Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Like Mike

Sing with me now. "If I could be like Mike. I wanna be, I wanna be, I wanna be like Mike."

Of course, that commercial was probably before the time of this Illini team. But they should be singing it this season, and not just because Jeff's dad is around at times. Who wouldn't want to be like Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis?

Mike & Mike are learning to take control of games (kind of like Jeff's dad), how to dominate. And against Northwestern, Tisdale led the way.

Tisdale had a monster game, scoring nearly half of the Illini points in the first half. He ended with a double-double, career-high 31 points, along with 11 rebounds. Oh, and 2 steals and 2 blocks. Unfortunately, he fouled out in the middle of OT. Otherwise, he could have racked up even more stats.

Davis also dominated, with yet another double-double: 20 points and 17 rebounds. Yes, the Big Ten's leading rebounder pulled down 17. When Tisdale had to sit down, Davis took over where he left off, scoring down low.

Mike & Mike showed passion and energy. They asked for the ball, shot well, passed it off and went after rebounds aggressively. And the Illini will have a much better season if they can all be a little more like Mike.

As the Illini prepare to head to the United Center to face Gonzaga, they all can work on cutting down turnovers, boxing out to prevent offensive boards and hustling a bit more.

But we will take the 1-0 start to the conference season. And we will watch to see if the rest of the team can be like Mike.

Go Illini!

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Another Conference Tip-Off

The Big Ten men's basketball season is underway. Although some of the teams have stumbled in non-conference play, conference play will likely be grueling. Despite tough losses, I still think the conference is improving.

A few quick notes on what to expect...

Illinois: The Illini will have moments of brilliance and moments best forgotten. But they should be very competitive in the conference, and if they stay on track, they could be among the top 3 or 4 in the conference.

Indiana: Tom Crean had his work cut out for him when he came to the Hoosiers, and he is slowly but surely laying a foundation for his program in Bloomington. The Hoosiers will still likely be toward the bottom of the conference, but expect the Hoosiers to play tougher. They may even sneak up on a couple teams.

Iowa: Believe it or not, Todd Lickliter's team is (slowly) improving, IMO. And their performance against Purdue in their conference opener is evidence of this. The Hawkeyes will get seriously beat up during conference play, and his program will take longer to build than Coach Crean's. This will be another tough year in Iowa City, but again, a foundation is being laid for a much more respectable program.

Michigan: John Beilein has some of the top players in the conference on a team that will be really tough in conference. The Wolverines have lost to teams that they may have been able to beat, but they also have gained good experience for the conference season and beyond.

Michigan State: The Spartans played a relatively meaty non-conference schedule, and 2 of their 3 losses are road games at North Carolina and Texas, games that will only help Tom Izzo work his magic in March. This team, as always, will be one of the best in the conference and in the post-season.

Minnesota: The Golden Gophers look good coming into the conference season, despite the light non-conference schedule Tubby Smith's boys faced. Tubby is a good coach, as his work over the last couple years has proved. Another tough team that will be in the conference mix.

Northwestern: Improving constantly, even without their top scorer, the Wildcats have convinced many talking heads ands and coaches they are for real this season. Bill Carmody's trademark Princeton offense has consistently improved, and could give the conference fits this season. And their first NCAA Tourney bid is a very real possibility come March.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes' loss to Butler was a stumble, but they have talent and quality coaching with Thad Matta. And, as usual, his team will be tough. They played UNC well in an early loss on the season.

Penn State: Ed DeChellis and his Nittany Lions had hoped for a stronger start to their season, building on a great season last year. But they struggled more than anticipated in a relatively soft non-conference schedule. But don't count this team out yet. They have been improving for years, and they will again play tough in conference.

Purdue: Expected to be the class of the Big Ten, the undefeated Boilermakers are set for a great season. However, they will find that the familiarity of conference play will challenge them, as their first game at Iowa showed. However, expect Matt Painter's boys to maintain control of the conference...

Wisconsin: The Badgers and Bo Ryan will, as always, play better than the national talking heads expect. Yes, they stumbled in their loss to UW-Green Bay, but that's not likely to be the norm for this team. They showed what they are capable of against Duke at the Kohl Center, and the Big Ten will likely see more of that play when in Madison this year.

All this to say that there will not be any gimme games for anyone in Big Ten Conference play this season. Even Iowa and Indiana will push teams. I won't try to predict seeding for the conference tourney, but I will predict plenty of good games and a strong showing in the Big Dance in a couple months...

Enjoy the season!



