Practice time over for Illinois

Ncaa Regional

Chicago

March 25, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

ROSEMONT, Ill. - Illinois has been practically perfect in three NCAA tournament games, including last night's Chicago Regional semifinal. The Illini have controlled the tempo, locked down defensively when they've had to, given all three of their outstanding guards chances to shine individually and collectively, and have done nothing to arouse doubt about their status as favorite to win the national championship.

Yet the next time in this tournament that the Illini are tested by a team remotely considered a challenge to their supremacy will be the first.

The time, however, has come. Tomorrow, they will get Arizona as their final obstacle to the Final Four. Arizona was tested more in one game - last night's doubleheader semifinal nightcap at Allstate Arena - than Illinois has in its entire tournament run, maybe more than it has been since the regular-season finale against Ohio State that cost it a perfect season.

From the moment the second-round results finally shook out last weekend, it was obvious that the Arizona-Oklahoma State semifinal was sure to be the marquee game of the night.

The drama surrounding the Illinois-Wisconsin-Milwaukee matchup was about 10 percent due to the actual teams and 90 percent due to the scorned-coach subplot. In hindsight, it made for good reading to rehash the Bruce Pearl recruiting-scandal story 16 years later, but even a scrappy effort by his team never really erased any feeling that Illinois was just marking time until the Saturday regional final.

The real competition came later, and it lived up to the hype, every second of the way, down to the last one (or, technically, the last 1.3). This one was up in the air right up until John Lucas' final three-point try was in the air.

It was a crusher for Oklahoma State to lose, especially after the player it had been hoping would get untracked, Joey Graham, finally did get untracked. Graham nearly was the hero, knocking down the shot in the lane with 13 seconds to go that gave the second-seeded Cowboys their last lead at 78-77.

Salim Stoudamire, however, turned out to be a bigger hero, shaking his way into, through and finally over the Oklahoma State defense for the eventual game-winning jumper with 2.8 seconds left.

An utterly typical finish for a team led by a player who's considered by everybody outside of Durham, N.C., to be the best shooter in the country. In fact, Arizona as a team shot the lights out, an unreal 66 percent.

That sent Arizona, the third seed, into the final, and it sent Illinois a team that wasn't the best seed left in its bracket.

More important, it sent Illinois a team that not only has perimeter players that occupy the same rarified air as its own brilliant backcourt trio, but also one inside player in Channing Frye that's not only better than anyone Illinois can trot out, but maybe as good as all of Illinois' combined.

Illinois didn't need any help from inside last night against Wisconsin-Milwaukee; it didn't even need help from its bench, which went scoreless. It got everything it needed from Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head, who combined for 53 of the Illini's 77 points in the semifinal.

Yet, certainly for the first time this season, that likely won't be enough for Illinois. Arizona faced down a team with as strong a perimeter game as any in the nation - Joey Graham, Lucas and JamesOn Curry, for starters (literally) and ended up outgunning it. As the lead changed hands all night long, Arizona matched everything Oklahoma State threw at it, and at the end had just a little bit more.

A swarm of backcourt demons is going to be enough of a challenge to the three-headed monster Illinois tortures teams with every game. Locking down Stoudamire cranks that challenge up another level. With all due respect to what Wisconsin-Milwaukee was able to give Illinois last night (and Alabama and Boston College before that), Stoudamire is no Ed McCants.

Williams was good enough in the opener to draw comparisons to Jason Kidd from Pearl, the Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach. Williams was better than anyone else on the court, and the only competition he really had was from his teammates. That won't be the case this time. Whoever draws Stoudamire as a matchup is in for the game of his life.

Arizona is going for its fourth Final Four under Lute Olson, Illinois its first under any coach since Lou Henson brought the Illini there in 1989.

That won't mean as much as the fact that Illinois will see a tougher opponent tomorrow than it's seen this entire glorious season. It's the privilege No. 1 seeds get to enjoy. Whether they enjoy it for one more weekend remains to be seen.

YESTERDAY

Chicago Regional

Illinois 77, Wis.-Milwaukee 63

Arizona 79, Oklahoma State 78

Albuquerque Regional

Louisville 93, Washington 79

West Virginia 65, Texas Tech 60

TODAY

Syracuse Regional

N.C. State vs. Wisconsin, 7:27 p.m.

North Carolina vs. Villanova, 9:57 p.m., chs. 13, 9

Austin Regional

Mich. State vs. Duke, 7:10 p.m., chs. 13, 9

Kentucky vs. Utah, 9:40 p.m.

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