Thursday, February 26, 2009


Dis one vas all about defense. Dere was de fence around de basket (the Illini and Gophers combined for 70 missed shots), de fence around de ballhandlers (19 turnovers and 8 steals for Minnesota; 13 turnovers and 11 steals for Illinois), de fence around de paint -- at least for de home team (the Illini were out-rebounded 37-25, and the Gophers had 15 offensive rebounds), and de fence named Chester (4 steals and a block according to the box score, but many impressive defensive plays on taller guys). But de Illini managed to win, 52-41, and de Gophers vill head home to finish de season.

(Note: Yes, that was painfully cheesy. I'll blame the February thunderstorm that accompanied this game and memories of business trips to northern Minnesota. They do talk a bit different when you get way up there.)

Despite being dominated in the paint and on the boards, the Illini played tough defense, holding the Golden Gophers to two scoreless stretches of about 6 minutes. And despite struggling (again) to hit open jump shots, the Illini stuck with it and eventually managed to score.

Mike Davis led with 14 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists and a steal. Trent Meacham added 13 points, including 3 big 3s. Demetri McCamey added 10 points, and Chester Frazier had 6 assists. Off the bench, Calvin Brock had 4 steals and Dominique Keller had 5 rebounds.

Tubby's team was led by Damian Johnson, who had his way on both ends of the floor, racking up 18 points, 5 steals, 3 blocks and 4 rebounds. The Gophers played very aggressively on the road, and even though the ball didn't find the basket that often, this was a tense, fast-paced game. The Gopher defense has this team playing well beyond their talent level, a testament to the skill of their coach.

The Illini are overachieving this season, as well. Their play isn't always pretty, but they understand how to play as a team. The unselfishness (15 assists on 21 baskets Thursday) makes it easy to cheer for these boys, even though they struggle to rebound.

Just 2 conference games left for the Illini, and they will be tough. The Spartans will be in Champaign Sunday, and then the Illini finish up at Penn State. Go Illini!



Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Gopher Rematch

The first game of the conference season series with Tubby Smith's Golden Gophers is worth forgetting. As the Illini prepare to welcome Minnesota to Assembly Hall, they will face a team in great need of a road win.

In the past 4 weeks, Illinois and Minnesota have both had highs and lows in the conference season. The Illini have won enough games to be alone in 3rd place in the Big Ten. Minnesota has struggled to win on the road in conference play, with wins at only Wisconsin and Indiana, and they are caught in a 4-way tie for 4th place.

Both teams are coming off wins, and are statistically nearly equal in shooting percentage and field goal defense. That said, the Illini need to play like they normally do at Assembly Hall. This is a game the Illini need to win to stay near the top of the conference standings. And Minnesota will be looking for a signature win to add to their post-season resume.

Should be a good one. Go Illini!



Monday, February 23, 2009

One of These Days -- Much More Fun!

Shooting 58.3% (nearly 53% from behind the arc), assists on 23 of 28 baskets and demoralizing 3s as the shot clock went off. That's the way to recover from the painful performance earlier last week. And one of these days -- where shots fall even in a hostile environment -- is way more fun for teams and fans.

The Illini went into Columbus (not a place that has been kind to them in the past few years) and played like a completely different team than the one that was at Assembly Hall last week. In fact, they brought their best shooting game of the conference season, and they needed it to hold on against the Buckeyes. But hold on they did, 70-68.

In the recent past, zone defenses have concerned me. It seems that the Illini usually struggle to figure out how to get inside or get the 3s to fall. But this year, zones almost make me on behalf of Mike Davis. His mid-range game is a thing of beauty. Davis has a knack for flashing in the holes of a zone near the free throw line, and nation's team with the highest percentage of assists on baskets can get him the ball quickly and efficiently for easy baskets. That's how Davis got many of his team-leading 22 points Sunday. So, bring on the zone. This Illini team can get through it well.

While the mid-range game has been fun to watch, the long-range game is a bit different. I love the kick-out for the open 3, or the in-rhythm shots when Trent or Demetri are set and ready to fire. But I have to agree with my brother that it's a bit annoying when a desperation 3 is launched as the shot clock runs out, and it falls. As he pointed out, those plays reward the offense for not being able to execute. However, I do appreciate how shots like Chester's two deep 3s demoralize opponents, despite the reinforcement for a poor offensive possession. And it IS fun to watch those shots fall.

Next up: Minnesota at home. Go Illini!

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

One of Those Days

The Illini had one of those days Wednesday. You know, the ones you just have to forget because nothing went right. The loss at Assembly Hall to the Penn State Nittany Lions was a big setback in the Illini efforts to catch Michigan State at the top of the conference standings. The fact that the score was 38-33 could be a big setback in the mindset of the Illini as they go on the road to Ohio State this weekend.

