A year later, Illinois is unbeaten again
Illinois doesn't really know what losing feels like, how it sinks in for the players and keeps the coaches up at night.
That's because they have hardly experienced it.
Illinois is 49-2 in the past season-plus. The only losses were in the national title game to North Carolina and at Ohio State by one in the final Big Ten regular-season game last March.
After ripping off 29 wins in a row to start the 2004-05 season, the Illini (12-0) are unblemished once again as they head into the Christmas break after an 82-50 trashing of Missouri on Wednesday night in St. Louis.
The Illini have won so much that even the two most recent losses don't feel so bad.
"The Carolina game wasn't as bad because that was the national championship game, and no one else is playing," Illini head coach Bruce Weber said as he drove home to Champaign late Wednesday night. "The other one was Ohio State, and we just had to put that away fast and get ready for the [conference] tournament.
"Prior to that, it was Duke in the Sweet 16 [in 2004], and before that we had had a good run,'' Weber said. "Our guys understand how to win. Dee [Brown] doesn't like to lose.''
During Wednesday's game, Brown lit into his teammates for letting a Missouri player get in too close to the basket in the final seconds. The bucket was waved off after basket interference, but Brown made his point: no freebies and, apparently, no losing.
"This has been a lot more work,'' Brown said of going undefeated this year versus last season's run. In 2004-05 nonconference play, the Illini's biggest wins were over Gonzaga and Wake Forest. This season, Illinois has won at North Carolina, beaten Xavier in Chicago, crushed Oregon in Portland, topped Georgetown at home, beaten Rutgers and Wichita State (in South Padre Island, Texas) and steamrolled Missouri. Solid wins, all of them, especially for a team that was perceived to be rebuilding after losing starters Deron Williams, Luther Head and Roger Powell.
"Last year, we knew what we had, and this year everyone is accepting their roles,'' Brown said. "I told coach [that Illinois could run the table in nonconference games this season]. Everyone says we're so young. We're not as young as people say, besides Jamar Smith.''
Smith is the one freshman in the top eight players. The 6-3 guard is averaging 9.8 points per game. Still, except for Brown and James Augustine, the rest of the crew doesn't have experience playing major minutes. Brian Randle, who is averaging 8.8 points per game, broke his hand last season. Rich McBride (8.8 ppg) was a role player last season. Marcus Arnold (4.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg), a sensational athlete in the frontcourt, sat out last season after playing at Illinois State. Sophomore Shaun Pruitt didn't play much last season but is logging 19 minutes a game now (5.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg). Junior Warren Carter's play was sporadic last season, too. But Carter is finding his role in 11 minutes per game (5.1 ppg).
When the Illini beat Carolina, the players talked about how many of them were watching Brown too much. But that has changed.
"I've given confidence to everybody,'' Brown said. "They don't rely on me to do all the scoring. Everybody is playing hard and getting confidence and we've got that swagger.''
Brown said he thought it was impossible to stay undefeated last season because "you get everyone's best shot.'' He said there's no way that more than one team, and "maybe not even that,'' does it this season.
Weber said he just worried about surviving this nonconference schedule.
"Last year, we had more weapons, and it was much easier,'' Weber said. "We had a special team last year.''
Weber said a team has to be special to go deep into February undefeated. He said maybe Duke can do it this season. He said the schedule certainly plays into the possibility.
So can Illinois do it again and get into February still unbeaten?
"I'd be shocked,'' Weber said. "There are so many good teams in our league.''
George Washington (8-0): The Colonials passed their first test against Maryland. The next one comes at NC State next week. The erratic A-10 could mean only a few bumps until March.
Duke (11-0): The Blue Devils continue to pass every test. But the last-second win over Virginia Tech indicates it could be very difficult to go through the ACC unblemished.
Clemson (11-0): Coach Oliver Purnell's squad is cruising along by beating up on the lower end of college hoops. Talk to us in a month if the Tigers are still unbeaten.
Pittsburgh (9-0): Nice run, but talk to us after the Panthers play at South Carolina and then host Wisconsin. Don't even think about Pitt going unbeaten in the Big East.
Connecticut (8-0): The Huskies still have to go to Indiana, and winning at Louisville, Syracuse and Villanova seems to be asking a lot. But a two- to four-loss season isn't out of the question.
Villanova (8-0): Beating Oklahoma and winning at Bucknell were big-time victories. But the Big East road schedule for Villanova, like Connecticut, is too tough to think the 'Cats could run the table.
Texas A&M (7-0): Look, coach Billy Gillispie schedules the way he does for a reason: because he can. The school has the money to fund his guarantee games. He told ESPN.com he couldn't get many home-and-home series, and that's why he's going to play at Pacific on Jan. 3 (and why he hosted Penn State, a 60-55 Aggies' win on Dec. 3; last year, the Aggies played at Penn State). He might be right. We don't see elite teams going to College Station without TV involved. Still, Texas A&M is likely an NIT squad.
Ohio State (7-0): The wins over Virginia Tech, at Saint Joseph's and at Iowa State were impressive for a team in transition. This squad is looking more and more like an NCAA team, but not an undefeated one.
Iona (7-0): The Gaels beat Iowa State on the road but now have to play Kentucky. They're the favorite in the MAAC, but not to go undefeated.
Indiana State (8-0): Beating Indiana at home will have shelf life, and Butler was another solid win. But the Missouri Valley is too tough to consider running the table a realistic goal.
Washington (9-0): The Huskies beat the Zags and took out New Mexico in Anaheim but still haven't played a tough true road game. Until then, Washington's chances to run the table can't be evaluated. The Pac-10 isn't strong, so the Huskies can have a gaudy record, but it's unlikely they'll pull a Stanford from two years ago and go until the last weekend without a loss.
Florida (11-0): The Gators have been impressive at every stop, winning in New York, Miami and Providence and at home. Expecting this youthful team to go unblemished, though, is hardly realistic. The SEC road is too dicey, especially at Kentucky, Vandy and maybe Tennessee in the East.
Illinois (12-0): It's hard to go against this squad, but come on, there's no way the Illini can come close again, right? Expecting the Illini to sweep through the Big Ten is simply unrealistic: play Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa without losing once? No way.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com
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