Sunday, November 29, 2009
The Illinois Fighting Illini don't have much to be thankful about after taking part in the Las Vegas Invitational Thanksgiving tournament. Illinois entered the weekend ranked No. 20 in the AP Top 25, but after suffering back-to-back upset losses to the unranked Utah Utes and Bradley Braves in the Invitational, they'll soon be joining the ranks of the unranked themselves.
As for Bradley, Saturday night's 72-68 win over Illinois will be one to savor for some time. In the 2006 NCAA Tournament, Bradley upset Kansas and Pittsburgh and earned a trip to the Sweet Sixteen. And although Saturday's early season, neutral court, tournament win over in-state rival Illinois doesn't carry quite the weight of their upset wins in the '06 NCAA Tournament, it is, nevertheless, almost every bit as sweet for everyone involved with Bradley basketball (players, coaches, alumni, fans, athletic department staff, university administrators, etc.).
Bradley University is a Missouri Valley Conference institution with a rich basketball history. Bradley is located in Peoria, IL, approximately 85 miles from the Urbana, IL, campus of Big Ten basketball powerhouse Illinois. But although both teams represent basketball crazed schools from central Illinois, Bradley and Illinois rarely face each other on the basketball court (Bradley's last win over Illinois came in 1974). Thus, while a win over a nationally ranked opponent from a major conference would be a big win for mid-major Bradley in any circumstance, beating No. 20 Illinois gives Bradley bragging rights over a powerhouse program from down the road which effectively serves as its college basketball "big brother."
That said, there's no question that Illinois is struggling. They return three starters from a team that lost in the first round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament, but they start two freshmen in the back court. And although they cruised to easy wins over lower level Division I opponents to start the season, Illinois hadn't played a serious opponent until the weekend. Against Utah, the Illini blew a 16 point second half lead and lost the game in its final seconds. The following night, they came out flat against Bradley. Illinois coach Bruce Weber recounted in a post game interview that during his pregame talk, he told his players that Bradley would be the best team they had faced thus far in the 2009/10 season. But Weber said that players "rolled their eyes" at the statement. Against a Bradley team that wanted nothing more than to cut the legs out from under their in-state "big brother," the Illini players' collective disinterest was a recipe for disaster.
Illinois needs to regroup quickly. They play at Clemson on Wednesday in the made-for-ESPN ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Clemson is an experienced, athletic team. An upset of Clemson would likely go a long way in c0mpensating for the bad weekend in Las Vegas. Illinois must truly hope that what happened in Vegas stays in Vegas.
But that shouldn't take anything away from Bradley. It was a monumental win for the Braves. Bradley people will probably never forget how sweet it was to take down the big, bad Illini (even if they had to travel to Las Vegas to do so). At the very least, Bradley has major bragging rights in the heart of the state of Illinois. But if Illinois eventually gets their ship in order and proves to be a good team that merely experienced some early season, Thanksgiving tournament growing pains, Bradley's win over the Illini could help position them (and/or position other Missouri Valley teams -- remember, conference RPI is one of many factors which the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee weighs when selecting the NCAA Tournament field) nicely for post season consideration.
(Photo: Bradley's Milos Knezevic drives past Illinois' Dominique Keller -- AP/Laura Rauch).