Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Here We Go!
The Illini played fairly well against the pre-season favorites to win the conference. And they played fairly well for a conference road game. Both teams were tight and missed way too many gimme shots underneath. But what a game!
The Illini jumped out to a quick lead, Purdue roared back, and then Illinois went on a run again and led (barely) for most of the game. Not an easy thing to do on the road in conference play. When Purdue grabbed the lead with just over 3 minutes to go, I figured the Illini had played really well on the road, but that they would inevitably not be able to hold on in such a hostile environment. Thanks for proving me wrong, boys!
This game bodes well for the rest of the season, and there was a lot to like:
- Ball security. Only 6 turnovers in 45 minutes of play (although a couple of those were very costly). Keep it up!
- Assists. The Illini passed to the open man, and racked up 21 assist on 30 baskets. And some of Chester's passes were really pretty.
- The bigs. Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale aren't a typical Big Ten frontcourt, but their 2-man game is fun to watch. They don't hesitate to pass to each other and shoot open jumpers. Tisdale has a beautiful shot, and Davis is unpredictable.
- Balanced scoring. Tisdale led with 18 points, but Davis and Alex Legion each had 12, Trent Meacham had 11 and Demetri McCamey had 10.
- Free throw shooting. When they did get to the line, the Illini did well, at 10-14. Yes, it was painful to watch McCamey miss 3 in a row, but that won't be typical. It was nice to be on the other side of poor free throw shooting, as Purdue gave away the game by making only 15 of 27 at the line.
- Bench play. Calvin Brock and Legion were solid off the bench, and although Dominque Keller didn't have the stats that Davis and Tisdale gathered, he helped out. It will be interesting to see how bench minutes shake out during conference play.
- Coaching. Give Weber and his staff credit for much of the Illini success off of planned in-bound plays. And for helping the boys maintain their focus in overtime. And for drawing up plays to keep the Illini in overtime after Tisdale fouled out.
But there are a couple areas that the Illini will need to work on to build on this big upset.
- Strength going to the basket. The Illini, especially Tisdale, need to go to the basket like the mean it underneath. That's how you draw fouls. The Illini had only 14 free throw attempts to the Boilermakers' 27. That's a really big difference. And Tisdale had several short shots blocked because he didn't go up that strong. He has a height advantage. Put a little strength with it, and he'll head to the line a bit more often -- where he will do well.
- Rebounding. Purdue one the battle for rebounds with 44 compared to 38 for the Illini. But the bigger concern is that guards Chester Frazier and Calvin Brock lead the team with 7 rebounds each, compared to 6 each for Davis and Tisdale. Rebounding guards are very valuable, but the big guys should lead this category.
- Conditioning. The Illini ran better in this game than they did against Clemson, but they seemed to be pretty tired by the end of the game. Granted, Purdue was tired too, but it will be a long couple months in conference play, and they will need to be in good shape.
- Cheap fouls. A cleaner game in the back court and away from the ball will make a big difference. Hard fouls underneath are understandable, but those away from the basket or the ball really hurt. And that last foul in regulation on an airball...ouch.
But wow! The Illini won a big game that just may push them into the top 25 next week. They've already exceeded expectations, and this promises to be a very interesting season.
Labels: Illini basketball
Monday, December 29, 2008
Illinois: Off to a 12-1 start, the Illini looked great against Mizzou and I was pleasantly surprised by their play in the Clemson loss. Yes, most of the wins are against teams the Illini were expected to beat -- and they did not look good against Eastern Michigan. And although the Illini are hovering just short of the AP Top 25, they open Big Ten play on the road against Purdue and Michigan. Those will be very, very tough games. However, finishing in the top half of the league is a realistic possibility, as is a tourney invite. But expect shooting percentage to drop as the level of defense they face improve.
Indiana: Tom Crean has his work cut out for him in his first year at Indiana. Already at just 5-7, his season will probably look a bit like what Rich Rodriguez just survived in Michigan. But Crean is good, and in a couple years, he will have Indiana back where they expect to be. So enjoy their down time while it lasts -- and expect to see a much better team at the end of February than we've seen in non-conference play. The Illini will face the Hoosiers twice, and should be able to win both games.
Iowa: At 10-3, the Hawkeyes have had a fairly good non-conference run, although the Drake loss was ugly. Todd Lickliter is in his second season in the Big Ten, and is still probably a year or two away from the level of play he would like to reach. But he has the program headed in the right direction, and playing in Iowa City will be a challenge for the rest of the conference. Iowa is only on the schedule once during conference play, and that game will be in Champaign, so the Illini should come out on top.
