INDIANAPOLIS, March 19 -- All season long, Illinois has been considered the best team in college basketball because of its triumvirate of fantastic guards: Dee Brown, Luther Head and Deron Williams. The Illini, the ninth team since 1990 to carry only one loss into the NCAA tournament, are considered the favorite in the 65-team field, largely because back-court play is supposed to be what matters most in March.
But in Saturday night's 71-59 victory over No. 9 seed Nevada in the second round of the Chicago Region, the No. 1 seed Illini showed they're more than a trio of shorter guys dribbling, driving and shooting three-pointers. Junior forward James Augustine scored a career-high 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and senior reserve Jack Ingram added a career-high 12 points as the Illini pushed around the upstart Wolf Pack at RCA Dome.
Illinois center James Augustine dunks down two of his career-high 23 points.
(Brent Smith - Reuters)
The Illini (34-1) will play No. 12 seed Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a surprising winner over No. 4 seed Boston College, on Thursday at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill. Nevada (25-7) fell short of reaching their second straight round of 16.
"This is where we were last year, in the Sweet 16, and we've talked about going farther this year," Illinois Coach Bruce Weber said.
To get to the regional final, the Illini will have to beat Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Weber's alma mater. The Panthers are coached by Bruce Pearl, who, as an assistant at Iowa in 1989, turned the Illini into the NCAA for recruiting violations. Pearl secretly recorded a telephone conversation with a recruit who claimed Illinois gave him an automobile. Pearl turned the tapes over to the NCAA, and Illinois was banned from playing in the 1991 NCAA tournament and lost scholarships because of the infractions.
Many Illinois fans haven't forgotten about Pearl -- many booed in the RCA Dome whenever Wisconsin-Milwaukee's scores were posted on the video board.
After slumping the last couple of weeks (Illinois led No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson by only one point at halftime in its NCAA first-round game), the Illini again looked like the team that won its first 29 games. With Brown struggling with an upset stomach and leg cramps, and Head and Williams combining to make only 3 of 9 shots in the first half, the Illini often turned to Augustine, who had scored 20 points or more in only one game this season.
After the Wolf Pack tied the score at 17 with less than six minutes left in the first half, Augustine and Ingram combined to score the Illini's last 17 points of the half. Ingram scored 17 points in the first half, and the forwards combined to make 15 of 18 shots in the game. They also held Nevada's Nick Fazekas, the Western Athletic Conference player of the year, to 11 points and 5-for-21 shooting.
"We always try to get the ball to our big men," Head said. "People talk so much about our guards that the big guys get overlooked. Our big guys do a lot; they rebound and set a lot of screens. If they keep setting screens as well as they do, they're going to keep getting shots."
Williams either scored or had an assist on Illinois's first six baskets of the second half. Williams finished with 15 points and 10 assists, and Head had 14 points. Brown, who was leveled on a screen set by Nevada's Kevinn Pinkney late in the game, scored only two points on two foul shots with 1 minute 9 seconds to go.
Williams "just took control of the game," Weber said. "Deron got it in the paint. If they got help, he dished it out. He hit a shot, hit a layup and got it going."
And the Illini finally got it going, too.
"A lot of it is making shots," Weber said. "If you make your shots, you look good."