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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Opponent analysis

    The memories from the Elite Eight in 2005 are still there, and a bulk of the questions directed at Illinois head coach Bruce Weber during a teleconference yesterday broached the topic once again.

    But don’t be fooled. This Fighting Illini team bears very little resemblance to the team that lost to North Carolina in the 2005 National Championship game. Gone are all five starters, including a trio of heralded guards in Deron Williams and Dee Brown (both members of the Utah Jazz) and Luther Head (Houston Rockets), as well as inside clog James Augustine (Orlando Magic), and the glue guy, the minister Roger Powell Jr.

    Only two players who stepped in between the baselines that day remain from that year: guard Rich McBride, who logged eight minutes on that cold night in Rosemont, Ill., and forward Warren Carter, who played three minutes.

    That Illinois team lost just once during the regular season, and that loss didn’t come until the final game of the Big Ten season, a one-point heartbreaker at Ohio State.

    This year’s Illini bunch has already dropped a home game to No. 23 Maryland after squeaking out wins over Bradley and Miami (Ohio) by four and two points, respectively.

    Led by three sophomore guards, Illinois has been hurt by the four-game suspension of McBride for a drunken driving arrest back in September, a number of injuries and a schedule that had it play eight games in 15 days.

    “”Our team has gone through some difficult times,”” Weber said. “”We’ve had injuries, suspensions, a whole bunch of games and not a lot of practice time, and it finally caught up to us (Tuesday) night (versus Maryland).””

    The injuries of Jamar Smith, Illinois’ best shooter and an All-Big Ten Freshman last season, may have hit the Illini the hardest. Smith dropped 19 points in the first half of the team’s season opener, but he was hurt on the second play of the second half, leaving with a high ankle sprain.

    Originally expected to be out for four weeks, Smith came back Saturday against Bradley and scored 14 points. But Weber said yesterday he did not think Smith would play against Arizona because the healing process is not progressing without full rehabilitation. Forward Brian Randle, who redshirted 2004-05, is out after undergoing groin surgery, and guard Chester Frazier, who was limping the day after the Maryland loss, is expected to play.

    With Frazier, Smith and guard Calvin Brock in the lineup, Illinois possesses a trio of talented shooters, but it has been on the defensive end, where Illinois has struggled early in the year.

    After giving up 70 points only twice all of last season, Illinois has given up more than 70 in each of its last two games.

    “”Our teams over the last three years, we’ve been so good offensively, and everybody focuses on that, but if you really study our defense, we’ve been tops in not only the Big Ten but the country in a lot of defensive categories,”” Weber said. “”It’s something we’ve tried to get them to be committed to, but we didn’t do a very good job (Tuesday) in the second half.””

    UA head coach Lute Olson is still concerned about the Illini defense, even though the Wildcats are averaging 93.6 points per game, second-best nationally.

    “”It’s not a case with the Illini where you’re just going to run one set and get a good look,”” Olson said. “”You’re going to have to execute well to get good opportunities, and on the other end of the court, they do a really good job of screening and moving without the ball. We’ve had very, very good games with the Illini, and I don’t expect this to be any different than that.””

    While Arizona is looking for revenge from two years ago, Weber hopes his team is looking to redeem itself after its first loss of the season.

    “”Hopefully we have a little chip on our shoulder,”” he said. “”I know the kids, a lot of them were in yesterday, we had the day off but a lot of them came through, very humbled, very disappointed, and we’ll see how they respond.””

    Against Maryland, the Illini quickly fell behind 16-4 before pulling close late to lose by six. Weber said he knows that against an Arizona team known for making runs, Illinois cannot continue to fall into the same trap.

    “”We have to have a different mentality early in games,”” he said. “”Otherwise (Arizona) can get on a roll, and we might never stop them.””

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