Illinois-UWM puts Pearl back in the spotlight
INDIANAPOLIS -- Apologies to Illinois center James Augustine. This story was going to be about his career-high 23 points and 10 rebounds against Nevada on Saturday.
But before the sweat had dried on the Illini's 71-59 NCAA Tournament victory, that was relegated to "In other news" status.
That's because Bruce Pearl had struck again. His 12th-seeded Wisconsin-Milwaukee team beat No. 4 seed Boston College (after beating No. 5 seed Alabama on Thursday). Now his Panthers advance to a Chicago Regional showdown brimming with bad feelings.
Illinois plays the Panthers in what should be a Sour Sixteen atmosphere. Pearl is to Illinois fans what Deep Throat was to the Nixon Administration.
As an assistant coach at Iowa some 16 years ago, Pearl surreptitiously tape-recorded conversations with Illinois recruit Deon Thomas, who chose the Illini over the Hawkeyes. On the tapes, Thomas said he was promised an SUV and cash by Illini assistant Jimmy Collins. Pearl turned the tape over to the NCAA.
Thomas said the story was false -- he only told Pearl what he wanted to hear in order to get him off his back. Ultimately he was cleared by the NCAA and played four years for Illinois. But the tape recordings sparked an investigation of Illinois that resulted in a one-year postseason ban and two years of scholarship reductions. And the investigation torched Collins' chances of succeeding Lou Henson as Illinois' coach.
Collins, now the coach at Illinois-Chicago, still begrudges Pearl and refuses to shake hands with him after their teams meet in Horizon League play. A vast swath of Illinois fans are still holding tight to the same grudge.
Loren Tate, a columnist at the Champaign News-Gazette for 39 years, was asked what the reception will be like for Pearl in Chicago.
"The most horrible you've ever seen," Tate said. "It will be beyond your wildest imagination. The players don't care. The coaches don't care. But (the Illinois fans) are the ones who are still pissed.
"You will never hear so many boos in your life. It's going to get really personal. That's the ugly part of it."
It sounds like boos when Illinois fans yell "Bruuuuuuce" as coach Bruce Weber is introduced before games. When the other Bruce is introduced Thursday night, those really will be boos.
It won't come as a shock to Pearl. He's already endured death threats, hate mail and condemnation in some coaching corners. Some say he broke the coaches' code, which stipulates that you don't drop a dime on a peer.
"That which doesn't kill you will only make you stronger," Pearl told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Friday at the Cleveland subregional. "That stuff is tough to go through. But occasionally it's got to happen in the NCAA for everybody to fly right. There were a lot of people who were hurt, but those things have to happen from time to time. And fortunately, everybody recovered from it.
"I'm an idealist. I thought everybody wanted to know the truth and it's just not that way. Fans are going to be fans, and they should support their teams and they should be loyal even to a fault. And so I thought I was doing the right thing by everybody to try to right a wrong."
Some speculate that Pearl was blackballed after trying to right a wrong. It took him nine years at Division II Southern Indiana before getting his shot in D-I at UW-M.
And now he gets his shot at the No. 1 team in the land, on its semi-home turf.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber -- a UW-M alum -- clearly didn't want to spend Saturday night digging up old orange-and-blue skeletons. But he's smart enough to know that it will be the dominant story line of the next five days.
"I understand the history of it," Weber said. "We can't worry about that. It's old history.
"It's not about that. It's about our team against their team. ... I told our team, 'It's not Duke, but you've got to understand -- they beat Boston College and Alabama. They're going to come at you. They're going to be free and loose."
Illinois was free and loose Saturday. And cocksure. And versatile. This might have been the get-your-groove-back breakout game the Illini have been waiting for the past two weeks.
Since its undefeated season vanished in the final six seconds at Ohio State on March 6, Illinois hasn't been its swaggering self. It won a succession of grinder games in the Big Ten tournament against teams that had the Illini scouted cold. Then the Illini schlepped around for a half against No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson Thursday night before terminating the Impossible Dream scenario in the second 20 minutes.
Saturday, the Illini ripped and ran like the team that owned college basketball all season.
"A lot of it is making shots," Weber said. "If you make shots, you look good."
He's right about that. Illinois shot better than 50 percent from the field for the game, a first since March 3. Not coincidentally, the Illini never trailed. And when Augustine and Jack Ingram morphed into an unlikely Twin Towers offense, Nevada had no chance.
They combined to score 35 points, make 15 of 18 shots, grab 13 rebounds, make seven steals and block three shots. For two guys who are completely overshadowed by Illinois' stellar backcourt, that's a pretty fair month of production.
Augustine scored 17 points in the first half alone, flying in for dunks or shooting soft jumpers. A kid who is sometimes accused of being a bit soft with the basketball instead hung that tag on Nevada sophomore Nick Fazekas, who finished a struggling NCAA Tournament by going 5-for-20 from the field.
"I kind of wanted to go out there and prove something," Augustine said of facing the WAC Player of the Year.
Consider it proved.
"He was killing today," said point guard Deron Williams. "Nobody on that team could stop him or contain him."
Williams was at his dominating best as well, finishing with 15 points and 10 assists. The junior is at the top of his game when he's in the middle of everything, which is why his postgame news conference maneuver was metaphorically apt. Williams came up to the podium and rearranged the player placards to seat himself in the middle of the four players plus Weber.
But for the first time in a long time -- since, like, December -- the Illini will cede center stage this week to someone else. Bruce Pearl and a past that never stays buried will dominate the Sweet 16 talk in Chicago.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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