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February 16, 2009
We have less than a month until Selection Sunday, and award talk is becoming more and more prevalent.
While we still have plenty of action left in the regular season, it's not too early to discuss two potential coach-of-the-year candidates. Jason King says he would pick a coach from the Big 12; Mike Huguenin says he would go to the Big Ten for his choice.
Since playing in the 2005 national championship game, Illinois has won one NCAA tournament game. The Illini missed the tournament last season ? a year after they barely made the field as a No. 12 seed ? and the outlook this season looked bleak.
Last season's best players, big men Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle, were seniors. Jamar Smith, who would've been the most talented player on this season's team, was booted over the summer after he violated his probation for an aggravated DUI offense. Thus, most observers figured the Illini would finish in the bottom half ? and probably the bottom third ? of the Big Ten.
Instead, the Illini are in second place in the league race and have a shot at finishing first.
This is not a team overloaded with star power, but rather a team that spreads the scoring duties around ? four players average in double figures, between 10.4 and 12.4 points per game. Chester Frazier is the consummate pass-first point guard; he has 133 assists and just 100 shot attempts. Illinois is not that good on the boards, but the Illini play excellent defense. Foes are averaging 56.6 points per game and shooting just 39.5 percent from the floor and 28.8 percent from 3-point range. Above all, they play hard, a testament to Weber.
Illinois has a good crop of recruits coming in next season, and another good group looks to be on the way in 2010. This season's team doesn't look as if it can make a long tourney run, but that shouldn't matter. Getting in the tourney after the tough times of the past two seasons is what matters. And with more talent on the way, Illinois is on its way to becoming an NCAA fixture again.
As good a job as he did leading Kansas to the national title last season, Bill Self's coaching performance in 2008-09 has been more impressive.
The Jayhawks lost five players from last season's team to the NBA draft, including three who left school early. Kansas returned just one player (Sherron Collins) who played a significant role on last season's team.
Still, somehow, Kansas is 20-5 overall and 9-1 in the Big 12, where it trails undefeated Oklahoma by 1.5 games in the standings. If the Jayhawks take care of business as expected and defeat Iowa State and Nebraska at home this week, they'll play the Sooners on Feb. 23 in a game that could determine the league's regular-season championship.
Win or lose against Oklahoma, Self's efforts this season will be remembered as nothing short of masterful. Three of his top players (Tyshawn Taylor and twins Marcus Morris and Markieff Morris) are freshmen and a fourth (Mario Little) is a junior college transfer who didn't see the court until January because of injuries. In addition, two guards (Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar) are sophomores who most people figured wouldn't be more than role players throughout their careers.
None of the aforementioned players were the big-name, McDonald's All American-type recruits that Self is so used to signing.
Still, Self has molded this bunch into yet another Big 12 title contender. A lot of that is because of Collins, the Big 12's best guard, and sophomore center Cole Aldrich, who has developed into a first-round NBA pick after averaging just 2.8 points last season.
Most of the credit, though, should go to Self, who seems to be earning every penny of the $3 million contract he was given after winning last season's national title.
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.