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.

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