Though they have a history of not living up to expectations, the Illinois Fighting Illini have been all that was expected and more so far this season. Ranked sixth in the SCS.com Preseason Fab 15, UI has won their first nine games by an average of twenty points each on their way to a number one ranking, and the victories have not come over cupcakes either.
The Illini's final game in November was a huge seventeen-point whipping of Gonzaga, the SCS.com preseason favorite out of the West Coast Conference and a top 25 team according to some. Just four days later, the task was supposed to get even tougher for Bruce Webber's club. In front of a national TV audience on ESPN, Illinois dismantled, disfigured, and demolished the number one team in the SCS.com Preseason Fab 15, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
Since then, the Illini have gone on to win five more games, including road games at Georgetown and up-and-coming Arkansas. Their latest victory came at home over Oregon, one of the top teams in the PAC 10 this season.
So how is Illinois getting it done? Senior leadership and experience. Of the eleven players who have seen action so far this fall, eight are either juniors or seniors. On average, all but 30 minutes of each contest are played by either a junior or senior.
Another factor for the Illini is that the team's two biggest stars, guards Dee Brown and Deron Williams, are getting plenty of help from their teammates. Williams, the Big Ten media preseason player of the year, is averaging just 12.8 points per contest, not quite the contribution expected from a player who averaged 14 points a game a season ago.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, however, because the Illini have had improved contributions from two seniors this season. Guard Luther Head leads the team with over 16 points a contest, more than a five-point improvement from a year ago. Forward Roger Powell, the team's third-leading scorer, averages almost 14 a game, an improvement of a couple points each night out over last year.
Another small difference is the play of point guard Dee Brown. As he matures, the junior has improved his assist/turnover ratio from last year and is still averaging more points than a year ago.
One final component of what has been a well-oiled machine so far is the team rebounding of the Illini. Whereas the team was averaging only a couple more rebounds than the opposition in 2003-2004, Bruce Webber has his club out-rebounding the opponent by almost a half-dozen this season.
There are interesting matchups on Illinois' schedule over the next couple weeks before the Big Ten slate begins. A pre-Christmas showdown with rival Missouri on December 22 should be interesting. The Tigers have been pathetic most of this season, but Quin Snyder's team will be ready to roll when the game tips off in St. Louis. Another neutral site game is on the UI schedule for the following week. That's when they'll head out to Las Vegas to battle Cincinnati. The Bearcats are also unbeaten thus far and are on the verge of jumping into the SCS.com Fab 15.
Though the schedule will get tougher in the coming weeks and months, it's obvious this Illinois team has taken a huge step in the right direction. And with the proven leadership of this veteran squad, a let-down like in years past doesn't seem as likely.
OH, WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN
Sit back and think for just a minute.... Rather than this BC-Mess we've got on our hands these days, what if the BCS formula was used to set the matchups for an eight-team playoff? That's right, the same format as any other tournament out there: 1 vs 8, 2 vs 7, 3 vs 6, 4 vs 5. Winners advance, losers go home. It takes a total of three weekends to complete.
Below is what the games would have looked like this fall. Just for fun, we've penciled in some dates, times, and the possible TV lineup that you might have seen had this system been in effect. Would have been nice, huh?
ROUND ONE : Games played Saturday, December 11
So what about Round Two? Glad you asked. We've filled in our winners to show you what it might look like.
ROUND TWO : Games played Saturday, December 18
Why not finish it on out?
NATIONAL TITLE GAME
It would be college football's version of March Madness. It seems so easy to implement and so much fun for all football fans across the country. So why is it not a part of college football?
Because a group of people from around this nation with too much power and too much money and too much greed will not allow it too.
Editor's Note: This will the final edition of Around the Collge Nation for a few weeks. The feature will return in mid-January.
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