Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Is it March Yet?

I'm ready, don't know about you. It's been a fast winter b-ball season, in my opinion. Seems like only yesterday I was watching Boise State taking care of business in the Fiesta Bowl against Okla-homa. How 'bout those Broncos?

And finally, March is just about here (in roughly three more hours west-coast style). Let the madness begin. Actually, if you follow or play in the BIG -12 you can say let the madness continue. Wow, did anybody else see that Longhorn / Aggie game tonight? One of if not the best game played in CBB this year by far. Acie Law IV and Kevin Durant are leaders amongst throngs of followers. I wish my Illini had someone like that to take care of business on the court. Both are tremendous players. And for such young guys, both seem to capture the essence of their coaches as leaders on the floor. That's pretty special stuff when you consider Durant is just a freshmen.

OK, so as we head into March, here are a few thoughts and observations I've been carrying around with me deep inside:
  • What a crazy year in CBB this year. I dont' see a clear #1 overall seed just yet. Maybe UCLA or maybe Ohio State. Sure, there are a few other squads to consider like Florida, Carolina, and Kansas. But all of these schools have proved one thing to me this year; they can each lose over and over again. There is no single dominant team in the nation right now.
  • Which conference is the strongest in the land this year, top to bottom? My first instinct is to go with the usual suspect in the ACC. I mean, even with both Carolina and Duke being down this year a little (mostly Duke), we still see a lot of great ball from Maryland, BC, NC STATE, VA TECH, VIRGINIA, and FLORIDA STATE. Only Miami and Wake have been on the outside looking in most of the season.
  • But, lately - I've been giving the BIG-10 and the BIG-12 a lot more thought and love. Let's start with the BIG-10: Ohio State and Wisconsin are no-brainers. Both would be great choices as #1 seeds in the tourney. Indiana has fallen off a little bit down the stretch, but has had a great year nonetheless under Sampson. And how about SPARTY, Illinios, Purdue, and Michigan of late? I think Penn State, Northwestern, and Iowa are the only teams that really don't have much of a case for the big dance. The BIG-10 may deserve 7 invites, but will likely only get 6 at most.
  • And how about the BIG-12? Is there a deeper conference in the land top to bottom? I'm not sure. We know about Kansas, A&M, and Texas. But what about Texas Tech, Kansas State, Missouri, and Oklahoma State? Sure, each of these teams has disappointing losses. But, they also have some impressive victories. Again, the level of competition here is what I'm talking about. It may not get much better than the BIG-12.
  • So, who are my #1 SEEDS right now? Stress the right now (2/28). I gotta say that Florida has been disappointing of late. You gotta finish strong down the stretch in February to earn a great seed in March. I know the conference tourneys are next week and that lots can happen between now and selection sunday. That being said, here are my 4 #1's in priority order: UCLA, Ohio State, A&M, and Carolina. Of course this could change. Florida has a great chance to creep up. Same for Kansas and Wisconsin. But other than these top schools, I don't seen anyone else sneaking into the debate.
  • And what happens in the tourney this year? Is it finally the year a 16 seed downs a #1? Or, should we just be happy with a #15 beating a #2? Perhaps it's the year we get all #1's to the Final Four. Or, is it the year of a mid-major to breakthrough on the national scene by going all the way to Atlanta and cutting down the nets?

It's March - and the madness is here (or at least alive and well in my head). Good luck with your brackets this year. It's that most wonderful time of the year. Should be interesting.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Another BIG 10 ROAD WIN ...

Sure, the win today against Penn State in Bryce Jordan wasn't worth as much as a loss would have hurt us, but a win on the road in the BIG-10 is nothing to sneeze at. Under the leadership of Shaun Pruitt and his inside scoring today, we earned our 3rd BIG -10 road win of the season (Minnesota, NW, and Penn State). We're in the DANCE - or at leat should be. At 21-9 on the season, and 9-6 in conference play, I like the direction this team is headed as we get ready to turn the page to March (8 of our last 11). This will look good to the tourney committe, an 18 point victory, 68-50 ILLINI.
That being said, we can't choke down the stretch. The BIG-10 race is quite the mess this year when you get deeper than Ohio State and Wisconsin. A first-round tourney loss won't help our chances much either. I still argue that nobody plays better defense in the conference and quite possibly in the nation than the ILLINI. Defense has carried us all season through some pretty difficult times. We hold teams down on the road and in their own house. Another example today, Penn State only shot 41% today from the field, 35% from behind the arc.

I also like the way Frazier and McBride are playing of late. Chester has really stepped us his scoring and floor leadership over the past three months. He's not there yet, but is on his way to becoming the team leader as a sophomore. I still would like to see a little better shot selection and half-court strategy on his part. Additionally, he has to improve his foul shooting. McBride has been strokin' it from way behind the arc for the past month, shooting 41% from downtown. The play of these two guys is going to be key for us with the loss of Smith last week.
So where do we go from here, besides the courtroom? Hopefully, all of the bad news is behind us. But, you never can tell for sure. We've definitely had our troubles on and off the court this season. Up next is Iowa on the road in Iowa City. That is going to be a stiff challenge with Alford at the helm. More good news, we don't play them until 03/03. What's really haunting me right now are the two road losses against SPARTY and Indiana. Oh, those would have been two awesome resume' enhancers.

