15-7; Nowhere To Go But Up.

A Frosted Flakes level “Grrrrr-reat!” win by the University of Illinois over Indiana last night, and while it was nice to see the Illini not give away a lead and commit 26 different shot clock violations, it was especially satisfying that the “big win” the Illini so desperately needed came against “Coach” Kelvin Sampson and his newly hated Hoosiers.

Sure, it would have been nice for the Illini to have gotten that “signature win” of theirs against either Wisconsin or Ohio State, but let’s face it, those two squads are leaps and bounds more talented than the boys in orange (how the hell did Wisconsin get so good in one year? Didn’t they lose to North Dakota State at home this time last year? That’s an impressive turn around to say the least). But they beat a ranked team and if they manage to finish out conference play at .500, they should sneak into the NCAA at somewhere around an 11 seed; playing with no pressure and, with a good draw, they might get to play Vassar or whoever knocks Kansas out of the tourney in the first round this year and sneak into the Sweet Sixteen. (Of course, this is a best case scenario; there is always the distinct possibility that they lose out and are NIT bound.)

And it’s not just that they beat a ranked team; they beat a newly venomous conference rival. The Illini have never really had an intra-conference rivalry – during the run of awesomeness of the last seven years, pretty much every other school has hated the Illini an equal amount – besides Mizzou there isn’t a school which year after year the fan base passionately wants to beat. One could make the case for a handful of schools (Michigan State, Wisconsin) that one despises for any particular reason (I personally still hate Ohio State for ruining the unbeaten season of ’04-’05), but there wasn’t a school which really made the blood boil for the entire state.

Kelvin Sampson and his shenanigans in the Eric Gordon recruiting wars have changed all that, though. And I like it. I want to see Johnny Cougar effigies burning brightly in Champaign and kids burning REO Speedwagon albums in Bloomington. I want to feel threatened the next time I run into Babbs Super Valu in Spencer, Indiana for a loaf of their ridiculously tasty cheese bread while wearing an Illini jersey. I want an all out border war.

And while I started looking forward to rowdy crowds at the Assembly Halls for the next few years, I also started looking forward to what the Illini’s prospects are for next season. I am, to say the least, cautiously optimistic:

For ’07-’08, there is the simple case of addition by subtraction, and that subtraction of course comes in the form of Marcus Arnold and Dick McBride. McBride, after a stellar high school career at Springfield Lanphier, has gone on to have one of the most underwhelming collegiate careers I can remember. I really thought he could develop into a potential NBA caliber three point specialist, but I guess the fact that he is actually a 47 year old accountant from Dallas finally caught up with him. And Marcus Arnold may very well be the nicest guy on the planet, but he is simply a really, really bad basketball player (although, he does love him some Red Lobster!).

The only other senior, The Enigma That Is Warren Carter, needs to start saying nightly prayers to Serge Zwicker, the patron saint of inexplicably long eligibility terms. If Marcus Sommerville was allowed to play college ball for 17 years, I don’t see why “The- Double-You-Sea” can’t get a fifth frame.

Meanwhile, the following are for sure (barring any ill-advised early NBA jumps or beer pong related altercations) returning to the fold:

Shaun Pruitt, who is quickly turning into an absolute beast (the development that Weber’s coaching staff has done on Pruitt is worth noting and, in my opinion, is nothing short of amazing – I’m pretty sure that they lock him in a room with Wayne McClain, tape his eyes open, and make him watch Marcus Griffin highlights for twelve hours a day, seven days a week) and in next year’s (hopefully) Greg Oden-less Big Ten, could be the conference’s premiere post player.

Dee Brown v2.0, otherwise known as Chester Frazier, the scrappiest point guard to ever scrap, will be back and will probably continue to get weird injuries and gut his way through them once again.

Jamar Smith, who really has nowhere to go but up next season. He’s not just personifying the term “Sophomore Slump” this year, he’s defining it to the point that they may change the term to “The Jamar Smith Effect.”

Brian Randle will be back and gunning to foul out of every game he enters, often within his first six minutes of action. Then he’ll get hurt. A few weeks later, he’ll have a sweet dunk, but he’ll hurt himself and get called for a charge. Then he'll get called for a foul while on his way to the hospital.

Chris Hicks will be back for another year of people asking “What the devil is a Chris Hicks?” when they look at their programs.

The Brian Cardwell Experience, all 280 or so pounds and 9’2” standing reach of it, will be back and filling up the lane like never before.

Plus, incoming freshmen:

Quinton Watkins, who is from Compton, CA, and if every NWA song is to be believed as truth (and they are), must be a bad ass.

Westchester St. Joseph’s PG Demetri McCamey, who, if history has taught us anything (and it hasn’t) is either the next Isiah Thomas or the next Arthur Agee.

And Bill Cole, who if I was forced at gunpoint to describe his game I would say: “Brian Cook Light.”

So, yeah, now that I look at it on paper, with the exception of a possibly dominant Pruitt and a resurgent Smith, maybe I shouldn’t be looking forward (cautiously or otherwise) to next year all that much.

Whatever, as long as they beat Mizzou, it’s cool. (Oh, and Indiana. Gotta get used to that one.)

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I hope the Illini can beat IU also, but that could be tougher next year with Eric Gordon at IU. He seems like a guy that will help IU win the big 10 next year if they have a supporting cast. I think we can look to 2008 or 2009 as potentially better years for the Illini.
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