Thursday, December 24, 2009

Not This Year

All good things must come to and end, or so "they" say. That was true for the 9-year/game Illini win streak in the annual Braggin' Rights game against Mizzou.

The Illini seem to be lethargic on neutral courts and on the road, and they will have to fix that to compete in the Big Ten. But credit Mike Anderson's Tigers, as they played an impressive game.

Although the Illini struggled in most parts of their game, they stayed in it until about the last 5 to 6 minutes. That they were only down 6 at that point didn't show their constant turnovers (22 -- ouch!) and ice-cold shooting (there was more than one point-blank shot, layup or dunk that didn't get finished off). All to prove that this Illini team is not too bad, even when they are playing poorly. The final score was much more indicative of the way Bruce's boys played in St. Louis.

The Illini rebounded well at times, although Mizzou showed more hustle. And Bruce worked hard to coach his boys up during the game, with timely breaks in the action. Down low, both Tisdale and Davis finished with double-doubles. But the Illini just weren't all there. Without their normally on-target shooting and with a tendancy to pass to Mizzou instead of each other, they just didn't play Illini basketball.

The Tigers were hungry. They played with intensity that was bolstered by "mcdougtastic" shooting (concensus term from the game-watching party I attended). And with what commentator Steve Lavin termed the "Emerald City green light" to take opportunistic shots and "share the sugar", Mizzou took the Illini defense apart. [Side note: Lavin's commentary often leaves me scratching my head...he comes up with some rather ridiculous terms to fill the air waves.] The number of open 3s and jump shots that they buried will back up Coach Weber's claims that this year's Illini aren't quite there defensively yet. But Mizzou also made their share of impressive tough shots, even though they had several bounce out from halfway through the rim.

So the Tigers just barely managed to get their Braggin' Rights for this decade. As disappointing as the Illini play and this loss is, at least the Orange and Blue have owned this one since the turn of the century.

Next up -- the conference opener against a surprising Northwestern team. But first, enjoy the holidays. Here's hoping Santa drops off a bit of intensity, a hunger to win and a more consistent shooting touch for all of the team.

Merry Christmas!

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Braggin' Rights: 2009 Edition

The Illini head into their annual Braggin' Rights showdown with Mizzou on a record 9-game winning streak in the rivalry game. The Illini haven't lost (yet) this century.

Wednesday the Illini and the Tigers are in similar positions. Both teams have 3 losses, including a couple games they know they should have won. Both teams will have about half the crowd in their colors. Both teams have a lot to play for before heading into a tough conference season.

Freshman guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson will be facing Mizzou Coach Mike Anderson's press for the first time. They will need to limit turnovers and take cues from Demetri McCamey, who has experience against this style of pressure defense. Hopefully lessons learned in the Clemson game will help the Illini against these Tigers.

Mizzou continues to improve, and this will be a tough one for the Illini, especially after the disappointing Georgia loss. How will this team respond to their last loss? How will the freshman respond to the atmosphere in St. Louis? As always, a win would be a fabulous Christmas present!

Go Illini!



Saturday, December 19, 2009

Will Coaching Changes be Enough?

After another disappointing football season, Coach Zook has been making big changes in his team.

Paul Petrino left his position as Arkansas offensive coordinator to take on the challenge of that position on Zook's staff. Petrino has nearly 20 years of experience, including 1 season on an NFL staff. However, Petrino was not able to convince Arrelious Benn to stay in college for his senior season. Benn has declared for the NFL draft. [Side note: I wonder what NFL team I will have to cheer for simply because they choose Benn? /side note]

On the other side of the ball, Vic Koenning will take over as defensive coordinator. Koenning spent 1 year at K-State, where he dramatically improved the D, after four successful years at Clemson. He has both playing and coaching experience.

So, will these changes be enough to bring consistency to the Illini performance on the field next season? Zook is clearly in an unstable position, but these hires look good, at least on paper. Other changes have been made within the coaching staff. Will these changes help or hurt team chemistry? Will locker room morale recieve a boost? Only time will tell...



Congratulations to...

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Signs of Games to Come

The Big Ten basketball conference season is going to be tough. But the dominating win over Western Michigan shows how the Illini are using the non-conference seaseon to prepare for the next two months.

