Monday, December 05, 2005

Two Games, Two Teams

I saw two very different Illini teams play on Saturday and Monday. On Saturday against Xavier, the Illini continued to look out of synch on offense and had defensive lapses. The first half was particularly challenging but they played much better after halftime. Thankfully, there were some bright spots.

First and foremost, they found a way to win the game (Sidebar--Congrats to Dee and Augie on going 12-0 at the United Center for their careers). I think that is a carryover from last year. Despite the change in the makeup of the team, the players expect to win every game and with Dee and Augie, they are being shown how to make that happen. Speaking of Augie, this is the type of game he could have almost every night. He was played aggessively but smartly and attacked the basket. His scoring, rebounding, and defense were excellent and he dominated the game. He was the main reason Illinois won this game. Since were a couple days past the game, I doubt any of you need links to recaps but check out this interesting column from Mike Downey of the Tribune about the Illini's ranking. Not sure that I agree with it but I understand where he is coming from--he makes a pretty interesting case.

Monday night I saw an improved Illini team, especially in the second half. My only question is whether the team looked so much better because things are slowly starting to come together for them or if it was because the level of competition was better. Arkansas-Little Rock was a scrappy team, and even though they gave Michigan State everything they wanted and more, they are not at the same level as Xavier. That being said, I am leaning towards the opinion that the Illini looked better because things are starting to come together for them. Don't get me wrong, they still have a ways to go to get their offense in synch but I liked what I saw Monday night much more than I liked what I saw on Saturday.

First, I think players are starting to define their roles and we will see that get finalized by the time conference games start. Dee looked much better at the point guard--he didn't score as much as usual but he got his teammates involved and set them up nicely for shots. I also love the way he coaches the young guys out on the floor--that is so important not only for this year, but for the future. Having him on the team this year is going to mean more than just what he contributes by his play on the court. I thought Augie looked solid again as did Randle. Carter also had a nice game. AND HOW ABOUT JAMAR SMITH? Talk aobut a freshman stepping up bigtime. He was outstanding. He shot the lights out from three point range, had some nice passes, and from what I saw, he played very good defense. He got a lot of well-deserved minutes and I believe even started the second half. It was just one game but he has played well so far this year and this should be a huge boost to his confidence.

The biggest concern I have coming out of that game is continued poor free throw shooting. That has got to get better or it will cost some game this year. I think turnovers and fouls were better than they have been but I haven't had a chance to see the final stats--they didn't stand out as a problem though. The only other concern I have coming out of this game is that I would really like to see McBride get on track. Not sure if his feet are bothering hin again, but we need more consistency from him this year and I don't want to see him lose confidence early on.

Next up: Georgetown at Assembly Hall tomorrow night at 8 p.m. on ESPN

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