The thing is, some things did go right. The Illini got quite a few of the shots they wanted. But nothing went in. Not even the Calvin Brock tip at the end of the first half. The Illini were active on the boards, especially early. But Penn State battled and held their own, as well. Defense was solid. The Illini held Ed's team to long scoreless stretches throughout the game. But then, the Nittany Lions returned the favor.

A lot more things didn't go the way they were intended. Shots didn't fall. Taylor Battle only got free a couple times, but that was all he needed. The Illini gave the ball away plenty of times. And, most noticeably, the Illini seemed to have no energy or desire. Actually, Bruce showed plenty of energy. The team? Not so much.

So forget it. It was one of those days. Move on. And get ready to take on the Buckeyes in Columbus. Illini fans will be looking forward to the return of the hungry, determined team that stole a win in Evanston and withstood a strong run in Bloomington.

Despite that game, Go Illini!



Monday, February 16, 2009

Conference Coach of the Year?

Big Ten basketball has surprised many on the national level with the overall strength and improvement within the conference. And the recruiting classes headed to the Midwest appear likely to continue this trend.

Much of the credit for the improvement in the conference goes to the coaches. The league has welcomed many newcomers in the past couple season, and they have raised the competitive level of Big Ten basketball. At the same time, the coaches who have been around a bit longer continue to build their reputations.


So, if the season ended now, who would you vote for as Big Ten Coach of the Year?



Sunday, February 15, 2009

Pass, Set, Spike!

Oops, that's volleyball. I mean, block!

The Illini defense showed up in Bloomington, ready to reject anything the Hoosiesr put near the basket. At halftime, the Illini had more blocks than the Hoosiers had made baskets. The way they approached the basketball, the Illini looked like they had spent a little time with Don Hardin's volleyball team. Along with blocks, the Illini recorded 14 assists on 17 baskets in one of the best halves they played this season.

The second half was a different story, but the Illini held on to get a second road win this week 65-52 over the Hoosiers.

Beyond the 10 blocks (although if I was doing the stats, I may have added one or two more), the Illini dominated the boards on both ends, with 35 total, and 12 offensive rebounds, compared to 23 for Indiana, including 6 offensive. Mike Davis had 10 rebounds, leading the Illini as a forward should. Crisp passing allowed them to dominate in the paint and with open mid-range jumpers until the Hoosiers made a strong run near the end of the game. It also gave the Mikes 16 points each. The Illini bench also showed up, with significant contributions from everyone on the floor. Calvin Brock and Jeff Jordan stepped up with Demetri McCamey under the weather. And Jordan and Alex Legion provided a nice defense/offense complement in the final minutes. And although Brock drew a legitimate technical after his dunk, he still provided the energy his teammates have come to expect. Chester Frazier led the team on the floor, delivering 7 assists and adding 7 rebounds and 9 points, including critical baskets to stem the Hoosier momentum late in the game.

The Illini couldn't close out the game they way they wanted to after leading by 21 in the first half, but they held on. However, (as hard as it is to admit) credit must be given to Tom Crean and his Hoosiers. They have improved dramatically all season, and Crean will have the Hoosiers where they expect to be relatively soon. His guys played hard, and they didn't give up. Perhaps what surprises me most is the support the Indiana fans have given Crean as he works to rebuild a program after the disaster Sampson left. The Hoosiers filled Assembly Hall and made it tough for the Illini to play, even though their team has just 1 Big Ten win. The main reason I'm surprised? Tom Crean is a quality coach AND person. The latter usually struggles in Bloomington.

So, Illini fans, enjoy the sweep of the Hoosiers this year. But don't expect this to be a regular occurance in this storied rivalry. And don't expect Weber and Crean to provide the drama Henson and Knight provided once upon a time.

The remaining schedule for the season will be tough, but the Illini are in good shape as they look to welcome Penn State to Champaign this week.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

It's Not Over...

...'til it's over. Even though this one looked like it was over with 5 minutes left, the Illini down 14, Northwestern dictating pace and hitting wide-open shots.

But Trent Meacham decided he didn't want to lose. So he scored 12 points in the last 5 minutes. And Demetri McCamey, who kept the Illini close most of the game, decided to help him. The last 5 minutes was almost a 2-man show, with Trent and Demetri taking over. And Demetri proved he could make good decisions under pressure. He was looking for Davis on the last possession, but when Mike wasn't ready for the pass, McCamey kept the offense running until he got an open look -- and the win. Illinois 60, Northwestern 59.

