Thursday , Mar , 16 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

Illinois attempts to ground Air Force in first-round action

=== Illinois attempts to ground Air Force in first-round action ===

(Sports Network) – Last season’s NCAA Tournament runner-up, the Illinois
Fighting Illini will look to make another push for the championship this
season, but first the team must get past the 13th-seeded Air Force Falcons
in the first round. Last year the Fighting Illini went into the
tournament with an astonishing 32-1 record, and defeated Fairleigh
Dickinson, Nevada, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Arizona and Louisville before
falling to North Carolina in the title match. Illinois has had success in
the tournament over the recent years, winning eight consecutive first round
matchups, while advancing to the Sweet 16 four out of the last five seasons.
As for this year’s club, it is not as strong as a year ago, but nonetheless,
still should be considered a threat to reach the Final Four. Illinois
finished the season 25-6 overall, and although the squad suffered a 61-56
setback to a tough Michigan State team in the quarterfinals of the Big
Ten tourney, the Fighting Illini were still able to capture a fifth-seed.

As for the Falcons, they are not as seasoned as the Illini, making just
their fourth appearance in the Big Dance. In the team’s three previous
appearances in the NCAA Tournament, Air Force was bounced in the opening
round on all three occasions with the most recent setback coming in 2004 to
North Carolina. Air Force collected a 24-6 overall ledger on the season,
marking a new school record for wins in a year. Unfortunately not
everything was smooth flying for Air Force, as the team suffered an overtime
loss to Wyoming in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference
Tournament. Luckily the team’s tremendous regular-season was enough to get the
Falcons an at-large bid. This will be the first-ever meeting between Air Force
and Illinois on the hardwood.

Air Force’s claim to fame this season was a tenacious defensive system that
helped the Falcons hold the opposition to a meager 53.9 ppg behind a 42.5
percent shooting effort from the floor. The team forced 15.1 turnovers per
contest, and held opponents to a 31.3 percent showing from behind the arc.
While the team was sensational at the defensive end of the floor, the same
cannot be said about the Falcons’ offensive play. Air Force shot an impressive
48.3 percent from the field on the season, but accumulated just 64.0 ppg. A
main reason for the team’s lack of scoring is due to the Falcons’ inability to
hit the boards. Air Force only averaged 24.9 rpg and that includes just 6.7
rpg at the offensive end. On a positive note, the Falcons do come into the
tournament with four players averaging over 10.0 ppg. Antoine Hood leads the
squad with 14.8 ppg, and also dished out a team-best 80 assists on the season.
Jacob Burtschi and Dan Nwaelele both made solid contributions during the
regular season, as Burtschi scored 12.4 ppg to go along with a team-best 6.1
rpg, while Nwaelele tallied 11.7 ppg and emerged as the team’s outside threat,
making 47.8 percent from behind the arc. Matt McCraw rounds out the double-
figure scorers with 10.8 ppg.

Much like their counterpart, the Illini were sensational defensively, closing
the season out at the top defensive team in the Big Ten. Illinois allowed a
mere 58.1 ppg on the season, while holding the opposition to a lackluster
40.1 percent shooting effort from the field, which included an equally
terrible 30.8 percent showing from long range. The Illini were not as
successful at the offensive end, but the team is still extremely efficient. On
the year, Illinois scored an even 70.0 ppg, while shooting a healthy 45.6
percent from the field. The team only connected on 36.3 percent from long
range, and also struggled from the foul line, making just 63.4 percent of its
attempts from the charity stripe. Illinois was able to outrebound the
opposition by close to six rebounds per game, and also took care of the
basketball, committing just 12.3 turnovers per outing. Dee Brown and James
Augustine, two starters from last season’s tremendous squad, led the Illini
throughout the season and if the team wishes to go far in the tournament,
Illinois’ chances will rest on solely their shoulders. Brown scored 14.4 ppg
on the season and also led the team with 175 assists, while Augustine posted
13.5 ppg to go along with a team-high 9.3 rpg and 24 blocks.