Sunday, February 22, 2009

Needed It - Got It!

I mean, how do you explain the turnaround? Wednesday night we lost at home to Penn State in one of the worst basketball games every played, at least since that Monmouth / Princeton thriller from 2005. Today, we travelled to Columbus and took care of business (70-68 win) against Ohio State (now 17-7), desperate to assemble a tourney-worthy resume. Not an easy task. Mission accomplished / hot shooting.

To answer the proposed questions, you need look no further than the box score:
  • Chief went 58% from the floor on 28/48 shooting
  • From behind the arc, he went 9/17 (53%).
  • From the charity stripe, just 55.6% on 5/9 attempts.
  • On those 28 field goals, he had 23 assissts (82%), which continues to lead the nation.
  • 11 turnovers. Pretty decent on the road in the BIG-10 in late February.

We also held the Buckeyes to 47% shooting (+11%), and only 36% from behind the arc. But make no mistake about it, we needed this win. Davis (22 points) and Meachem (17) both went off to lead the charge. You can't put up 33 points at home and lay a consecutive egg on the road. We didn't. Building a tourney resume is about bouncing back on the road in a hostile environment after a pathetic home loss. At 22-6 (10-5) we're back to +3 in conference - always good to be in the black by winning on the road and not losing at home.

We wrap up BIG-10 play with our next two at home against Minnesota and Michigan State before closing on the road in Happy Valley (Penn State). Momentum is back in our corner. But is there a more fickle pickle than men's CBB mojo this time of year? It's hard to find and even harder to keep. Just ask UCONN, UNC, and Oklahoma. Check out the latest Weekly Bubble Watch.

But back to today's winning result. The road-win gave Weber his 150th at Illinois in just six short years (53 losses). We started off much better today hitting our first 8 of 9 shots. That will be a key to continue going forward in tourney play next month. Teams that lose usually don't get off to strong starts. Rarely do you see a team get down big and claw its way back for the victory. It takes no energy to dig a big hole and almost all you have to climb back to square. Today's win was our first 3-game road - winning streak since 2004, illustrating just how hard it is to win away from home in the BIG-10.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hail to the Chief - Now it's GO TIME!

Wow, we needed tonight's buzzer-beating victory over the CATS like A-rod needs a lawyer. No doubt, it wasn't pretty most of the way. I think we were down 14 points or so with under 10 mins to go in regulation. That's OK, we only needed 9:58 down the stretch to put NW away, 60-59 - on their home court. Although, to be fair, it was a 50/50 crowd up there on the shores of Lake Michigan. Tough teams never quit. Good ones close down the stretch when the game is on the line. Great ones finish by winning games their 'supposed' to win.

I've been telling you these two things all year. But, they're so true right now they merit repitition when it comes to conference play: 1) DON'T LOSE AT HOME. 2) WIN AS MUCH AS YOU CAN ON THE ROAD.

At first glance, and perhaps even at 5th glance, you may be asking yourself if the Chief is off his rocker. Never fear, I don't own a rocking chair. But when you do the math (-1 for home losses and +1 for road wins), it's better to be be above PAR in this game - like modified Stableford scoring at the International. And at 8-4 in the conference (20-5 overall), the tribe is +2 heading into Bloomington on Sunday for another tough road test with Indiana, 2 back in the win column behind SPARTY. We're #14 in the RPI with an SOS of 27 nationally, 3rd-toughest in conference. We're also 5-4 against the RPI top 50. More importantly, all 5 of our losses came against teams in the top-52 or better. There are no nights off in the BIG-10 this year, especially on the road.

As for the action itself, we gutted this one out despite going 2-12 from the charity stripe (imagine how I would feel if we lost this game). McCamey was the undisputed leader again tonight scoring 19 points, including the game-winner with 3 seconds remaining. But Meachem may have bridged the scoring gap down the stretch, scoring 12 of his 15 with less than 5 minutes to go.

Keys to victory:
  1. With the game on the line, we dictated 'tempo' with the full-court pressure late in the game. NW had NO ANSWER comitting one turnover after another on their own floor.
  2. No empty possesions. Take advantage of easy scoring opportunities and manufacture other efficiently by working your 'tail' off in the half-court. You don't getting any points for just burning the 35-second clock down.
  3. Shutdown defense (see tempo). We held NW to just 42% from the floor while shooting 48% ourselves. And while they jacked-up 22 threes, they only made 8 (6 in the first stanza).
  4. It's crunch time in CBB. Don't crack under pressure. Finsh strong!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Up and Down and Up Yet Again: 66-48 over Boilers

There aren't too many teams out there right now who are as 'Jeckyl' and 'Hyde' as the Illini hoopsters. We've looked bad the last four times out on the road against Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin - losing all four games thanks to empty possessions in the half court and poor floor efficiency (spacing, running, cutting, and passing). But, during the same stretch of hoops we've looked good most nights at home against Michigan, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio State, and today against Purdue (#13). In the end, I think it comes down to confidence and 'comfort zone', having both at home and neither on the road. One clear example of this is our poor shooting percentages away from the friendly confines of Assembly Hall (low 30%s compared to mid 40's at home).