Michigan: The Wolverines have surprised many so far this year -- especially powerhouses UCLA and Duke. (Although I don't understand how losing to an unranked team caused Duke to fall only from 4 to 7 in the rankings...but that's a whole different topic.) They are now ranked, and John Beilein has his team at 10-2, with his only losses against Maryland and Duke. (Yes, for those just tuning in, the Wolverines have played Duke twice.) The Illini only play the Wolverines once, and that game is in Ann Arbor. That will be an incredibly tough game to win, but hopefully it will help the young starters learn to handle Big Ten road games.
Michigan State: Tom Izzo and the Spartans are 9-2, ranked #10 in the AP poll, and look to be one of the top teams in the conference this year. Their losses, however, were big ones to Maryland and North Carolina. One note of interest -- the 2008-09 Spartans are shooting only 65% from the free throw line. That is very atypical for an Izzo-coached team. The Illini will face Michigan State twice. The road game will be a huge challenge, and the Illini will need to be on their game to protect their home court.
Minnesota: One of the biggest surprises of the young season, Tubby Smith and the Golden Gophers are 12-0 as they head into Big Ten play. Their marquis win came over Louisville, and they will be tough all year. And Tubby has some good classes coming to the Twin Cities in the near future. After years of struggling, this program will become one to watch for. The Illini will be doing good to split the season series with the Gophers.
Northwestern: At 8-2, the Wildcats and Bill Carmody are also off to a strong start this year. Their non-conference schedule wasn't that tough, but they still navigated it well, and they won't be a pushover in conference play, either. The Illini will only play the 'Cats once -- in Evanston. This would be a nice game to steal on the road, but that will happen only if the Illini are clicking that night.
Ohio State: Thad Matta has proven to be a master at recruiting freshman that head straight to the draft instead of back to school, but his record impresses. The Buckeyes are 9-1. However, that one loss was a big one to West Virginia just before they tip off conference play. Matta's boys aren't expected to dominate like they have the past couple years, especially with the temporary loss of leader (and upperclassman) David Lighty. But they are in the AP Top 25, and will likely gain steam as the season progresses. The Illini will need to work hard to split the two games against the Buckeyes this year.
Penn State: Ed DeChellis and the Nittany Lions will start the Big Ten season with the most wins ever in their 17 seasons since joining the conference. This program has been slowly improving, and DeChellis, now in his 6th year, is finally seeing his program gain momentum. The Nittany Lions will be one of the many teams fighting in the middle of the conference, but the Illini should be able to split this 2-game series.
Purdue: The Boilermakers are expected to be at the top of the Big Ten, as Matt Painter and company have been the highest ranked Big Ten team throughout most of the non-conference season. Purdue has an experienced, talented team, and at 11-2, their only losses are in overtime to Oklahoma and the Duke loss in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Illini open the Big Ten against Purdue in West Lafayette, a game that will be a huge stretch to win. The Illini will need to fight hard late in the season to hold serve at home against Weber's former assistant.
Wisconsin: Bo Ryan and the Badgers are 9-3, and played a top 10 Texas team really tough in Madison. The Badgers also won a close game against Virginia Tech on the road in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They also expect to be in the thick of the mid-conference fight, and the Illini will have to play well to split the Badger series this year.
If the Illini play well and come out of conference play with a .500 record or slightly better, they will be doing well. That record, plus respectable play in the Big Ten Tournament, may be enough to get them into the Big Dance. And, that type of play will strengthen the foundation for the 2009-10 team that will welcome a very talented recruting class to Champaign.
If you like college basketball, the Big Ten should be fun to watch this year. Teams will beat each other up, but that should make for a strong showing come March.
Labels: Big Ten basketball, Illini basketball
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Illinois dominated from tip-off. The Mizzou team that broke into the AP top 25 this week apparently didn't make the trip to St. Louis. For Mike Anderson and the Tigers, it was one of those cold, cold nights. They were held to 37% shooting, and made just 2 of 18 from behind the arc. At times, they couldn't buy a basket, even down low.
The Illini out-shot (57%), out-rebounded (32 to 25) and out-hustled the Tigers all night. But they really shone in the first half. At one point just before halftime, both Demetri McCamey and the entire Mizzou team each had 18 points. McCamey finished with 20, and Trent Meacham led the team with 23 points. Combined, these guards were 7 of 12 from 3. Chester Frazier added 8 of the teams 22 assists and had 3 steals. And in the front court, where Mizzou was expected to dominate, Mike Tisdale showed off his shooting touch and Mike Davis added to his season highlight reel.
