Saturday, January 30, 2010
Take the W...
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.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Aye Aye, Captain
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...
Monday, January 25, 2010
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...
Labels: Illini basketball
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Reality Check (Part 2)
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:
- "Fresh snow..." in reference to an offensive rebound and fresh shot clock. Snow = shot clock? Really?
- "Spalding sandwich," describing a clean block by Bill Cole, which at least make a bit more sense...and it was a fantastic block.
- "Coach Weber...sharing the sugar" is a term Lav usually reserves for an assist on the floor, but this time, he was talking about Weber tossing a ball onto the court to help dislodge the game ball that got stuck between the backboard and the shot clock. Sugar when no points were involved?
I would much rather have had Steven Bardo courtside instead of in the studio. Just sayin'. Next up...at Northwestern. This isn't going to get any easier.
Labels: Illini basketball
Reality Check (Part 1)
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:
- Strong start. The Illini got off to a great start in East Lansing, and that was a refreshing change from the anemic starts we've seen earlier this season.
- Tyler Griffey. Freshman Griffey provided an unexpected spark off the bench in one of the Big Ten's toughest venues. He scored 12 points and grabbed 7 boards in 15 solid minutes of play. Nice to see him have a good game.
- Not giving up. Despite the deficit, the Illini, especially freshman Brandon Paul, continued to play hard.
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...
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Monkey Off Their Back
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:
- Mike Tisdale is developing into a Big Ten big man. He still has his soft shooting touch and pretty jump hook, but he's also becoming more aggressive. Tisdale's diet and exercise plan has helped him bulk up, and he can now bang with at least the lower half of the Big Ten. He's going after rebounds more aggressively, and he's becoming a scoring machine. This stronger, more experienced Tisdale is learning to take advantage of the mismatch he presents most teams. It's pretty exciting to have a 7'1" guy who can hold his ground!
- Demetri McCamey has maintained his scoring and attitude coming off the bench in recent games. He started against the Nittany Lions, and led the Illini in scoring. McCamey responded well to Weber's tinkering with the line-up. But best of all, he's leading the conference in assists and has been dramatically improving his assist-to-turnover ratio.
- Jeff Jordan has earned quality minutes and a couple starts, adding defense and leadership, allowing McCamey to share point guard duties. Jordan has become a valuable piece of this team, and they would really be hurting had he opted to stick just to the classroom this season.
- Rebounding is also improving as the season progresses. Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale are leading the way, but the guards have also improved in going aggressively after rebounds and grabbing the ball. There's still plenty of room for improvement, but they are trending up here...
- Free throw shooting has improved dramatically, and it helped the Illini win against the Hoosiers. Yes, Tisdale missed the front end of the one-and-one against Penn State, but he's still shooting around 87%...not bad for a big guy.
- Shot blocking is one part of the Illini defense that is really fun to watch. Tisdale does really well, but he's often not alone in that stat line. Blocks have saved a couple Illini wins.
Trends to dislike:
- Fading freshman as the Big Ten schedule gets into full swing. D.J. Richardson has had some fantastic games and some struggles. Brandon Paul got off to a hot start this season, but the grind seems to be wearing on him, as he has struggled, as well. These guys are talented, and they will play key roles on the team. But they appear to be hitting that wall...
- Mike Davis has been strugging to find his game. "Mr. Double-Double" isn't quite reaching the goal Coach Weber challenged him with. We know Davis is capable, but he's gone cold with the weather. Fortunately, he has the experience to turn this trend around.
- Turnovers continue to plague the Illini. They tend to pass to the opposing team or to thin air. And it's a trend that they just can't stop, as noted during the first two possessions against Penn State.
- Allowing open 3s behind opponents' picks and screens makes it much easier for them to get back into games after the Illini take strong leads. The Illini have had a few possessions of lock-down D in recent games, so we know they are capable, but they lack consistency.
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.
Sunday, January 10, 2010
Rebuiling Ruined Programs
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...
Thursday, January 07, 2010
New Year's Resolutions
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
Labels: Illini basketball