Saturday, January 30, 2010

Take the W...

Because this Illini team needs every win they can get. This was a tough one, but it had a happy ending: Illinois 72, Indiana 70.

This Illini team firmly believes in keeping their fans on edge. They apparently aren't in to playing with a lead. And Indiana went all out.

The first half was nice. Crisp passing. Beautiful assists. Strong play down low. The Illini were playing to their strengths. It looked like Illini basketball, and they had a nice lead.

But then in the final minutes of the first half, they made a few mistakes, had a few turnovers and all of a sudden, the Hoosiers tied the game on a crazy half-court shot from Devan Dumes.

In the second half, the Illini didn't look like quite the same team, but Demetri McCamey took over. And as the boys fell behind, he led them back, along with some key plays from Mike Tisdale. Bill Cole stepped up to tie the game on an open 3, as well.

But at the end, with the game tied, the ball belonged in McCamey's hands. Coming out of a timeout with 4.4 seconds on the clock, he drove and threw up a shot that somehow went in at the buzzer for the win.

So it was tense, but a win is a win, right? There's plenty of room for improvement as the Illini get ready for another tough stretch of conference play. And so every W counts.

Go Illini!

Labels: ,


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Aye Aye, Captain

Juniors Demetri McCamey and Bill Cole emerged from a difficult few days as the captains of Bruce Weber's '09-'10 Illini. And in a 77-67 win against Penn State, Illini fans saw some of what their teammates saw.

Bill Cole stepped up. He hustled and played 27 solid minutes, with 12 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks. Cole shot 4 out of 5 from 3-point range. Bill Cole! Definitely an X-factor in this game.

Demetri McCamey led in a slightly different way, dishing out 9 assists -- 8 in the first half. He added only 6 points, but he protected the ball well. And he directed the action on the floor very well.

Other bright spots for the Illini included the play of their freshman. Tyler Griffey added energy despite that missed layup. Brandon Paul hit some clutch shots that demoralized the Nittany Lions, despite fouling out with some cheap (and in my opinion questionable) fouls. And, most notably, D.J. Richardson calmly hit 8 consecutive free throws during the never-ending last 2:30 of the game. His 20 points led the Illini.

Off the bench, Mike Davis contributed an understated 11 points and 8 rebounds -- not quite a double-double, but close. Dominique Keller had some key baskets. And Jeff Jordan played quality defense on Talor Battle, giving Richardson a break.

The Illini still need to work on playing 40 solid minutes. They need to learn to lock down on defense, to prevent those annoying runs that allow leads to disappear...

However, they needed that win to get on track. Indiana at home and Iowa on the road are manageable, if they play well. And that will have the Illini in good shape for the College GameDay visit in a week and a half...

Go Illini!

Labels: , ,


Monday, January 25, 2010


The Illini loss at Northwestern is a bit tougher to take than the first two conference losses. The Illini and the Wildcats appeared to be fairly well matched. But the Illini had plenty of advantages that they exploited through the second half.

Until they stalled for a couple minutes. Sometime between the last two media timeouts, the Illini decided to stop playing and let Bill Carmody's crew catch up. And take the lead. And although the Illini continue to shoot very well from 3 with under 2 minutes to play, it was once again too little, too late.

It's one thing to be beat by a more talented team. It's another thing to give up a game that is basically under control.

These boys need to learn to play with the lead and close out a game. They need to play more aggressively on the road. They still have so much going for them, but their season is now in serious danger. The Big Ten is not going to be a friendly place to play, and at Penn State will be another tough one...



Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Reality Check (Part 2)

That was a tough one. Purdue 84, Illinois 79. Not necessarily an unexpected loss, given that (at one time) Purdue was a top 5 team, and given that the Boilermakers came to Champaign with a losing Big Ten record.

But the way they lost...that hurts. After a solid first half, the Illini lost their intensity. The problems were glaring: poor shooting, lazy passes, tipping the ball instead of grabbing rebounds, below-average free throw shooting, liberal fouls (Mike Tisdale and Bill Cole both fouled out) and basically not playing their game. Until the pressure of the clock really hit them.

Then the Illini made what's becoming their trademark late-game comeback. But as the quality of competition increases, they are finding it more difficult to make it all the way back to take the lead at the end. (However, it is nice to see Clemson playing well, despite their loss to Georgia Tech tonight. That win will be a good one come tourney time...)

Of course, it's hard not to appreciate the career game by John Hart after not even making Matt Painter's official book. But that the Illini allowed Hart and his team to respond to the technical foul that resulted from that oversight...ouch.