Today, it was more of the same from one othe most efficient offenses in the country, in terms of assist rates where we lead the nation around 70%. At one stretch tonight, we had 20 assists on 24 scoring possessions (nasty). We looked good on offense and defense in taking care of the Boilermakers. I like the way we shared the rockl, defended the 3-point line, and played lock-down on defense by denying the quick transitions. Coupled with good floor spacing, timely cutting in offensive sets, and overall 'presence' at both ends of the court, things are starting to come together as we head deeper into February. The next step is to achieve consistency night in and out. We're can't afford empty possessions and defensive breakdowns.

As for the positive, Mike Davis had another great game and continues his stellar play as one of the dominating big men in conference. He might just have the 'softest' baby jumper in the league, but can finish with authority as well as anybody else. However, his rebounding efficiency and intensity were too much for Purdue tonight with 14 points and 16 boards (awesome display of basketball fundamentals).

Our scoring balance was also good tonight. And we're going to need to continue that trend especially as we move deeper and deeper into conference play. Meachem, Tisdale, and Keller will have to find ways to share the scoring riches each and every time we take the floor, no matter the environment. It can't always be about McCamey and Davis. Back to balance - we'll need to sustain the balanced inside / outside play. One dimensional teams of either variety don't last long when the screws of tourney pressure are applied.

Realistically, today's game probably highlighted that there aren't any dominant teams in conference this season (trend I see around the nation as well). Even Michigan State has had its rough stretches of play a few weeks back when they lost at home to NW. Teams seem to play on a different level (higher) at home than they do on the road (lower). But I for one believe that enduring the hostility of road enviornments builds tourney toughness and team chemistry (or at least provides for those opportunities). Both of these traits will get exposed when March Madness arrives. There's no hiding from the bright light of pressure circumstances of tournament baketball (single elimination). Teams that have endured, lhave improved, and have evolved throughout the conference campaings are those who make deep runs in the field of 64.

At 19-5 (7-4 in conference and 2 games behind Sparty), the tribe is in good shape with 7 games in BIG-10 league play. This week we travel to Evanston and Bloomington for road games against the Wildcats and Hoosiers, two games we'll be expected to win as both programs continue their rebuilding processes.

I've said it before and will say it again: you don't earn any points by winning at home in conference play. Conversely, you can separate yourself from pretenders and in the national polls by winning on the road this time of year. Really, there are no magic secrets to CBB success this time of year. Go on runs and stop the other guy from running. If he does, answer right back even larger. Guard and play your butts off. It's all in the fundamentals of the game. Get stops and capitalize in the transition game opportunistically. And absolutely no, nunca, zippo, nada, nien empty possessions (or back to back empty possessions). Building an NCAA Tourney resume is as much an art as it is science (RPI, rankings, ratings, etc...). Style points do matter; as they do in CFB. But unlike CFB, CBB hardwood play will determine who's worthy and who's not. In the end, you want to be playing your best ball in March where winning is everything and losing provides an early opportunity to uncover what went wrong.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Bounce-back against Iowa ...

It wasn't pretty (like swimming without getting wet), but it was a BIG-10 win at home in the friendly confines of the Assembly Hall as the tribe defeated an upstart and pesky Hawkeye club, 62-54. There is no such thing as a bad win this time of year. You do what you have to each and every night out to earn the W. And this just in, losing on the road inside the 'Barn' isn't a bad loss either. Mark these words; the Gophers will make a little noise come mid-March.

Well, we started flat in the first half and actually trailed at the break against Iowa today. Not much was going right with several empty possessions, turnovers, and settling the outside shot. Things started to change in the 2nd half with McCamey (7 assists) and Tisdale (18 points) leading the charge. I hope we lost the funk of the Gopher collapse, scoring just 36 point - lowest in 24 years. Ugh!

Defense continues to be impressive this year. We held the Hawkeyes to just 21 of 51 shooting or 41% while going 23-48 for 48% ourselves. Another key was the rebounding differential, 35-22 for the game. Nice work on the glass men.

We now stand at 18-4 (6-3) on the season with upcoming games against Wisconsin (Madison) and Purdue (home) this next week. The ninth consecutive home win is now the longest stretch in conference. We're tied for third in the conference behind Purdue and Sparty wtih Minnesota, Penn State, and Ohio State. But, there's quite a bit of work to do as we prepare for March and tourney time (BIG-10 should get six if not seven bids this year). I like the overall direction we're headed with a young team and a great recruiting class next year (15th nationally right now according to SCOUTS.COM), including 3 in the TOP-100.

Where do we go from here? Obviously, to Madison seeking another road - conference win. Wtih ten games to go before the conference tourney in Indianapolis this year, we have to answer some tough questions and earn at least six wins in the process.
  1. Get back to playing fundamentally sound basketball ON THE ROAD. What happened to the team that took it to Purdue to start conference play? With recent road losses to Michigan, Michigan State, and Minnesota, we have to find that winning formula again. It really comes down to executing your offense in the COMFORT ZONE.
  2. Play every contest like it could be your last. What the three aforementioned lossess all have in common is a lack of execution and leadership down the stretch. Every person has a role to play; play it with urgency.
  3. Execute in the half court with accurate passing, crisp cuts to the basket, and kick-outs for open threes. Don't fall into the shot-clock trap of burning it down to 5 seconds left with nothing but a bailout three and a prayer as your only options.
  4. Step-up guys! Step-up Dmitri! Step-up Frazier! Step-up Trent! Step-up Mr. Davis! And Step-up Mr. Tisdale! You guys are the heart and soul of this team right now. Shouldn't matter if the game is played at home or away.

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