooden Award candidate Brandon Bowman to only three points.

Bruce Weber called the defensive first half as good a 20 minutes as he has seen in a long time. Weber praised the defensive pressure and referred to the job that Marcus Arnold and Shaun Pruitt did on Roy Hibbert as 2 on 1 tag-team wrestling. Hibbert was that seven-foot-two-inch monster throwing everyone’s shots in strange directions. While people commented on his lack of offense, you maybe don’t realize in the first four games he averaged 16.3 shots per game and hit his last 17 free throws.

Part of Illinois’ athleticism can be attributed to the conditioning that the whole team puts in during the off-season and at the start of practice. The group vowed to put down the Fritos, put on the headbands and pull up the socks, and challenge themselves in windsprints and the mile. While the pain of rounding that last turn on the track has faded, the ability for Dee Brown to play 39 minutes a game and Augustine to play 37 remains.

It was speculated that coming into this season Illinois would be able to score in the 60’s and still win a safe majority of its games. Until tonight we haven’t been given a solid glimpse of that team. Funny it could come out against a revamped Princeton offense that just put up 71, while slowing the pace at Oregon.

Illinois only had six assists tonight, but still managed to score 58 points. The only way this is possible is to attack the glass. The Illini had 21 offensive rebounds and scored 16 second chance points. Many of those points came off simple tip-ins by players, who instead of giving up, decided to play above the rim. Combine the offensive rebounding with the willingness to lay out for loose balls, and it’s a great start to protecting your home court. That ability is one part athleticism and one part conditioning.

The difference between Thursday night and the sloppy game played between Kansas and Arizona? The Illini only turned the ball over 10 times, allowed only two Hoya fast-break points and shot near 80% from the charity stripe.

When asked how good this Illinois team could be, John Thompson III, head coach of Georgetown responded quickly and forcefully.

“Could be? They’re real good right now…from what I can tell, there are about a handful of teams that could win it all, and they are one of them.”

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