One of the highlights for this Illini team is their teamwork. Their passing looked pretty good against Mizzou, and nearly 76% of their baskets came with an assist. The Illini made a strong case to make their way into the rankings before conference play starts.
But in the meantime, take advantage of those Braggin' Rights!
Merry Christmas, and Go Illini!
Labels: Illini basketball
Monday, December 22, 2008
Something to Brag About
Mizzou comes into the game ranked #25 in the AP poll. The Illini are riding an 8-game winning streak, having won every year since 1999.
The Tigers have just one loss on the season -- to Xavier. Illinois has just one loss on the season -- to Clemson. Both Xavier and Clemson are currently ranked, Xavier at #12 and Clemson at #22.
Mizzou is shooting 48.2% on the season (36.4% from 3), while holding opponents to 39%. Illinois is shooting 48.6% on the season (39.1% from 3), while holding opponents to 39.4%. The Tigers average 20.4 assists per game, while the Illini average 19.7 assists per game.
Mike Anderson's team has a clear edge in rebounding and has stronger inside players. Bruce Weber's boys have been shooting really, really well in recent games, especially from 3-point range. Both coaches have teams that are fighting to regain national respect, and both teams are much better than they were last year. Both teams will have half the Scottrade Center behind them.
Given all this, the winner really will have something to brag about.
To win, the Illini will need to play with the defensive intensity they showed in the second half of the Detroit game and limit turnovers. Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale will be under more pressure than they have faced, and Alex Legion will be glad he got his first game as an Illini out of the way. Let's hope he worked through some of his jitters.
Should be a good game. Go Illini!
Labels: Illini basketball
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Almost Like Christmas
But Legion is just the first in what could be a steady stream of talent pouring into Champaign. Weber has his first oral commitment from the class of 2011, Tracy Abrams, a sophomore from Mt. Carmel who showed off as a freshman in the state tournament last year. With the commitments recieved to date, both the class of 2009 and 2010 are currently among the top in the country.
Yes, we know that we can't guarantee anything until we've got it in writing, but the character of Big Ten coaches has been significantly upgraded, and the kids planning to head to Champaign have thus far demonstrated Illinois Loyalty. So for now, let's take these boys at their word and look forward to welcoming them to Champaign.
Legion, Abrams, what looks to be a good match-up for the Braggin' Rights game...it's almost like Christmas! Wait -- it almost is Christmas!
Labels: Alex Legion, Tracy Abrams
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Highs and Lows
The Illini women's volleyball team didn't make it past the Sweet 16 last weekend, but that still marked their best season in five years, and outside hitter Laura DeBruler was named Second-Team All-American. Definitely a high.
Kentucky transfer Alex Legion is still expected to make his Illini debut somewhere in the rotation Saturday against Detroit. Sounds like he's been working hard and has a lot to offer -- but remember that he hasn't played in a game for quite a while. Let's hope this is a high...
Labels: Alex Legion, Laura DeBruler, Martez Wilson
Thursday, December 11, 2008
The volleyball team made the NCAA Sweet 16, and will play California Friday afternoon. The Illini have had a terrific season, and are looking to go as far as they can before Coach Don Hardin retires.
The men's basketball team headed into finals break with a solid win over Hawaii and a commanding win over Chicago State, both at home. They now have more than a week to study and prepare to likely welcome Kentucky transfer Alex Legion to the floor against Detroit on Dec. 20.
The woman's basketball team held on for a close win over UW-Milwaukee on the road Wednesday, after falling to Bradley Saturday at the United Center. Next up after finals -- North Carolina.
The Illini wrestlers are ranked #8 in the nation, and have gotten off to a very strong start this season.
Sunday, December 07, 2008
- D for Demetri McCamey, the leading scorer for the day, who drove to the basket, hit threes, and dominated the early minutes of the game.
- D for Defense -- one that got 13 steals and 3 blocks and held the Dawgs to 35% shooting.
- D for Davis and tisDale. The Mikes each scored 14 points and Davis added to the highlight reel he's working on.
- D for Dominique Keller, who came off the bench, nailed a couple of 3s in the second half when the Illini began running away with it for good. He was 3 for 4 behind the arc for the game.
This was a confidence-builder for the Illini, but Georgia clearly struggled all game. Part of the challenge could be attributed to the early start, but Dennis Felton looks to have a long season ahead of him.
And although the Illini have a lot to be happy with, the game tape will show plenty of room for improvement:
- Passing: I still like it, but it looked a bit slower and was telegraphed too clearly against Georgia. They looked better earlier in the season, and they need to maintain and improve in this area to allow the motion to really shine.