Offense: This Illini team can score! Yes, they were ice-cold for the first 4 minutes of the game Sunday. But, unlike last season's team, the 2009-10 Illini have plenty of firepower. With Mike Davis consistently getting double-doubles, Mike Tisdale's mid-range jumper and hook shot, Demetri McCamey both dishing and scoring, Brandon Paul driving, D.J. Richardson from 3 and Dominique Keller coming up big off the bench, the Illini have plenty off options to rack up the points. And they are -- getting more than 80 points a game. I don't expect scoring to stay that high once conference play starts, but we should see more points than we did a couple times last year.

Strength: Against WMU and others, the Illini have had a clear size advantage. And they've exploited it. But Sunday, one promising sign for the future was the aggressiveness and strength of Tisdale down low. He consistently went after rebounds more assertive than we've seen from him in the past. And he was a bit more aggressive in the low post. Good preparation for the physical play in the Big Ten. Tizzy will be fighting bigger guys for position in a couple weeks, but I like to see him fighting now. He's got a bit more meat on his bones, and he's showing he can use it. Paul adds great strength on the perimeter, as well.

Speed: This team can run. And they like to run. As individuals and as a team, we've seen plenty of quickness on the floor. McCamey chasing down loose balls. Paul blowing by defenders for a dunk. Transition offense. Quick passes that get ahead of the defense. Yes, these boys do get out of control and throw it away more than they should when going fast, but they are still taking advantage of their athleticism.

Free Throws: Sunday the Illini were very good from the stripe, shooting 14 of 15. Although they aren't consistent getting to the free throw line or making those baskets, the Illini are trending up over time, and this will be critical in conference play.

Defense: The Illini don't lock down quite as firmly as they did last year on defense, but they did hold the Bronos' leading scorer David Kool to 13 points, well below his 23 ppg average and his recent 32-point games (yes, that's plural). Shot blocking has added lots of excitement to the defense, and Tisdale isn't the only one doing that. The Illini have also shown us they can play more than just man-to-man D. This is another area with plenty of room for improvement, but it looks to be trending up.

But before the Big Ten season starts, the Illini have a couple tough road games. In Atlanta against Georgia Saturday, and the Braggin' Rights game next week.

Should be fun. Go Illini!



Hawai'i Ends Illini Run

The Illini volleyball team fell to Hawai'i in their Sweet Sixteen match-up last Friday. Although Kevin Hambly's team would have liked to keep going, they had an excellent season. Congratulations to these girls for a strong showing in the tough Big Ten and to Laura DeBruler, who added regional honors to her long list of accolades for the season.



Friday, December 11, 2009

The Mismanagement of Ron Guenther

Ron Guenther is managing the Illini football program the way the government has managed our money: incompetently. This story from today's Sun-Times confirms this to be true. Please, just make a decision already.



Wednesday, December 09, 2009

A Tale of Two Teams...

Ron Zook and the Illini football team started the 2009 season with high expectations and several big questions.

Bruce Weber and the Illini basketball team started the 2009-10 season with optimistic expectations and several big questions.

Zook had an experienced team with strong senior leadership.

Weber had a young team with a need for upperclassmen to step into leadership.

Zook's boys came out in St. Louis and took a sucker punch to the gut against Missouri. They staggered and didn't really recover until late in the season. After good games against Michigan and Minnesota, the Illini stumbled again. However, the Illini offense played well in losing efforts against undefeated Cincinatti and Fresno State.

Weber's boys came out in Las Vegas and took a sucker punch to the gut against Utah, after letting a big lead disappear in the final seconds. They staggered, losing to Bradley and looking dazed during a 10- to 12-minute stretch against Clemson. But then the Illini came roaring back with a stong showing in the second half of a game they went on to win in the final minutes.

So many similiarities. Such different results (so far). Why?

Initially, I would have expected the more experienced football team to recover from such a tough loss more quickly. But although the football team had experience winning (see 2007 season), they also had plenty of experience not winning (see recent Illini football history). The Illini basketball team has talented freshman players with plenty of AAU experience, who are just learning to play at the college level. They may not know how devestating those two losses should be. And the team as a whole has more experience exceeding expectations that failing to meet them (see recent Illini basketball history). Coaching is another factor. Zook's teams lack consistency, while Weber's teams consistently perform above their talent level.

The final play of the Fresno State game expressed the Illini football season perfectly. The Illini allowed themselves to get in a tough position, and although they did all they could, they just couldn't win. A 2-point conversion by a lineman on a deflected pass from a QB who was going to the ground...yeah, that's about right.

Let's hope the second half of the Clemson game and the entire Vanderbilt game express the Illini basketball season. If that's the case, Weber's boys should be able to write a much more exciting ending to their season tale.