Finally, thoughts and prayers go out to the Smith and Carlwell families. Both have some long roads ahead of them. Here's hoping Jamar can get his life back under control again. It would be quite inspiration to get Brian back on the bench again for the BIG DANCE. Sometimes it takes a little adversity to bring a team together. Maybe there will be a silver lining in this difficult time after all is said and done. Either way, kudos to the way Bruce is handling the entire situation. You really learn how good your coach is during difficult times. Weber is a good one. Hail to the Chief!

Friday, February 16, 2007

End of an Era in Champaign

I must say that I knew this day would come. In modern America, there is no room for ultra-tolerance and reason. Chalk this one up to political correctness gone insanely wrong. Hey - at least you know where I stand. But I promise to make it worth your while if you keep reading. The WAR CHANT will put you in the mood.

Today, my Alma Mater caved in to the extreme pressure of the politically correct NCAA with all of its money and influence. In so doing, the end of an 81-year run (1926) has arrived in Champaign. Actually, the last time the chief will dance in public will be next Wednesday against Michigan. You see, the NCAA deemed the buck-skin clad mascot as being 'an offensive use of American Indian imagery". Bite me! Watch his last dance here.

You know the drill. Chief supporters know the truth. American Indian groups and other ultra-liberals have been complaining for years that the mascot is somehow demeaning or degrading. What these pinheads can't see is the image of strength, courage, persevearance, and pride which the chief represents to most rational folks not drinking Kool-Aid. The University really didn't have a choice; it ran out of options months ago after its last appeal failed to convince the NCAA otherwise. Our reward for 'compliance' - now we can host NCAA postseason events like the BIG-10 chess championship!

Eppley said it fairly well, "The Chief Illiniwek tradition inspired and thrilled members of the University of Illinois community for 80 years," board of trustees chairman Lawrence Eppley said Friday. "It was created, carried on and enjoyed by people with great respect for tradition, and we appreciate their dedication and commitment. It will be important now to ensure the accurate recounting and safekeeping of the tradition as an integral part of the history of the university."

God willing, this will happen. I couldn't agree more. We need to preserve our tradition and history before others rewrite it. I'm getting sick of these "restorative" efforts. The make me ill! Until we chat agin, forever yours in the chief - Oskee Wa Wa! At least I graduated before the school was neutered. For more, check out the Q&A: Chief Illiniwek.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Heartbreak in Bloomington....

Oh my, what could have been. Up 61-60 with under a minute to go, it looked for a moment or two that we would indeed get our signature road win of the there against a TOP-25 Indiana squad (in a border classic for the ages). But, in the end, the Hoosiers got the late calls at home to make the difference. We had our late chances with a few good looks from McBride, but it just wasn't in the cards today. Here are the game notes.

So I ask, is it possible to lose the battle but win the war? I submit that the answer to that question is yes. Sure, this was our 9th loss on the year (6-6 in conference, 18-9 overall). But, I claim this was the game we're we might have just played our way into the BIG DANCE barring a monumental collapse down the stretch of conference play. We're not done yet, but with 4 more games on the (2 on the road and 2 at home), our tournament destiny is clearly in our own hands. Two more wins should seal a bid to the NCAA tourney. Three more wins, especially one at Iowa, would guarantee a bid.

I like they way we're finishing down the stretch in conference play. This isn't the same team which struggled with an identify crisis through the month of January. It also looks as if McBride and Smith are starting to heat up from beyond the arc. We shot 46% for the game and 31% from downtown as a team. Not too shabby. McBride and Smith were a combined 4-12 from downtown, including two late misses which could have each won the contest. Carter added 14 points and Mr. Arnold muscled in 12 more points (huge). Looks like Pruitt and Randle were held in check, and that may have been the difference. Keep in mind that this was all against a high-scoring Indiana squad at home in their Assembly Hall. We really held the Hoosiers in check tonight on 46% shooting and 65 points. They are a much more explosive team offensively against just about everyone else.

So, where does that leave us? Like I said, we have to win two more games. Three would be nice. But, that being said, I now think we can and should win all four down the stretch. Our next two are at home against NW and Michigan after an 8-day much-anticipated rest. We go to Penn State and Iowa to close things out. Anything less than three more W's would be disappointing. The HAWKEYE showdown in Iowa City can go either way. At least we get another little rest in between the Penn State game and this one. I like our chances at making a deep run in the BIG -10 Tourney. I think my team is playing some of the best ball right now in conference play, despite our record. And we're nowhere near as good as we could be with a little more work and some rest. This team has started 8 different lineups this year, the most in the conference because of injury problems. Not making excuses, but it's hard to win and impress when you're not healthy.

