Thursday, January 29, 2009

Brr...It's Cold Up Dere

Minnesota in January. Nobody in their right mind wants to be there, and the Illini sure showed that tonight. The Illini must have froze walking from the bus into Williams Arena, and they never thawed out, shooting just 29% in the 59-36 loss. (At least they broke 30 -- there was a point I wasn't sure they would make even that.)

The Illini were out of rhythm on offense, and no one could figure out how to make a shot at the Barn, a place that had recently been very friendly for the Illini. Dominique Keller and his unorthodox shot helped a bit, and he led the Illini off the bench, with 9 points. But overall it was ugly.

Give the Illini credit, though, for playing their game on defense, especially during the first half. They now know which Gophers floss. But Tubby's team also defended well. They can probably tell you what the Illini had for lunch -- and breakfast. I don't think even a sneeze went uncontested. It was a defensive battle, which made for ugly, low-scoring Big Ten basketball.

The Gophers earned the W, just less than 10 years since their last win over the Illini.

And a game like this often happens over the course of the season. This just wasn't the night to go cold. The Illini will need to quickly regroup before they face the Hawkeyes. But at least they are headed home for a game. The Gophers needed a home win before tackling a tough road schedule.

I expect a much different outcome when Tubby brings his boys to Champaign next month...

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Illini in XLIII

After the Illini face Iowa in Champaign on Sunday, our attention will turn (with the rest of the world) to Tampa, where the Arizona Cardinals will take on the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Here are the Illini to watch (in alphabetical order):
Carey Davis: Fullback for the Steelers. This former Illini bounced around as a free agent before landing a contract in Pittsburgh.
Nathan Hodel: Long snapper for the Cardinals. He has played in 96 consecutive games, the longest streak on the team. He was also a pitcher at Illinois.
Rashard Mendenhall: Ok, so Rashard won't be playing, after suffering a season-ending injury in his first start, but he's worth mentioning. I can't help but have a soft spot for the team that took this Illini record holder in the first round of the draft.
Neil Rackers: The Cardinals kicker was one of the few bright spots during some long Illini football seasons. He was selected for the Pro Bowl in 2005, and has is very consistent.

So the question is, which team to cheer for Sunday? I'm hoping for a competitive game, but I'll gladly cheer for the Arizona kicking game, and I'll be looking for contributions from #38 (Davis) when Pittsburgh as the ball.



Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Snapping Streaks

A theme through the first month of Big Ten basketball has been snapping streaks, and both the Illini and Gophers have benefitted. The Illini snapped their losing streaks to both Ohio State and Wisconsin already this season, and the Gophers won in Madison.

Now, as these teams prepare to face off at the Barn, another streak is on the line. The Illini have won 20 straight games against the Gophers. And that includes lots of games in Minneapolis. If ever an Illini winning streak is in jeapordy this season, this would be it. Tubby's team has exceeded expectations, with only 3 losses this season. Yes, they've dropped two at home, but those have been to Michigan State and Purdue, the most popular pre-season picks to lead the conference.

Minnesota is shooting about 46%, the Illini are at nearly 48%. Statistically the Gophers have more steals, blocks and rebounds than the Illini, and opponent shooting percentage is essentially equal at 39.5%.

Both the Illini and the Golden Gophers have made huge statements as Big Ten contenders, and this will be a critical opportunity to make another statement against a rising team. This should be a really, really good one. Don't miss it!

Go Illini!



Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Glue Guy

Check out this article from the Trib on what Chester Frazier brings to the Illini this year. Good stuff.



Monday, January 26, 2009

Alone in Second

That's where the Illini stand in the conference after holding on to beat Wisconsin Saturday. The 64-57 victory wasn't perfect, but it was a big win.


Wisconsin played hard, but the Illini managed to hold on, even when the momentum started to turn in the final minutes. The Illini continued to be out-rebounded, and they had more turnovers than necessary.

But the Illini stand alone in second place in the Big Ten at the moment. And given the craziness of the season thus far, that's worth noting. Yes, there is a long way to go, but these Illini are on track to exceed expectations.

Next up: Tubby and the Golden Gophers at The Barn. Go Illini!


Friday, January 23, 2009

Bring on the Badgers

The Badgers have had it rough over the past couple weeks and are coming to Champaign on a 3-game losing streak. After starting off conference play with a road win in Ann Arbor, they've struggled more than expected. They just barely hung on against Penn State at home, and after dominating Northwestern at home, they lost at Purdue, were upset by Minnesota in Madison and lost to Iowa in overtime on the road. So the Illini will be facing a team desparate for a win to maintain their place in the conference.