Now, the bright spots...Demetri McCamey continues to dish and score. He had 9 assists to go along with his 28 points, and he would have had even more assists if his teammates could have gotten some easy shots to fall. And welcome back, Mike Davis! Mr. Double-Double was back in business with 17 points and 15 rebounds. D.J. Richardson finally got some 3s to fall as the clock wound down, and Brandon Paul brought intensity off the bench, and got a couple nice rebounds.

And finally, Steve Lavin quotes of the night:

I would much rather have had Steven Bardo courtside instead of in the studio. Just sayin'. Next Northwestern. This isn't going to get any easier.



Reality Check (Part 1)

What a game on Saturday! Crisp passing. Good shot selection. Nice teamwork.

Unfortunately, that only described the Illini for the first 10 minutes or so of the game. The rest of the game, that described the Spartans, who showed why they continue to be the class of the Big Ten.

But honestly, the Illini were on top of the Big Ten after playing teams in the lower half of a tough conference. They are just now getting into a tougher stretch.

Despite the painful loss, there were a few encouraging signs:

However, this really was a reality check for the Illini. Although Mike Tisdale has improved greatly, he went up against the stereotypical Big Ten big men underneath. And he hasn't reached that level yet. Tisdale got pushed around, picked up more than his share of cheap fouls, and was a non-factor.

The Illini learned that they are capable of playing at the intensity level required on the road in the conference. But they also learned that they need to sustain that intensity for (at least) 40 minutes.

And then there's the issue of actually making baskets. And not throwing the ball away...or directly to the other team.

Tough loss -- ugly in fact -- but one the Illini can build on. The Spartans are a better team this year, and the game on the road wasn't one the Illini were expected to win...but let's see where they go from here...

Labels: , ,


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Monkey Off Their Back

Assembly Hall in Champaign is known as one of the toughest places to play in the country. Filled to the brim with orange, court surrounded by the loud, proud and philanthropic Orange Crush, it's the kind of place that can intimidate.

But the last few years, Penn State has been an odd exception. They had won 3 straight on the road against the Illini. And the Nittany Lions have been in the middle to the bottom of the conference the whole time, a monkey on the back of the Illini.

With a 54-53 win, the Illini just managed to end PSU's streak at the Hall. In an ugly game, the Illini scored just enough baskets and played just enough defense to go 4-0 in conference play. We are starting to see some trends that could end up defining the '09-'10 Illini.

Trends to like:

Trends to dislike:

That said, the Illini have taken advantage of the conference scheduling. I happen to like seeing them near the top of the conference standings. Next up...a very tough game at Michigan State. Izzo's team is also undefeated in conference play.

Go Illini!

Labels: , , , ,


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Rebuiling Ruined Programs

The Illini are off to a strong start in the Big Ten, at least according to the win column. Their games so far have been adventurous, with an overtime win against Northwestern, an ugly but dominating win over Iowa, and what may be this season's signature, a come-from-behind win at Indiana.

While there is lots of room for improvement, the Illini have quite a bit going for them -- young talent, seasoned conference veterns, the ability to shoot free throws (at least compared to a couple years ago), a stronger Mike Tisdale who can hold his own in the Big Ten paint, team chemistry that allows the leading scorer/point guard to come off the bench, solid minutes from a guy also values his college education, and much more. [Note to team: For our health and blood pressure level, your fans would appreciate it if the double-digit trailing thing doesn't become a habit.]

But the Illini have also gotten a close-up look at the rebuilding process and progress of 3 Big Ten programs.

Ok, so maybe calling the Northwestern Wildcats a rebuiling project is a bit of a stretch, since they've never played in the NCAA tournament, but there's no question that Bill Carmody is certainly building a program in Evanston. Now in his 10th season, Carmody slowly but surely laid a strong foundation for a tough basketball team. The Wildcats and their Princeston-style offense have become a tough opponent both at home and on the road in the conference, and Carmody has taken them from a perennial gimme-game to the brink of entering the Dance.

How? Well, he's relied on smart kids who love basketball (after all, he is at Northwestern), internationaly recruiting and a system that helps equalize talent differences between his team and others. He's got a great story going.

But the last two Illini opponents, Iowa and Indiana, truly are programs working to rise from the ruins of recent seasons past. Todd Lickliter and Tom Crean are both very good coaches with very different challenges in front of them.