But, keep this in mind. This is a Bruce Weber team. His teams always play hard, especially down the stretch. He seems to find a way to motivate is players at all levels to bring their best games when it matters most. I expect nothing less than that this year. Things are getting brigher. Keep the faith. I see some hope afterall at the end of a long dark tunnel.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

2 in a ROW! Down the Stretch They Come....

They say the last 10 games of the regular season make up the real meat of bracketology. It's like the 'second' season of CBB. Or maybe the 3rd. To be honest, CBB doesn't really capture my attention until mid January when conference play really starts to heat up. The games in November and December are eye candy, appetizers, or warm-ups for what's on the horizon. There's nothing like the intensity of conference basketball (until the MADNESS begins).

That being said, my squad has put together two good home wins this week over Michigan State and Minnesota. Granted, they were two 'must-have' wins for us at home if we have any aspirations of making the BIG DANCE come next month. Defense has been at the hear of the last two wins, holding both opponents well under 40% from the field. Tonight we held the Golden Gophers to 17-55 or 31% shooting. Wow, there aren't too many teams out there in the nation that play defense as well as these FIGHTING ILLINI. We only shot 40% from the floor and 37% from behind the ARC. Not a big surprise; we're worst in conference in just about every offensive category in the BIG-10. Winning ugly is all we have let.

Andy looky there, guess who showed up tonight? Mr. Smith added 13 points on 5-10 shooting and 3-7 from behind the ARC during his 32 minutes. Tonight's performance marked the end of an 11 for 60 slump since conference play begain against MICHIGAN. That's big for him. He's been struggling since late December with injury to both ankles. That's like a racecar driver attempting to race with two spranged wrists. If you don't have your feet under you; you have nothing. Long-distance shooting is all about the foundation. The most important stat for him and ILLINOIS tonight was clearly the thirty-two minutes of action. This is good news for my young squad. We need another legit shooter from downtown to help McBride carry the load. Now, if Jamar can just show-up and play like this every night. Hopefully he'll 'find himself' in February like Pruitt and McBride 'found their games' in January. In order for us to make the BIG DANCE and have any success in the TOURNEY this year, we need more balanced and consistent scoring from the BIG FOUR: Carter, Pruitt, McBride, and Smith. I don't quite think Randle is healthy enough to give us consistent scoring minutes each night. But, if the BIG FOUR can account for ~ 55-60 points / game then I like our chances. So, there it is. I'm calling these four guys out down the stretch. Here's what they need to average in the box score:

Carter ~ 14 points / game, Pruitt ~ 16 points / game, McBride ~ 15 points / game, and Smith ~ 12 points / game. I know they are capable of such scoring, with good inside and outside balance. Make no mistake about it, we are a halfcourt team on offense. This isn't another FLYIN' ILLINI team like in '88/'89. But, there's no reason this team has to remain in last place in the conference most offensive stats. That's inexcuseable to me. As such, it's really hard to diagnose this year's squad in terms of how good they can be. The potential / skill is there. It's time to actuate.

If the offense comes around, there's no telling how good this team can be THIS YEAR. I still submit that very few teams out there across the nation play as solidly on defense as the ILLINI. We EXPECT to hold everybody under 40% from the field, and do just that just about every time. A few times this year we've held some good teams to under 30%. Then there was the Ohio State debacle at home where they lit it up against us from the inside and outside. That was our low point on the year. We are an inside / outside squad with Pruitt and Rich McBride. The offense runs most efficiently on this dynamic balance. When things go south, it's usually one or both of these that mysteriously disappear. I like seeing both Rich and Jamar with 3-7 from behind the ARC. That's good news; especially when Pruitt goes for double digits. Then there's our foul shooting.

Ugh! Another 50% night from the line tonight. This is unforgiveable. I mean, talk about achilles heels. Give the lack of leadership and consistent scoring (to date) on this squad, we HAVE to make the foul shots to have a chance to go deep in March. Otherwise, there might not be much of a March.

But for now, I rejoice in being 17-8 (5-5 in conference) and three of our last four. Now, we go on the road for the next two (@ NW and @ Indiana). We have to win one of those games. Two wins would be huge. I still think we're in with 21 wins. Anything less will require a run in the conference tourney and some fortune from the selection committee. We don't have a good road win yet this year. We have one or two more chances @ Indiana and @ Iowa. Our three best wins have been against Missouri, Indiana, and Michigan State. Needless to say, we need to protect the home court down the stretch like we did tonight.

“The way they’ve defended the three has been incredible,” said Minnesota interim head coach Jim Molinari. “You’ve got to play off the bounce against Illinois, and they are very good perimeter defenders. Any time you shoot poorly, defense has a lot to do with it. They made us take contested shots.”

“This was a good team defensive effort,” said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. “We’ve definitely done a good job on defense here the last three or four weeks, and I think they understand that that’s going to be the difference."

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