On the other side of the court, the Illini are on the rise, and should continue to head that direction given their senior leadership. And they are tied with Purdue for second in the conference standings, just one loss behind the Spartans who just dropped a home game to Northwestern. (Yes, Northwestern beat Michigan State at the Breslin Center. The Big Ten really is beating up on each other.)

Statistically, the Illini are slightly better than the Badgers in most categories -- even average rebounds and free throws. But stats can't predict a game. The big question is how will the Badgers respond to their current losing streak? Expect them to come out hard in Champaign.

The Illini defense will have their hands full with Marcus Landry and Trevon Hughes, and the Mikes down low will need to go to the basket strong against Landry. To date, the Illini have done a good job shutting down opponents' top scorers (or shutting off their water, as commentator Steve Lavin likes to say), at least in the first half, which limits the damage they can do in a game.

If the Illini continue to pass, limit turnovers and play defense, they should be able to handle the Badgers at Assembly Hall. But given what we've seen in the Big Ten so far, the Illini can take nothing for granted.

Should be a good game. Go Illini!



Tuesday, January 20, 2009

They're Back the top 25! Congratulations to the Illini, #25 in the AP poll and tied for #24 in the ESPN/USA Today poll. Their performance against Michigan and tough play at Michigan State finally got them back into the rankings after a long absence. The Illini were last ranked at the end of the 2005-06 season.

And they more than lived up to the billing against Ohio State in Champaign. The Illini dominated the game with tough defense and a great mid-range game against the Buckeye matchup zone. The 67-49 victory moves the Illini into a tie for 2nd in the conference with Minnesota.

The Illini showed great balance Tuesday night with 4 players in double figures. Mike Tisdale led the Illini scoring with 15 points, Demetri McCamey had 13, Dominique Keller had 12 off the bench plus 6 rebounds, and Chester Frazier added 10 points. And the turn-around jumpers near the top of the key were really pretty. And Keller's game off the bench was impressive, although making that potential dunk on the breakaway would have been nice.

But the most exciting part of the Illini game were the 13 steals, including 5 from Calvin Brock. That defense helped force a season-high 20 turnovers by the Buckeyes, and held leading tOSU scorer Evan Turner to only 4 points.

And the Illini ball movement was crisp and quick, with the exception of 3 consecutive turnovers to start the 2nd half. The Illini had 15 assists, and 7 of those were from McCamey. These guys embody team basketball and unselfishness, which makes them fun to watch.

The bench continues to be another key to Illini success. Keller led the Illini scoring at halftime, and Brock picked up a couple offensive rebounds for put-backs along with his steals. Alex Legion put in some good minutes, and Jeff Jordan had a handful of minutes as well. (Note: Unfortunately, Jeff's mom couldn't be there to watch him, since she was hanging out with new First Lady Michelle Obama in D.C.)

Areas for improvement exist, though. The Illini were out-rebounded 31-27, and the 3-pointers weren't falling.

But you never know who will step up in any given game. Can't wait to see what they have for Wisconsin this weekend.

Go Illini!

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Hanging Tough

Michigan State has proven to be the team to beat in the Big Ten. And they are very, very good at the Breslin Center. They have talent and experience. But the Illini played tough -- and had a legitimate shot a pulling an upset.

There was plenty to like about the Illini performance:

However, it is pretty hard to win a road game in the Big Ten, especially with stats like these:

The Illini held the lead for roughly half the game, and they had plenty of opportunities, including a technical foul on Coach Izzo and the bizarre shot-clock violation call that somehow gave the Illini the ball and a 3 by Legion. The refs weren't impressive. But the Illini had opportunities that they just couldn't fully exploit.

However, they have proved that they can play with anyone in the Big Ten today. Most Spartan wins during the conference season have been by a much larger margin than this one. There's lots of conference play left, but if the Illini stay healthy and focused, they can be in the top half of the conference come March.

Go Illini!

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009


That is the win total for the Illini basketball program, making them 13th all-time.

The Illini did just what they needed to against the Michigan Wolverines. They split the season series with a 66-51 win in Champaign.

These teams are evenly matched, and the Wolverines went into halftime, much like the Illini had in Ann Arbor. But this time, the Illini drove, defended the 3-point arc and established Mike Tisdale inside for a win. Tisdale had a great game from the field, as did Demetri McCamey. But the biggest difference from the first meeting -- the Illini shut down DeShawn Sims.

