Thursday, March 25, 2010

Flying Not-So-High

The 2009-2010 Fighting Illini basketball season has drawn to a close. And not the ending the team would have chosen.

The week began with a very strong performance against Kent State, where the Illini took over in the second half. They looked good.

But the Dayton Flyers brought it Wednesday night. They out-hustled the Illini much of the game. The Illini had plenty of chances, but missed layups and free throws and passes kept the Illini from getting all the way back in the game until the final minute. And by then, they just didn't have enough time to recover from their up to 16-point deficit.

The Illini were a solid team all year. But they just couldn't get it all together at critical points throughout the season. Even in their last game, they showed they had what it took, but couldn't quite fulfill that potential.

And that made it hard to watch. As I've mentioned before, this team wasn't easy to watch, but they certainly kept things interesting. So, congratulations, boys on making the most of a disappointing season. Work hard this summer. Work on your mental games. Get ready for some exciting freshmen. And let's see what next season will bring...



Thursday, March 18, 2010

Survive and Advance

The Illini visited Long Island and Stony Brook, and they walked into a classic trap game. And they looked like it.

Their disappointment at being in the NIT instead of the NCAA was palpable. And their travel schedule seemed to be a bit much for them. They essentially were sleepwalking through the first several minutes of the game.

Stony Brook, on the other hand, made the most of their first nationally televised game in school history. Their fans filled the gym and made plenty of noise. And the Seawolves played their hearts out. The America East conference champions are a solid team, with excellent shooting, sound rebounding and plenty of hustle.

The Illini were sloppy. With 17 turnovers, the assist-to-turnover ratio was 1. Mike Davis played well, and led the Illini in scoring. But he also had some lazy passes and turnovers that were hard to watch. Demetri McCamey ended with a strong night. Although his scoring was needed, his assists were perhaps even more important. Mike Tisdale hit some big shots, including a couple 3s. And D.J. Richardson also ended in double figures. But the whole team was out-hustled, and they had to work to get ahead and keep the lead.

But, it's March. And even if it is the NIT, the name of the game is still survive and advance. Ugly as it was, the with still means the Illini will play another game. So bring on Kent State. At home, as it should be for a 1 seed in this tournament.

Which reminds me, one of the highlights of the night, in my opinion, was the "Cirque du P.A." piece on SportsCenter that kicked the anchors out of their studio for the Illini NIT segment. A bit embarrassing to have the Illini made fun of like that, but it was a clever piece.

Ok, boys, you got the disappointment out of your system, I hope. You have what it takes to win this tournament. Prove it.

Go Illini!

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Next Illini Try: NIT

As the brackets were revealed I was very disappointed, although not totally surprised, that the Illini didn't make the NCAA. They had plenty of opportunities to secure a spot, but they couldn't get it done.

But for those who like to point fingers and blame others, I'd point to Michigan. Had they put more pressure on tOSU last Friday in the last 3.2 seconds, Evan Turner may not have gotten off the game winning shot. The way the Illini played Saturday, they likely would have been able to beat Michigan. That puts them in the Big Ten Championship. As far as the Committee is concerned, I think they have to put any team playing in that game on a line somewhere. They simply don't have time to make any changes between the end of that game (or even halftime) and the beginning of the Selection Show.

However, there were plenty of games that slipped away that could have put the Illini in long before this past weekend.

A #1 seed in the NIT isn't what the Illini had hoped for, but let's take it.

First up, Stony Brook. The Illini play Wednesday in Connecticut. (They could have hosted the game, but Assembly Hall is booked by Cirque du Soleil.) If the Illini play like they did at the Big Ten Tournament, they could make a strong run in the NIT. A trip to NYC isn't completely out of the question. But if they play like they did the last 2 weeks of the regular season, they could have plenty of time to enjoy spring break on some beach, somewhere.

Go Illini!