The Illini didn't deserve to win this game for several reasons:

The Illini hung in all game. The Wildcats opened with a quick run. The Illini fought back within 6 points. The Wildcats went on another run. The Illini fought back again. They even tied it at 20 points each. The Wildcats went on a run. The Illini fought back. The Wildcats went on a run...

But the Illini did what Northwestern couldn't do -- they closed out the game strong.

The last 5 minutes, the Illini played like the team we've seen play in Champaign. Bruce's boys finished on a 17-2 run. They forced turnovers. They blocked shots. They overcame poor free throw shooting and missed layups. They made good decisions. They got stops. They didn't give up. And so, they earned this win, even though it was ugly.

Trent finished 15 points, 2 assists, 2 steals and a block. Demetri led with 21 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and a steal. Chester added 8 assists, for a total of 19 on 26 baskets.

This was a heartbreaker for Northwestern, who is fighting for their first NCAA Tournament berth. But it was a huge boost for the Illini. We'll take the win as we head to Bloomington this weekend.

Go Illini!

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

An Assist (+20)

The Illini swept the season series against Purdue with a 66-48 victory in Champaign. And they recorded 21 assists on 25 baskets. Wow. The backcourt starters, Chester, Trent and Demetri, each had 5 assists. That distribution helped the Illini get open shots -- and today they fell.

There was lots of positive signs:

This was a big win for the Illini. Next up: @ Northwestern.



Saturday, February 07, 2009

Road Woes

Midwest winters can be brutal. Road games in the Big Ten are tough. The college basketball season wears on young players. And those factors (plus actual play) combined to give the Illini another loss in Conference play.

Granted, it was unlikely that the Wisconsin losing streak would continue, but the Illini had their shots. They just didn't fall. The Illini got their share of open looks, but apparently the rims away from Assmebly Hall aren't very friendly.

The Badgers got more than their share of open shots, as well. Most of those dropped, giving Wisconsin a win...finally.

The Illini defense, which has been in everyone's face, took a bit of break in Madison. That, plus poor shooting, rebounding and a few too many tunrovers, isn't gonna help get any Ws on the road.

The Illini have heart, though. They made a couple promising runs that stalled before they really threatened the Badgers. And you have to appreciate the passing -- especially the Dominique Keller dunk, a SportsCenter highlight.

Up next: Purdue. The Boilermakers are playing a bit better and healthier than when the Illini visited West Lafayette. Protecting home court will be critical this weekend. Look for shots to start falling...slumps have to end sometime! And look for better defense, a point Bruce surely has stressed the last couple days.

Go Illini!



Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Signing Day Notes

Coach Zook collected letters of intent today for his next class. Although he didn't land a really big name, he does have eight 4-star recruits and plenty of potential. He lost a few guys to former offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, and not every high school senior stuck with their original verbal commitments, but that was expected. ranks Zook's class at #32, and has the class at #35. Here's what the new Illini had to say today.

Welcome to Illini Nation, boys! We look forward to getting to know you.



At Wisconsin

Conventional wisdom says that wounded, angry animals are especially dangerous on their own turf. And that's where the Illini will face the Badgers this week.

The Badgers have lost an unprecedented six straight Big Ten games. Bo Ryan is a good coach and he has a very capable group. They will eventually break their streak, and they are most likely to finally get a win on their home court.

The Illini can win in the Kohl Center. In fact, prior to this season, they gave Bo 2 of his 3 conference losses in Madison. But in order to do well, they need to get their shooters on track, continue to fight on the boards like they did against the Hawkeyes, keep Tisdale and Davis productive, and share and protect the ball.

Expect this to be another tough Big Ten game. Go Illini!



Monday, February 02, 2009

Getting Back Up Again

No question the Illini got knocked down against Minnesota, but Sunday they got back up and looked more like the team we've come to expect this season. Illinois beat Iowa 62-54. It wasn't an easy win, but it was a win.

It took more than a half, and perhaps Chester Frazier's steal and 3 that was called off at the buzzer, but back in Champaign, the Illini found their stroke again, shooting nearly 48%. And they remembered how to pass, with 18 assists on 23 baskets (McCamey had 7, Frazier had 5). The big Illini advantage was found down low. Mike Tisdale led the Illini with 18, and Dominique Keller added 12 off the bench.

But perhaps the most surprising stat for the Illini was rebounding. Illinois dominated the boards 34-19. Mike Davis had 10 rebounds, and Calvin Brock added 8. Of course, without Cyrus Tate, the Hawkeyes were missing a big piece of their inside game.

The Illini D gave up plenty of open shots, though. And in the first half, the Illini still looked a bit frozen. But if they continue to build consistency in a few areas, the Illini should continue to be in the Big Ten fight:

Go Illini!



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