Illini flying high again after win against Wake

Friday, December 3, 2004

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois' 91-73 thrashing of No. 1 Wake Forest before a nationwide television audience Wednesday night puts the college basketball world on notice.

"We're pretty good," says guard Dee Brown, and a win over Arkansas Saturday might make the Illini No. 1 for the first time since January 1989. That also happens to be the year Illinois (5-0) last went to the Final Four.

It's very different from where the fifth-ranked Illini were just a year ago, when they were a team struggling to adjust to new coach Bruce Weber's way. Last December, Illinois lost to North Carolina and Providence during a stretch of three in seven days, and Weber was hearing criticism and losing sleep.

Saturday's game in North Little Rock begins a run of four games in eight days, three away from Champaign. While Weber wonders how his team will respond, he knows he's dealing with a more mature group.

"We've made big strides, just in understanding how to deal with a big game," he said Thursday.

"Last year before the [North Carolina] game, James [Augustine] was hitting the ceiling. He was so hyper he couldn't play, he had to get taken out to calm down. That didn't happen last night."

The whole team has calmed down, says reserve center Nick Smith.

"I think we really learned how to win toward the end of last year," he said. "We're just an older team. We don't play guys that are inexperienced and all of our guys know how to win."

The Illini dominated Wake Forest in every phase Wednesday. But it was defense that really impressed Weber.

"We trap the post. We trap ball screens; we scramble out of it," Weber said. "We make the extra play on defense. We get the shooters, we get you spread out. We don't let you get in your rhythm. At least that's what we try to do."

Led by Luther Head, whose off-court troubles last season led to two suspensions totaling six games, the Illinois defense held Wake Forest to just 33 first-half points and were ahead 87-56 when the starters started sitting down.

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