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Life on the Bubble

The Illini have been squarely on the NCAA Tournament Bubble for a couple weeks. And although their performance in the Big Ten Tournament was encouraging, only The Committee can determine it if was enough...

After a demoralizing loss to the Badgers at home to end the season, the Illini came out strong Friday afternoon against Wisconsin. Although they tried to give the game away, they held on to play another day.

Ohio State just barely survived to advance on a last-second shot by Player of the Year Evan Turner over Michigan. And on Saturday, the Illini played the Buckeyes much, much better than they had in either of their 2 previous meetings this season.

After an excellent run, the Illini stalled and allowed the Buckeyes to go on a 20-point run. But then they rallied to give Thad Matta's team all they wanted. The Illini played really, really well, but they did fail to get a potential game-winning shot off at the end of regulation. But they did well in overtime, again, despite Mike Tisdale fouling out and again failint to get a potential game-winning shot off before the buzzer. The Illini didn't have enough gas to get through the second overtime, but they played hard for the full 50 minutes.

But it's March, and playing hard isn't enough. ESPN bracketologist (don't you love made-up professions?) Joe Lundardi has the Illini among the last 4 teams in at the beginning of the weekend, but conference tournament play has moved them to the last 4 out list.

In or out? Who knows! That's life on the bubble. The talking heads on all networks have lots of opinions, but The Committee seemed to indicate that most of the at-large bids were decided before the last couple days of conference tourney play. So I'm guessing that there wasn't as much riding on the Illini's play (beyond winning the automatic bid by winning the tournament) as we would like to think.

I hope then are in, but they certainly haven't given the impression of peaking as they headed into March... only time will tell... but we will know soon...

Despite it all, go Illini!




Congratuations to D.J. Richardson, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. D.J. has had some excellent games, he's grown this season, and he shows great promise for future seasons.

Demetri McCamey was named to the Conference First Team, for his assist and scoring leadership on the Illini. Congratulations to him as well.

Both these awards are bright spots in a disappointing finish to the season...



Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Not A Happy Ending

The game against Wisconsin at the Assembly Hall was not quite what Illini players and fans were looking for. The Illini played fairly tough despite poor shooting for roughly 3/4 of the game, but that's not enough to beat a quality team like the Badgers.

As hard as it is to admit it, Bo Ryan knows how to get players that fit his system. And he knows how to make his system work.

And the Illini just weren't all there. These boys know how to play, but so often they don't execute. Demetri McCamey had a very good game, but a few mistakes and poor decisions helped dig a hole deeper than the Illini could escape.

I did find a few positives...Tyler Griffey is showing great potential. Although there have been days that Dominique Keller really stepped up, his circus-style shots will soon be filed under Illini memories. Although the Illini often rely too much on jump shots, they do have pretty jump shots, especially the big men. Weber doesn't stop coaching.

But there's no denying, this was a painful loss, and it doesn't set the boys up well for a strong run through the conference tournament and off the NCAA bubble. Especially when you consider that the next team up for the Illini is...Wisconsin.



Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Identity Crisis

I'm confused. And I think the Illini basketball team is, too.

No one really knows who they are. Are they really the team that battled back at Clemson to win, beat Michigan State and Wisconsin and played Purdue tough on the road? Or are they the team that lost to Bradley and Utah and played sluggishly at home in losses to Ohio State and Minnesota?

The Illini are consistently inconsistent. The past few games have been hard to take after a strong stretch in the heart of the Big Ten season. (I've been out and about for a week or so, but I've managed to catch the games.) The win over Michigan was anything but inspiring, and the loss to the Golden Gophers was painful -- though I give the boys credit for getting back in the game at the end. And then a second loss to Ohio State. Although the Illini played much better than they did at home against the Buckeyes, it was still a painful loss.

With just one more game left on the schedule before post-season play, the Illini need to find themselves. Here's hoping a win at home over the Badgers, if they can pull it off, will put them in the NCAA tournament...



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