Surprisin' Illini Having Stellar Season - NBC Chicago

Surprisin' Illini Having Stellar Season

Team Rebounds From Disappointing Year



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    Head coach Bruce Weber has his Illinois Fighting Illini playing at a high level.

    At 14-2, our home-state Illinois Fighting Illini currently possess the most wins of all Big Ten teams. After last season's abysmal 16-19 showing -- a school record for losses -- this year looks MUCH better than most people expected at midseason.

    The Illini have two signature wins: a triumph at No. 9 Purdue (the program's first road victory over a top ten team since the 1989 Final Four "Flyin' Illini" days), and an utter thrashing of No. 25 Mizzou in the "Braggin' Rights" game. Sure, Purdue has not looked like the preseason conference favorite that they were hyped to be, and maybe Illini Nation no longer feels the need to abuse their bragging right privileges obtained from handing the Missouri Tigers their first loss this season. Seriously, when you’ve beaten a team nine straight and nearly 75 percent of the overall meetings, is it worth calling all the Mizzou people you know and telling them they're awful? Is this really a rivalry anymore? Illinois' most bitter rival, Indiana, is having a down year and the Illini utterly and delightfully destroyed the Hoosiers 76-45 on Saturday.

    Illinois is beating everyone they should, and their only losses were at Michigan and to undefeated, No. 11 Clemson. With a national RPI of 20 and an Power Ranking of 17, they look like a bona fide tournament team again. With assists on 72.5 percent of its baskets this season, Illinois leads the nation in assist percentage. Averaging 20.1 assists per game, the Illini rank second in the NCAA behind North Carolina.

    Illinois also ranks sixth nationally with a +1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio and they lead the Big Ten in shooting at 49 percent. The "Mike and Mike Show" has led the way, with sophomore forwards Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale improving by leaps and bounds in their sophomore seasons. So far, it seems like the 2009 "Champaign Campaign" will end in late March.

    "A game, a day off, a game, a day off, helps us prepare for the tournament. That's what the tournament is, and that's our goal for this season, is to make the tournament," Davis said.

    Paul M. Banks is a contributor for The Washington Times, founder of the webzine The Sports and a member of the NBC Chicago Street Team blog.