Archive for Sunday, March 25, 2001

Illini introduce themselves to nation

Basketball fans get their first extended look at Illinois during its victory over Kansas

March 25, 2001


A few minutes into an interview last week on ESPN Radio, Dan Patrick finally leveled with Illinois coach Bill Self.

"In all honesty, coach," Patrick said, "most fans around the country couldn't name a single player on your team. They don't even know Frank Williams, but they can name three or four players on Duke."

America doesn't know the Big Ten regular-season champs? The No. 1 seed that played nationally televised games against Duke, Arizona (twice) and Michigan State?

That strange phenomenon probably came to an eye-popping end in living rooms around the country late Friday night. This was probably the first extended look many fans gave the nameless Fighting Illini, who promptly took names and kicked butt.

Going in, most fans probably had too much respect for Kansas, but at least that heightened the respect for the way Illinois took apart the Jayhawks. As an NBA scout watching the game said before tipoff: "When you really look at it, what did Kansas accomplish all year, other than beating a very average Syracuse team from a very average Big East?"

It certainly looked as if the Orangemen quit as Kansas pulled away in the second half, perhaps fueling false expectations about what Kansas could do to the orange-trimmed Illini. Kansas experienced exactly what Charlotte did in the second round sudden death. Somebody get the number of that truck. Mentally, Kansas was beaten in the first few minutes.

You now get the feeling that the senior-laden Illini played the season exactly as it's set up to be played as one long pace-yourself practice game. For this team, the season didn't start until the NCAA Tournament. So what if it shifted into cruise control for the conference tourney and dropped a semifinal game to Indiana? So what if Williams sacrificed a run at national player of year so he could make his teammates feel as if he occasionally needed a little help on offense?

A very different team showed up for the first two rounds in Dayton a team playing defense with a 40-minute fury it hadn't shown all year.

What happened Friday night at the Alamodome almost wasn't fair. Much of the night Kansas guards Kirk Hinrich and Jeff Boschee had trouble getting the ball across half-court. Point guard Hinrich (five turnovers) looked as if he had Michael Jordan himself attacking him on the perimeter. Instead it was Williams, who introduced himself to America with his defense alone.

"I don't understand why people nationally aren't more aware of Frank," Self said after Illinois' 80-64 win Friday. "He's one player who can dominate a game without scoring a point."

That was just the point. This time Williams dominated on both ends, scoring 30, stabilizing the offense when it went flying off the tracks, even crashing the defensive boards when Brian Cook, Marcus Griffin and Lucas Johnson fell into foul trouble. Oddly enough, the refs let the Illini slap and bang on the perimeter but quick-whistled them in the paint.

So this game was won with guard play. Arizona had better keep its guard up for today's rubber game and regional final. Gilbert Arenas, Jason Gardner and Richard Jefferson are much stronger, more athletic ballhandlers than the Jayhawks or Charlotte could muster, so this will be Illinois' biggest test. Once again the season starts today.

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