Where has this been all year?
A day that started with Illinois fans grumbling about a possible suspension handed down to freshman Jereme Richmond ended with the Illini's first NCAA tournament victory in five years.
Richmond never got off the bench, but Illinois rolled to a 73-62 victory over UNLV Friday night. The final score was much closer than the game. The Illini dominated the first half, taking a 46-24 lead into the locker room. With four minutes to play, Illinois still led by 22 points at 71-49.
UNLV closed with a 13-2 run against Illini reserves to make the score look a little bit better in the paper, but this was a butt-kicking from the opening tip. I'm stunned. It's been a trying season for Illinois -- the Richmond saga just the latest in a long series of missteps. I thought the Illini seniors were ready to pack up and call it a career.
I was wrong.
Demetri McCamey played like a guy who wants to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft. He had 17 points on 7-for-13 shooting and doled out seven assists. His six turnovers were a few too many, but at least McCamey was back in attack mode this whole game. The tentative player we saw about a month ago is gone. Thank goodness for that.
Senior forward Mike Davis played his best game of the season. Given the stage, it might have been the best game of his Illini career. He had 22 points, nine rebounds and five assists in 39 minutes. He barely left the court the whole night. Davis said earlier in the week he wanted to win this game badly. His effort backed up his words.
Another positive development for Illinois: D.J. Richardson hit all four of his field goal attempts and finished with 10 points. This was the first time Richardson has scored in double figures since a 13-point effort on Feb. 13 against Purdue. Over his previous seven games, he had scored only 17 points total and been held off the scoresheet twice. He's better than that. The Illini need to hope seeing the ball go through the hoop four times tonight cured his crisis of confidence.
Next up for the Illini: a Sunday date with the No. 2 team in the country -- Kansas. The top-seeded Jayhawks dispatched Boston University with little difficulty earlier Friday, 72-53.
The meatheads will see this matchup as a referendum on Bruce Weber's coaching. Here's my memo to those folks: 1) Illinois still isn't firing Bruce Weber and 2) Bill Self left on his own accord. He isn't coming back. Move on.
Illinois has nothing to lose Sunday. As an Illini fan, I'm relieved the five-year wait for a tournament victory is over. I'm also pleasantly surprised.
I'm not expecting anything on Sunday. Kansas is a better team than Illinois. A win in this next game would be gravy.