But whatever happens, go Illini!

Oh -- and let's not forget the Illini volleyball team. Kevin Hambly's girls will face Hawaii in the Sweet Sixteen on Friday.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Juice Williams

Isaiah "Juice" Williams' senior season was not the one he had hoped for nor one that Illini fans were expecting. Although it was a challenging finish to his college career, I hope all of the Illini faithful will applaud Juice for his effort and how he represented the University of Illinois. He was a key early recruit for Ron Zook and had some terrific moments in the Illini uniform. For more on Juice, take a look at this excellent article from the Chicago Tribune.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

A Tale of Two Halves...

Wow! That was fun! An Illini comeback worth getting excited about. And proof that, despite the disappointment in Vegas, the ’09-’10 Illini basketball team will be exciting to watch. Not always easy to watch, but certainly exciting.

This game is a perfect example
It was the worst of times (during the second 10-12 minutes of the game)...
It was the best of times (from about 2 minutes into the second half until the Illini took the lead, and eventually won)...

Let me break it down a bit

Good Hope Orange handed out much-deserved credit to both the players and Weber. And Chief made a good point about Bilas. His comment about the Clemson collapse bugged me -- and I didn't realize how inconsistent Jay was being. Yes, the Tigers collapsed, but much of that was due to pressure from a hungry Illini team, who were already embarrassed, as Weber told them at halftime.

To top it off, the Big Ten finally won the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Thank you Penn State, Purdue, Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin (great game) and our own Illini! They signaled that the Big Ten is a conference to be reckoned with this year.

Go Illini!

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Clemson and Jay Bilas

I agree with everything GHO said below. Solid comeback victory last night that will serve as a great confidence, not to mention resume builder. Anytime you can beat a ranked ACC team on the road it's a good day and the selection committee will take notice.

Hopefully the new guys got a taste of what it takes to win at this level and will step up their games accordingly. And speaking of, it was great to see Richardson and Paul on the floor down the stretch. Should the Illini make the Big Dance, I'm not expecting a real deep run but with the recruits we have coming in (Jereme Richmond) big comebacks and down-to-the-wire finishes are important for these young guys to experience for what I expect will be strong NCAA tourney appearances in the future.

Finally, as the ESPN crew evaluated our game at halftime of the Wisconsin-Duke game I heard Jay Bilas say something along the lines of the following: "This was a big comeback by the Illini but make no mistake about it...with every huge comeback there is an epic collapse and this was a huge collapse by Clemson tonight. They are reeling."

I found that quote interesting because it appears that Bilas gave more credit for our victory to Clemson collapsing than he did to Illinois' adjustments and toughness in the 2nd half.

I also found it ironic that he called the Illinois-Arizona Elite Eight game a few years ago and I'm not sure I ever heard him talk about an "epic Arizona collapse." (Please correct me if I'm wrong.) Could it be because that was Arizona and this was Clemson? Perhaps each school's hoops reputation contributed to Bilas' inconsistency in his analysis. Just a thought.

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

From Embarrassment to Excelllence

Wow, what a win by the Illini tonight! Chief asked to see some hungry Illini players and I think coming back from 23 points down to win 76-74 over Clemson surely qualifies as a postive step forward!

Side note: I missed most of the first half (good for me I guess) and, while it would have been easy to not even watch the second half, whenever I think about turning a game off, I remember the Illini's amazing win over Arizona to advance to the Final Four during their 2005 tournament run. I was glad I didn't turn the TV off that night and I am glad I didn't turn it off tonight!

End Side Note.

I continue to be very impressed by D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul. They will have their ups and downs but are very poised and polished for freshmen. Mike Davis is a double-double machine and looks great so far this year, with Tisdale and McCamey also playing solid basketball most of the time. McCamey's ability to play most of the second half with four fouls was critical.

And while we are handing out praise, Coach Weber deserves a lot of credit for not letting the team quit at halftime and for making adjustments (like playing some zone defense, which the Illini never do) that helped them get back into the game. He continues to prove that he is a top notch game coach who gets the most out of his team.

I was disappointed to see Michigan and Minnesota lose their games tonight but the Illini's comeback victory keeps hope alive for the Big Ten to win the Big Ten/ACC Challenge if Ohio State holds serve against Florida State and Wisconsin can upset Duke (very possible with the game being at the Kohl Center, one of the toughest venues in the country to win on the road at).

That's it for now but savor this win - it was a good one and it's the type that can propel a team on a very nice run.

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