Blowout adds to Illinois' non-conference resume
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Here we go again atop the polls.
But this rotation of No. 1 teams, unlike last year, which saw a host of teams ascend to the top, might not be as fluid if Illinois keeps playing the way it did Wednesday night.
The Illini's schedule won't allow them to lose too often, if at all, until they go to Michigan State on Feb. 1 -- the only meeting between the two teams this season.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber will talk about potential trap games against Arkansas in Little Rock Saturday, at Georgetown next Thursday, against Oregon in Chicago on Dec. 11 and, maybe, Cincinnati in Las Vegas on New Year's Eve. But the reality is that if the Illini play at the speed and precision like they did Wednesday night -- shooting 60 percent in the first half, 51.5 percent overall and a season-high 27 assists on 38 field goals -- then this team isn't going to be slipping from the top of the polls anytime soon.
Illinois' 91-73 thrashing of Wake Forest Wednesday night at Assembly Hall will knock the Demon Deacons from their two-week perch as the No. 1-rated team. The Demon Deacons, with an assist from Vermont giving Kansas a game two weeks ago, leaped over the Jayhawks after they started the season as the top-ranked team.
Illinois could do the same to Kansas, vaulting from No. 3 over the No. 2 Jayhawks to No. 1 after beating Wake Forest so convincingly. Kansas hasn't played a ranked team yet and might not until it plays host to Georgia Tech on New Year's Day. The Jayhawks' first road game isn't until they travel to Kentucky on Jan. 9.
"That's pretty safe," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said of the Demon Deacons losing the No. 1 spot in the polls. "We just got beat by 18. I'm just guessing but I would think we would."
The polls don't mean anything in college hoops, outside of being a small part of the seeding process, if at all. But they are an indicator, at times, of the potential top teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Weber doesn't shy away from discussing the team's intended goals. He said he wants a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. He made that proclamation on Dec. 1, and few would argue with him after Wednesday's night's total domination.
"This certainly adds to our non-conference resume," said Weber, who was still screaming during his postgame news conference. He probably still couldn't hear his own voice after the Orange Krush controlled the noise level inside Assembly Hall. It's not an exaggeration to say this was an orange-clad affair. There were probably only a few fans that didn't get the memo that this was a "Paint the Hall Orange" promotion game. Some students had lined up for two days to get their seats in the arena, staying out in the biting cold weather.
Weber did his part to placate the Illini faithful by wearing a muted orange blazer that he said was made locally. It's hard to argue that one, considering few folks outside of maybe Syracuse and Clemson would want a jacket that color.
"We played like we should at home," Weber said. "I joked that if we were up 30 that I would sit down. I was joking."
Weber had plenty of time to sit after the Illini reached the 30-point spread, 79-49, with 8:49 remaining.
"They played infinitely better than us,'' Prosser said. "They made open and contested shots."
The game was a blur. Illini was so quick to make shots, let alone attempt them, that it seemed like Wake Forest never even had a chance. Luther Head hit four 3s, Roger Powell made two, Deron Williams, who was in foul trouble early in the first half, converted four shots, but had 11 assists and four turnovers. Dee Brown made two 3s, hit a total of seven buckets and had seven assists and no turnovers and Rich McBride came off the bench to make 3-of-6 3s. Whew.
"It's rare to have that many shooters," Prosser said.
The Illini aren't a fluke offensively. Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Tuesday that he couldn't get over how well Illinois shared the ball. The Illini smoked the Zags 89-72 and shot 50 percent on 3s (14-of-28) last Saturday in Indianapolis.
"Motion frees everything up for us and gives us free shots," Head said. "They become like 'horse' shots when you get that much room because you're so open."
Brown said the Illini practice playing at this warped speed. Weber said he's constantly screaming to 'give the ball up,' and to keep the ball moving until someone is open. He said this team is selfless. Sure, it has egos, but the players get the idea that the ball is coming back to them.
"We practice the way we play in games," Brown said. "We come off screens and it's 'fire, fire, fire,' getting rhythm shots in the offense."
Brown showed no signs of the stress fracture in his left shin that had him rest for most of the early fall. There was some early talk of redshirting if he couldn't go but he quickly dismissed it once he said he was disciplined to rest. Brown said that he would have to have surgery on both calves in the offseason. But said he doesn't have any pain.
"Everything surprised me (Wednesday night)," Brown said. "I was surprised by how good a team we were, how we performed. When you win by this much, you're surprised. I thought it would be one of those games that came down to crunch time. They didn't shoot the ball well and it's hard to play in this tough atmosphere."
Brown, who said he was up until 4 a.m. Tuesday night and had to "go to the bathroom four or five times before the tip," because of nerves, said he doesn't mind losing in the regular season.
"Just as long as we don't lose in March," Brown said.
Weber didn't calm down after the game, either. You would think he would chill, considering he had an appendectomy Nov. 15 and didn't miss a practice or a game.
"I do get tired because I didn't rest like I should have," Weber said.
He said he was heading home to watch SportsCenter, and to try to relax before focusing on Arkansas.
As for Wake Forest, "I hope we play them again because we think they'll be in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight or in the Final Four."
And if that's the case, the Illini could be meeting Wake Forest as a No. 1 seed, and possibly as the top-rated team -- if they continue to shoot like they did Wednesday.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.