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The Illinois game (Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinals)

Illinois Fighting Illini
Overall record: 23-10
Big Ten record: 9-7 (regular season; 1-0 in BTT)
RPI: 34
Sagarin: 44
Series record: IU leads, 81-76
Let's get this out of the way: Illinois is in the NCAA Tournament. The Illini killed any "bubble" discussion with their narrow victory over Penn State yesterday afternoon. I refuse to believe that a 23-win Big Ten team with an RPI of 34 and with no losses to any team ranked lower than 89 (at Iowa, just like IU) will be left out. I don't know what the conventional wisdom is about the Illini among the chatterers today, but if you hear anyone say that Illinois is on the bubble, change the channel. They will be in even if IU wins by 30 (I hope to see that hypothesis tested). Purdue is on the bubble because of its awful losses at Indiana State and Minnesota. Illinois lacks the signature wins that IU has (Wisconsin and Southern Illinois) but in terms of avoiding bad losses, Illinois has a resume remarkably similar to IU's.
I'm glad that paragraph is over. Illinois is one of my least favorite Big Ten schools. In my experience, there isn't a fan base in the country that is more delusional about its place in the college basketball world than Illinois fans. I don't know if I coined this description of Illinois basketball, but I have used it enough that I consider it mine: "Duke's attitude, Iowa's tradition." I mean no disrespect to Iowa, a fine place with some of the nicest fans in the Big Ten. But no self-respecting Iowa fan would argue that Iowa basketball is in the top echelon of college basketball programs, or that they would be there but for a vast, worldwide officiating conspiracy. Before 2005 (to be fair, the 2005 Illinois team was one of the best and most fun-to-watch Big Ten teams I have ever seen), the most legendary team in Illini history, the 1989 Flyin' Illini, was a team that not only didn't win the NCAA Tournament, but didn't even win the Big Ten! Even Purdue wouldn't overhype a team that didn't win the Big Ten! (yes, let's see how many Big Ten fan bases I can alienate in one blog entry). To UIUC's credit, the school did produce the Big Ten Wonk, the finest and most even-handed blogger around.
The tiff between Kelvin Sampson and Bruce Weber has further escalated tension between the two schools. As anyone who follows college basketball knows, Eric Gordon of North Central High School in Indianapolis, the finest scoring guard the state of Indiana has produced in years, committed to Illinois on the eve of the 2005-06 season. At the time, Illinois was coming off that remarkable 2005 season and IU had inexplicably retained Mike Davis after he produced IU's two single worst seasons in 35 years and did so in back-to-back seasons. After IU kicked Davis to the curb and hired Kelvin Sampson, contact was made between IU and Gordon (it appears that Gordon made the first contact, but that is far from established) and on the evening of Midnight Madness 2006, Gordon "formally" switched his verbal commitment from Illinois to Indiana. Frankly, I don't think Sampson did a thing wrong in recruiting Gordon. Contrary to current conventional wisdom, I don't think he even owed Weber a phone call. The whole notion of the "coaching fraternity" sickens me a bit. These guys make north of a million bucks a year to advance the interests of their universities. I reject the notion that Kelvin Sampson should have made his duty to Indiana University subservient to his obligation to fellow coach Bruce Weber. All that said, Sampson made his own bed with the unfortunate and troubling NCAA violations at Oklahoma. Many of Sampson's critics have blurred the line between the improper calls at OU and the recruitment of Gordon in an effort to portray a general "sleaziness." I don't think that's fair. The cheating at OU was sleazy; recruiting a kid who has made a non-binding commitment is not. The NCAA has a hefty rule book that legislates everything from the serious down to the mundane issues of how much a school can pay for a kid's meal on an official visit and the page length of the school's media guide. The NCAA has not outlawed recruitment of verbally committed players. The NCAA could do that, but my suspicion is that they want kids to be able to change their minds into their senior years of high school, just like any other high school student. In any event, the Gordon recruitment is going to enliven this series for a while.
As is par for the course in the muddled middle, both teams held serve at home in the two previous meetings this season. Between the hostile fan greeting and the anemic offense, IU's 51-43 loss in Champaign was the toughest game of the season to watch. Offensively, IU was brutal, with 43 points on 44 shots and 6(!) free throw attempts. IU had only 8 assists. What is interesting about that game is that Illinois was nearly as bad on offense, which I suppose suggests that IU was doing something right on defense. The two teams' field goal percentage (overall and from three), rebounds, assists, and turnovers were practically identical. The difference is that IU was whistled for 20 fouls but shot only 6 free throws. Illinois committed only 9 fouls but shot 20 free throws. That's not intended to be an indictment of the officials (in college basketball, one could write an entire blog about nothing else) but to point out the statistical difference.

IU won the rematch, 65-61 in Bloomington. Again, the two teams' stats were uncannily similar, even in free throws this time (IU shot 23 to the Illini's 20). IU shot just a tad better from the field and from the line and took care of the ball just a bit better than the Illini (14 turnovers compared to 17 for Illinois). IU's offense still wasn't pretty: only 9 assists on 23 field goals. To my rough calculation, even in the game at Bloomington, IU was at exactly 1 point per possession, below the season average. Because of the unfortunate drunk driving incident, Illinois is not the same team it was for either of this year's IU games. But Illinois will have the crowd today in Chicago, and this will be a tough one. It's a game that does have some importance for IU's NCAA seed. I am hopeful that a win and a strong showing against Wisconsin could put IU into the 6-seed range. The 7-8-9-10 range makes it much more difficult to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Obviously, the #2 and #1 seeds are the best teams in the country, meaning they are tougher to beat and less likely to fall in the first round. Two wins in the BTT likely would guarantee IU a seed in the 4-5-6 range, which is much better.
History: this will the sixth BTT matchup between IU and Illinois. The Illini are 4-1 against the Hoosiers in the BTT. In 1999, IU was the #3 seed (before this year, that's the only time IU has ever been seeded as high) and lost to the #11 seed Illinois, 82-66, which despite a poor regular season defeated #6 Minnesota, IU, and #2 Ohio State before losing to Michigan State in the final. In 2000, in the 4/5 game, Illinois defeated IU on a Cory Braford three pointer in the closing seconds, 72-69. In 2001, IU managed its only win. The #4 seeded Hoosiers upset the #1 Illini 58-56. In 2003, the teams again played a nailbiter in the semifinals, with Illinois prevailing 73-72. In 2004, in the second round, top-seeded Illinois graciously served as Dr. Kevorkian for IU's only losing season in the last 37 years, winning 71-59. It is worth noting that IU leads the all-time series against every Big Ten school except Purdue. Illinois is the only Big Ten team within striking distance, and the Illini's dominance of the Hoosiers in these BTT matchups is the main reason why. Since the advent of the BTT, IU and Illinois will have played 22 times, an average of more than two games a season.