Crean, in just his second season at Indiana, has already equaled the win total from his first season. But Lickliter, in his third season in Iowa City, still is struggling to put a Big Ten-calibur team on the floor. Why the difference?

In my opinion, Crean has a much stronger foundation to build on. The Bobby Knight legacy is strong, and (despite the opinion of many Hoosier fans) Mike Davis continued to build on it with character and quality teams. Plus, the Kelvin Sampson era was short enough to prevent too much damage to that foundation. And so, Crean can recruit both on the strength of Hoosier basketball and his own reputation for excellence at Marquette, etc. And so, he has been able to quickly find players with the talent and character to fit his program. Although the Hoosiers will still likely struggle in conference play this year, their quality of play has increased immensely, and that will pay off soon. Probably sooner than a loyal Illini fan like me would like to see. Crean will have the Hoosiers in the Big Ten title hunt in a couple years, if not sooner.

For Todd Lickliter, the job is much bigger, as the ruins are older. Iowa basketball doesn't have the kind of foundation that Lickliter wants to build on, so he is truly starting from scratch. Steve Alford, for all he accomplished as a collegiate player, built his program using something of a Bob Huggins mentality -- it doesn't matter who they are, as long as they can play. And while thugs may be good basketball players, they don't make the best student-athletes/role models/teammates. Lickliter has a history of a different kind of program. At Butler, he had an 82% graduation rate of players. He found talent with character that could excel at that level.

But his philosophy apparently hasn't sat well with existing players, as he's faced with transfers even as he struggles to recruit his kind of player with the talent to compete at the Big Ten level. Somehow, playing basketball in Iowa City just doesn't have the same wide draw that playing basketball in Bloomington, Ind., has. For these reasons, among others, Lickliter will need a few more years to build the type of program he wants to have in Iowa City. If the Hawkeyes give him time, he has the ability to build a very competitive basketball program (as much as this Illini fan hates to admit it). But he will need a few more years to recruit and instill his basketball and character values on the program. On the bright side for the Illini, that means that Iowa will be a slightly easier Big Ten game over the next couple years...and given the talent and familiarity in the conference, that's a good thing.

Given the success of the Golden Gophers and Wolverines, the Big Ten could be considered the poster-conference for the rebuilding of ruined programs. Find a talented coach, preferably with quality character and give him the time and support he needs to succeed.

Oh, and as the 7th-winningest program of the previous decade, we really can't consider our Illini as part of that group...

Up next, Penn State, another one of those programs that is steadily improving over the years...

Labels: , , ,


Thursday, January 07, 2010

New Year's Resolutions

I spent New Year's in the frozen woods of the north, isolated from Bowl games and far from the United Center. But although I missed the Gonzaga game, I've heard enough about it to know that the Illini played really well for good chunk of the game. And lost a heartbreaker.

I did catch the Iowa game this week, and so, with what we've seen so far, I have some (somewhat belated) New Year's resolutions for Bruce Weber and his team. And they don't look that much different that typical college student resolutions.
  1. Stop procrastinating. Like any college students, this Illini team has a thing for putting off the work that needs to be done. Why score in the first few minutes of the game when you have the whole second half? And why score at the beginning of the second half when you will still have 15 or so minutes for that later? That procrastination philosophy needs to end. A strong start will definitely help them earn a better grade come March.
  2. Maintain your energy. Get enough sleep, so you have the energy to study. And defend. The dirty work that isn't nearly as much fun. As a team, they need to step up the energy on the defensive end of the court.
  3. Don't drop the ball. With assignments or classes. Or literally. The turnovers...especially when the ball goes to where someone is supposed to be and isn't...or through someone's hands. These kids need to resolve to stop. Now.
  4. Make sure your friends don't starve. In other words, make sure they stay well-fed. In this case, I'm thinking of the big guys inside, who often have a size advantage on the opponents. Note to the Illini guards: Make sure Mike and Mike get the ball early and often and all game long. That will help you all stay healthier.
  5. Don't lose sight of the long-range. College students often focus on the short-term, and miss what's happening in the long-range. As in the 3-point shot on the other team. Last season, the Illini had the best defense in the conference. This season, 3-point shooters are practically playing H-O-R-S-E against the Illini defense.

If the Illini, especially the freshman, embrace these basic resolutions, the conference season will be much more manageable. Iowa was a good game to shake off the loss in Chicago, but most of the Big Ten will be a bit tougher.

These boys have great potential, and they are fun to watch. Not always easy to watch, but definitly fun. 2010 is off to a respectable start. Here's to a great conference season!

Go Illini!



This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?