In his first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, Jamar Smith scored a game-high twenty points leading the Illini to a 78-69 victory over the Air Force Academy in Thursday night’s first round action in the Washington, D. C. Regional. Dee Brown led the Illini in rebounding and assists with 8 and 10, respectively.
The motto of any team in the NCAA Tournament should be simply, survive and advance. The goal is not win and look pretty, the bottom line is winning the basketball game and surviving to play another game. Thirty-two teams will be heading back to their campuses after first round losses on Thursday and Friday, but after Thursday night’s win over Air Force, Illinois will not be one of those teams. The Illini remain in the NCAA Tournament and will face the winner of Thursday night’s (5) Washington vs. (12) Utah State game.
The story of the NCAA Tournament, especially in San Diego, on Thursday will not be upsets, it will not be who won, it will be the unidentified package (“some spoiled mustard” according to Illinois’ James Augustine) that was found in a hot dog cart in the Cox Center. The early session games were delayed by about two hours, and thanks to a quick turnaround time that had just a handful of fans in the arena when the game started, the Illini game was delayed by about an hour. Sure the fans finally filed in to the arena, but thanks to the NCAA’s and CBS’ desire to have all games finish in the nice primetime window they had already scheduled the fans with tickets to the second session of games were forced to miss the opening minutes of the game while they were filing into the arena.
While most teams would be unaccustomed to playing a team like Air Force, the Fighting Illini have already played three games this season against teams that run the Princeton offense in Northwestern and Georgetown. So while Air Force tried to slow down the game and back door cut the Illini to death, Illinois played its normal defense and looked at the Falcons like they were not doing anything they had not seen before.
With the Illini’s starting backcourt combining to shoot 3-of-13 from the floor, and 2-of-11 from behind the three point line, the Illini took advantage of their inside strength to dominate Air Force inside. Not only did the Illini’s starting front court combine to shoot 13-of-18 from the floor, but their presence on the defensive glass only allowed Air Force one offensive rebound, and fourteen rebounds in the entire contest. The Falcons had no one to match up with the Illini inside, and it was obvious from the opening tip. The only time the Illini offense stalled on Thursday night was when they forgot to get the ball to their interior players.
Off the bench Illinois received key contributions from Jamar Smith and Warren Carter. In his first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, Jamar Smith had the signature performance to date of his freshman season. Throughout the Big Ten season, the sharpshooter from Peoria struggled to find any opening for his jump shot, but against Air Force’s match up zone Smith found the open spot on the court and made his shots. He scored a game-high twenty points on 7-of-10 shooting, including 6-of-9 from behind the three point line.
It appears that Warren Carter really likes to play against teams that use the Princeton offense and match up zone. In Illinois’ three games against Northwestern and Georgetown Warren was averaging just over seven points per game and seeing more minutes than he was during other games. With the match ups just not being there for Marcus Arnold, Warren took the opportunity given to him and scored twelve points on Thursday evening. Like he has done all season, Warren just seems to be the only Illini post player that just knows where to be on offense against a zone defense.
On defense, the Illini did not have their best performance of the season. Air Force was just the second team all season to shoot above fifty percent against the Fighting Illini. The superb ball rotation from the Falcons allowed them to catch the Illini weak side defenders in the help position, and find a wide open three point shooter on numerous occasions. The Illini were just a step or two slow on their third rotation, and very few teams are patient enough offensively to take advantage of that, but on Thursday night it was the only way Air Force was scoring.
Offensive Efficiency: 129.65
Defensive Efficiency: 114.69
Offensive Rebounding Percentage: 35.0%
Defensive Rebounding Percentage: 95.45%
When you look at the box score, the one line that will probably stand out after Jamar Smith’s 20 points is Dee Brown’s. The Illini senior point guard is the player that people associate with Illinois, and a casual observer would see his eight points and wonder how Illinois was really never challenged in the game. All they would have to do to see Dee’s contribution to the Illini is look at the rest of the box score. Dee was just two points and two rebounds away from a triple double against the Falcons. Dee was a box score stuffer on Thursday evening recording 8 points, 8 rebounds, 10 assists, and 4 steals leading the Illini to the second round of the NCAA Tournament once again.