- Communication: Closely related to passing -- there were a few too many miscommunications that turned into turnovers. These guys play together well, and this should be an easy improvement.
- Rebounding: Georgia won the battle of the boards, 34-26. This is another area to improve, especially before conference play begins. The Illini forwards don't have as much meat on their bones as many big men, but they've got to be able to gete in position and battle anyway.
- Shooting when open: I love the extra pass, but shooters -- if you recieve that extra pass, shoot the ball quick. That's your job. You don't need to make the thrid or fourth extra pass if you are open already.
This team is starting to answer questions about who they are, but much remains to be seen. Should be an interesting season...
Labels: Demetri McCamey, Dominique Keller, Illini basketball, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
- Passing. It's pretty. And unselfish. Reminiscent of 4 years ago, actually. Yes, there were a few passes that could have been crisper or quicker, but the ball changed hands often, especially in the first half. And how about the Frazier pass into the lane for a Davis dunk? Really pretty. Nearly 2/3 of the Illini baskets came off of assists. That's the kind of team I like to watch.
- Free throw shooting. 7-8, compared to Clemson's 6-13. Last year the Illini were on the other side of that equation, and I'm still adjusting to not worrying when the Illini step to the line. Making free throws down the stretch will make all the difference in close games.
- Mike Davis. Wow. 28 points, 8 rebounds, a steal and a block, plus a couple of dunks for the highlight reel. He's fun to watch.
- Chester Frazier. His leadership, tenacity and ball handling have really developed over his time in Champaign. Tonight he had a few more turnovers than usual, but he still racked up 12 assists, a couple key baskets and rebounds, and a strong presence on the floor. Even with a nasty thigh bruise. (And the new look is growing on me, too.)
- Rebounding. Illinois had 30 rebounds to Clemson's 20. Getting out-rebounded is a pet peeve of mine, but this team stayed on the boards really well. And they had 12 offensive rebounds to the Tigers 7, even though it didn't really feel like that.
- The bench. Calvin Brock, Dominique Keller, Richard Semrau and Jeff Jordan came off the bench for key minutes. Keller was 100% from the field, Semrau had 8 rebounds and Calvin hit a big basket. And Jordan gave Chester a much-needed rest. And this will get deeper once Alex Legion is eligible to play.
- Orange Krush. The students are embracing this team and making Assembly Hall a very tough place to play.
But there is plenty of room for improvement, as well. Could the Illini have come out the undefeated team? Definitely. Areas to work on include:
- Conditioning. The Illini kept up with Clemson's pace really well -- for the first 30 minutes of the game. Then they started to tire, and it showed in missed open 3s and the look on Davis' face when he finally got a break. The press wore them out late in the game, and that was a key difference.
- Defending the drive. It was way too easy for Clemson to drive to the basket in the second half. Fatigue may have been part of that, and Mike Davis answered much of the time, but a stop in the lane would have helped.
- Driving to the basket. The last play (or non-play) of the game aside, driving to the basket is not one of the strengths of this team. After all, they only shot 8 free throws. If more driving threats emerge, the Illini will be much harder to defend.
- Turnovers. The Illini got sloppy, especially in the second half. Again, fatigue and the Clemson press were part of that, but taking care of the ball will be critical in the Big Ten.
- Need to control the game. The Illini let the Tigers dictate the pace of the game. They tend to play the opponent's game, instead of setting the tone for the game. The Illini need to learn to take control and play their game.
This was a disappointing loss, a game the Illini let slip away. But Clemson played a great game, using their strengths to come back from 8 down. As long as this doesn't become a pattern, Illini fans should have a pleasantly surprising season as we prepare for the arrival of a couple notable recruiting classes...
Labels: Chester Frazier, Illini basketball, Mike Davis
Monday, December 01, 2008
So this week the Illini will face undefeated Clemson, an up-tempo, high-scoring team, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Illini have been relying on defense thus far, and the Tigers like to run. The Illini will be helped by being at home, but this will be a tough game for this team.
It's still a bit early to get a really good feel for this Illini team, but there's a lot to like early. They can make free throws, shooting nearly 75% on the season, which is much, much better than last season. Although they have been out-rebounded in some games, they still crash the boards fairly well. And they play hard. Chester Frazier, who played the most minutes of any Illini in South Padre, played with a deep thigh bruise that made it hard for him to walk, let alone run around for two games. These are elements to build a season on.
But the Clemson game will tell fans a lot more about this team. This is likely the best team the Illini will have faced so far, and they are coming off a weekend they just survived. Bruce and his boys will need a supportive crowd. Go Illini!
Labels: Illini basketball