Tisdale led the Illini with 24 points -- including a 3. And his strong play made Sims work hard on D. McCamey added 17 points, 15 in the first half, and 5 assists to keep the Illini competitive early. The Illini continue to shoot pretty well and hold the other team to below-average shooting. Good stuff.

Go Illini!

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Monday, January 12, 2009

A Moment to Savor

76-45, Illinois. That's one for the record books. And one for the Illini Nation to enjoy while we can.

There's no question that the Hoosiers are struggling in the aftermath of the Kelvin Sampson debacle. But there's also no question that Tom is a great coach who will be able to restore Hoosier basketball to the level fans expect -- as long as they can handle him being a quality human being (those types have struggled in Bloomington).

So, Illini fans, just enjoy the fact that Bruce's boys shot over 50% for the game and held the Hoosiers under 40%. Enjoy the 3-pointers, blocked shots, points off turnovers and quality playing time for the bench.

And then get ready to cheer as the Illini look to return the favor of a road loss to the Wolverines when they get into Champaign Wednesday. A blowout like Saturday's will likely be the rare exception this Big Ten season.

Go Illini!



Monday, January 05, 2009

Illinois: 13-2, 1-1

The Michigan game could very well be a great preview of what to expect on the court for the next two months. The Illini played well on the road until the end of the game, but the home team just couldn't be denied.

Is this a game the Illini could have won? No question. But it isn't a season-breaking loss, either. The Illini have plenty to work on (see: notes from the Purdue game), but there was plenty to like about their competitive play on the road after a big win. Especially passing. (I think the assist stats are my favorite part of this team.)

And Illini fans will probably see the same type of game (except for the last 6 minutes) over and over this season. One team jumps out. The other team makes a run. They see-saw back and forth for a while. Then the visitors make a run. Then the home team makes a run. And most of the time, it will come down to free throws and execution in the final minutes.

If the 2008-09 Illini team can endure 2 months of these gruelling games, they should be in good shape to win more games than they lose. This team can shoot (most of the time). They can get defensive stops. They can make free throws. They can take care of the ball. They can find the open man.

Yes, there will probably be games like the one in Ann Arbor where untimely turnovers will hurt. And when shooting will go cold. And when the other team will have a big man make his 3rd 3-pointer of the season, just because they are that hot.

But there will also likely be games like the one at Purdue where the Illini are clicking on all cylinders. This season really will be fun.

On another note, the infusion of new coaches into the Big Ten adds to the fun. It was fascinating to watch Michigan play Sunday -- they looked a lot like the team that introducedd March Madness fans to Kevin Pittsnogle. John Beilein's system now lives in Ann Arbor (though even the jersey colors feel familiar). Not what we are used to seeing from the Wolverines, but it makes for entertaining basketball.

Next up: A week off and then the Golden Gophers and Tubby Smith come to Assembly Hall. Go Illini!



Saturday, January 03, 2009

Michigan Preview

The Illini head to Ann Arbor this weekend with expectations skyrocketing. And while the Illini are off to an incredible start, and anything is possible, it's important to focus on the big picture: Bruce Weber has done a great job creating a team out of his guys, but less than a week into conference play, it's likely that the Big Ten ain't gonna be easy for anyone. For example, after beating Michigan on the road, Wisconsin just barely hung on at home against Penn State. (And yes, we are talking basketball.)

But the Illini need to take the gruelling Big Ten season one game at a time. Michigan already knows they are behind in the Big Ten race with a home loss to Wisconsin. Most teams in the conference are unlikely to lose back-to-back home games (see: Minnesota). Especially a team that already has two wins against a #4 team (UCLA, Duke).

On paper, these teams look fairly evenly matched. Illinois is averaging 48.4% shooting with opponents at 39.5%, Michigan 44.3% with opponents at 41.6%. Rebounds are almost equal, with Illinois at 35.5 and Michigan at 35.0. And the lines on blocks and steals are also similar: Illini -- 42 and 88; Wolverines -- 42 and 85. Plus, DeShawn Sims shared Big Ten co-Player of the Week honors with Trent Meacham.

On the court, the Illini will have to work hard to contain Manny Harris, the conference's second leading scorer, and Sims, who leads the Big Ten in rebounds and is third in scoring. The Illini who willed themselves to an overtime win at Purdue could upset these Wolverines, but the team that struggled last weekend against Eastern Michigan will struggle at Crisler Arena. However, the Illini are on a 7-game winning streak, so who knows?

Go Illini!



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