Phil Pash's Simply Sports: Just call Dee Brown 'The Igniter'

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-110857254524373.jpg’, ”, ‘Illinois' "Igniter" Dee Brown.’);

Watching Illinois on TV—as we now get to do on a fairly regular basis—you can see for yourself that the Fighting Illini are not a one-man team.

They are a team in the truest sense of the word. All five starters average in double figures: Luther Head 16.9 points per game, Dee Brown 13.2, Deron Williams 12.5, Roger Powell Jr. 12.0 and James Augustine 10.2. That’s great balance, plus they all hit the boards.

The three guards are tremendous playmakers. Williams averages 6.9 assists per game, Brown 4.7 and Head 3.8, but Brown has been special of late. Call him “The Igniter.”

Against Wisconsin Feb. 12 in the House of Orange, with a record 16,865 crowd on hand, Brown hit two clutch 3-pointers to nail down top-ranked Illinois’ 70-59 victory over the No. 20 Badgers. Brown finished with 16 points, Williams added 15, and Head was the top scorer with 26.

Illinois needed to make something happen in its Feb. 8 game at Michigan. The Illini weren’t shooting well from 3-point land—and they were trailing in the second half. “The Igniter” turned three straight steals into baskets, including the go-ahead three-point play, and scored 16 in a 57-51 victory.

Coupled with Boston College’s 68-65 loss (its first) at Notre Dame Feb. 8, the Illini were the nation’s only undefeated team at 25-0, 11-0 in the Big Ten.

All of which begs the question—can they do it? Can they go unbeaten through the regular season? Fives games were left.

Then it will be Phase Three of four: The Big Ten tournament March 10-13 in Chicago’s United Center. Phase Four will be the NCAA tourney and a likely No. 1 seed, maybe No. 1 overall.

Early in the year, Illini coach Bruce Weber said he was approaching the campaign in four parts—non-conference games leading up to the Big Ten season, the Big Ten season, the Big Ten tourney and the NCAA tourney.

Illinois’ 25-0 mark is a school record for the best start to a season in the 100-year history of Fighting Illini basketball, and also ranks as the longest single-season winning streak in school history. It also ties the 25-game winning streak that included parts of three seasons from Feb. 21, 1914, through Feb. 9, 1916.

And 25-0 ranks as the fourth-best start ever by a Big Ten team, and is the best start by a Big Ten team in 29 years, since Indiana went a perfect 32-0 during the 1975-76 season. Indiana started 31-0 in 1974-75 and Ohio State began 27-0 in 1960-61.

Illinois has won a school-record 21 straight Big Ten games—its final 10 conference games last season and the first 11 this season.

Illinois owns a 104-68 lead in the all-time series over Wisconsin and enjoys a 66-17 advantage in games played in Champaign. The Illini have won seven in a row over the Badgers at the Assembly Hall, with Wisconsin’s last win in Champaign coming in 1997.

The Illini, held to their lowest point total of the season against Michigan, proved again they can win without playing their best. They have been having trouble in some of their recent games—ever since the Jan. 20 overtime win over Iowa 73-68 in Champaign.

They then won at Wisconsin 75-65 Jan. 25 by overcoming an 8-point deficit in the second half to end the Badgers’ 38-game home winning streak, which at the time led the nation. Then came an 89-66 win over Minnesota Jan. 29 at Champaign. That was their easiest outing in the last seven.

Illinois won a tough one Feb. 1 at Michigan State 81-68 and then was pressed by Indiana 60-47 Feb. 8 in Champaign. But when you’re No. 1, everyone gets up for you.

Illinois was No. 1 in the poll for the 10th straight week, and a unanimous choice for the second time in a row. That matched the longest streak at the top since Kansas’ 15-week run in 1996-97. Connecticut was No. 1 for 10 straight weeks in 1998-99.

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