CHAMPAIGN “ In some ways it was just another victory, the 49th time Illinois has won the last 51 times out.
But to senior James Augustine, it was a pivotal development one-third of the way into a long, long journey.
”It's one of those turning points of the season," the Illini senior declared Wednesday night, moments after his team pounded Missouri 82-50 in the 25th annual Braggin' Rights game in St. Louis. ”We're getting better week by week."
We're all trying to get a handle on this unbeaten, sixth-ranked Illinois basketball team. We're all asking: How good are they? Can this be a Final Four team again?
In many ways, the questions seem improbable. How can a team lose three starters and four of its top six players from a group that finished second in the nation, then bounce back to play with over-the-top intensity and what seems to be instantaneous chemistry?
And can Augustine be right? Is this just the tip of the iceberg from a team that has plenty of room for improvement and what appears to be the hunger to make it happen?
This much we know: Before long, Big Ten Conference play will begin and the intensity level will be magnified every single game at arenas in Iowa City, Iowa; Bloomington, Ind.; Madison, Wis.; Columbus, Ohio; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Minneapolis and East Lansing, Mich.
Michigan State is a load with Shannon Brown, Maurice Ager and Paul Davis playing lights-out on offense.
Indiana? Are you kidding me? Bruce Weber could win a national championship with that truck load of talent.
Tougher challenges await, to be sure.
But Dee Brown said he's not entirely surprised by the breakaway start and the hope for big things down the road.
”We used to laugh about it last year," Brown said. ”Deron (Williams) and Luther (Head) told me, 'With the guys you have coming back | You've got Brian Randle, who has experience. You've got Rich McBride, who played against us every day and has experience. You've got Shaun Pruitt, who has experience.'
”These guys, it seems like they're young but they have experience. They have been through it and they've had a taste of success. So the team I have now is not that young. We're know what we're doing. It's just about getting out there and having everyone know their roles.
”That was the main thing coach and I talked about. Would everyone accept their roles? Deron and Luther told me last year that we were going to be great, and I believed them.
”We're 12-0 but a lot of games we didn't play our best basketball. We can only get better."
Ironically, improvement running Weber's motion offense has not come yet. Weber said they never get an open shot in practice. But in games, the offense does relatively well, leading Weber to believe that Illinois' team defense is so good even in practice that playing against other defenses in games seems to be a relief.
For now, though, this team will take a well-deserved break for Christmas, something that made Weber audibly sigh.
”We won't get back to practice until late Christmas night, so we have three full days off and most of another," he said. ”I can't remember the last time I had three days off. We've been going non-stop. I recruited four days last week. I'm definitely going to take a little time and enjoy this break."
Work for some
Not everyone is getting three full days off.
Weber has advised on-the-mend Illini players Brian Randle, Chester Frazier and C.J. Jackson to stay active.
Randle played well against Missouri but is nursing a sprained ankle. Frazier is coming back from a slight muscle tear in his thigh. Jackson, who is redshirting, suffered a severe ankle sprain in preparation for the Oregon game.
”They have to go home and do something," Weber said. ”I'm not saying they have to run sprints, but they need to do something to stay active and help their injuries heal."
Frazier's progress has been encouraging.
”They gave us the OK to use him (against Missouri)," Weber said. ”But I wasn't going to use him unless we got into severe foul trouble or something like that. He practiced Monday for an hour and 45 minutes and he was very sore the next day."
Weber said he expects Frazier to play when Illinois resumes action Dec. 28 against Southeast Missouri State.
No love at home
There was little sympathy for Missouri coach Quin Snyder in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch accounts of the game published Thursday morning.
Columnist Bryan Burwell seemed to crystallize the case against Snyder and the downfall of the Tigers in these three paragraphs
”This was it, the perfect punishment to fit the crime. Quin Snyder slowly rose from his seat at courtside, his face flush and hollow, trying to figure some quick and less painful way to end this miserable spanking. Lineup shuffles didn't work, and neither did any mad scribbling of fancy Xs and Os on his coach's board.
”There was nothing he could do to stop another night of tough love and righteous rebuke for all the wrong and shame the embattled coach and tarnished ex-golden boy has brought to Mizzou.
”Somehow, the basketball gods always get it right. They love these perfect morality plays that remind you how fitting it is to see one program rising under the spirit of a leader who knows how to win the right way and one program sinking under the weight of its failed leader who couldn't tell the difference between a wrong turn and a shortcut."