I know it's not my beat, so I'll leave the super analysis of The Fighting Illini basketball team to News-Gazette beat writer Brett Dawson.
Still, I can't resist commenting on Bruce Weber's 2005-06 edition, especially after Monday night's game against the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. I know they're not Duke, but Little Rock was good enough to push Michigan State to the limit in East Lansing, Mich., and they pressed the Illini pretty hard for 30 minutes on Monday.
So with that caveat, I must say I was impressed, particularly with the exhibition put on by freshman guard Jamar Smith. I'm not sure I've ever seen as pure a shooter in an Illini uniform, although I'm only going back to the mid-1970s. I'm not talking about scorers, like Andy Kaufmann, Deon Thomas or Kiwane Garris, I'm talking about silky-smooth jump shooters. If he continues to progress, as I'm sure he will, he'll follow Deron Williams as an early-entry to the NBA draft. That, however, is an issue for another day.
Going into the season, the Illini had two solid starters and established stars, Dee Brown and James Augustine. Now they're starting to fill out the other three positions.
Brian Randle is long, athletic, intelligent and hard-working. He shows flashes of brilliance, although his outside shooting and free throws remain suspect. If he plays smart, and I'm sure he will, he'll be both solid as a rock and flamboyant around the basket. His dunks off the lob pass are astounding to watch -- monster jam.
The jury is still out on Richard McBride, although he should be a steady contributor playing solid defense and contributing on offense.
The power forward position is up for grabs with Shaun Pruitt and Marcus Arnold showing that they're talented but not-quite-complete players yet at the Big 10 level. It was great to see Arnold come off the bench against Xavier and make a huge positive difference. Pruitt also has been good in spurts, and his size and imposing presence are a welcome addition around the basket.
But right now, all eyes are focusing on Smith. His quick release and deadeye shooting will make him a marked man for Illinois opponents. But he counteracted strong defense last night by hitting a pullup jumper, driving to the hoop and scoring lefthanded and getting inside the defense for a beautiful dish to an Illini big guy for an easy layup. And on defense, his supposed weak spot, he was hustling all over the court. It was an awesome performance.
The trick, of course, is to play at that level every night, and few freshmen can do it. So it would be surprising if Smith can. Still, the Illini are looking good because they're talented and they're playing hard and smart.