Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hang 'Em High - Good Try Illini Hoopers ...

Finally, the season is over and the re-building can continue right up until we tip-off again next November. The best thing about a young team of sophomores and freshmen, is that they become an older team of juniors and sophomores. We actually got worse as a team as the season went on, especially in the month of March, culiminating with the loss of CF.

We looked dazed and confused in all aspects of our game tonight with the Hilltoppers of WKU. A good anaology would be like a powerful fuel-injected V-8 down at least four cylinders, misfiring through the entire power and torque bands. It was as if a few plug wires were disconnected - or missing altogether. Seriously, no team in the country has had to deal with what we've gone through over the past week, losing our best player and floor coach just days before the BIG-10 Tourney (Chester Frazier). Few players in the land meant as much to their teams as Frazier did for Illinois. And when you're best player is a guard, plays shut-down defense, hits clutch shots, is the pivot-point of your offense, and otherwise acts as an on-floor coach; it can't be good. Yep, when Chester went down and out last week our chances for any kind of post-season run went right along with him. You could see it in the eyes of the players. That was obvious tonight. No mojo. No fire. No life. Easy 12-5 upset to call this year. Give credit to WKU; they're a good little team, but Gonzaga should pull away from them mid-way in the 2nd half on Saturday.

Already looking ahead to 2009/10. We bring back as much raw talent and skill as anybody. Question will be can we put it all together and find that chemistry of 2004/5? I expect Tisdale and Davis to be studs in the post. McCamey, Jordan, and Legion will need to step up their scoring from the outside. But most importantly, we need to find that on-floor leader who sets the table and gets us good looks in the half court. I'm not sure that's McCamey. Far too often this year we settled for the outside jumper with no time on the shot-clock. Too many empty possesions and scoring droughts of four minutes or longer (12mins against Purdue), especially in the second-half of the season. We need to drastically improve our scoring, especially go-to scoring, to eliminate long dry spells where absolutely no semblance of offense is present. I think we shot the fewest free-throws in conference this year (another good indicator of Euro-ball and NOT getting to the tin). The NCAA tourney isn't about mediocrity at any level. If you don't play your best each not you can't expect to win. Weaknesses get exposed and purged quickly. There's nowhere to hide in the field of sixty-five. As it should be.

All in all, it was a good bounceback year for the tribe, finishing 24-10 despite losing three of our last four. That's 50% better than our 16-19 campaign last year in Champaign. I have high expectations for next season. We should contend for the BIG-10 regular-season crown, make a deep run for the BIG-10 tourney championship, and advance at least to the round of 16 in the NCAA. With a little luck (something we haven't had in 4 years) and a lot of hard work, it could even be more.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

BIG-10 Tourney Wrap ...

It was a good start Friday night against Michigan at least. We had the Wolverines on the ropes at the start of the 2nd half. The 10-point margin wasn't indicative of the performance, up 20 at one one with ~ 10 minutes to go.

Saturday was a different story against the Boilermakers (not a bad club). They got up big after an Illinois drought spanning two halves and 12 minutes w/o any field goals. Ugh!. Nothing kills a deep tourney run faster than empty possessions (turnovers, bad shot-selection, missed field goals, etc..). Purdue came out early hot, especially from behind the arc, and didn't let up the rest of the way. Not having Frazier wasn't really a factor. We never got into our rhythem on offense all night. Davis, Meachem, McCamey, and Tisdale were mostly non-factors until too late.

Sure, the officiating was atrocious - skewed in strong favor of Purdue. But make no mistake about it, they were the better team tonight. We simply don't have any reliable scoring we can count on night in and out. Teams that make deep tourney runs not only play strong defense but tend to average 80 points / game or more. It's quite simply not enough to be physical. You have to have scoring to complement the defense. By far, the biggest tourney indicator of success is margin of victory.

So, I stand by my original prediction for Illinois basketball this year. We'll be fortunate to win one game next week. Anything more than that has to be considered a pleasant surprise. Reaching the SWEET 16 is highly unlikely. Factor in a huge loss in leadership with Frazier out (broken hand in practice this week) and you have a recipe for disappointment.

What needs to happen going forward? Here's how I see it:
  1. Mike Davis - my man, take charge next year. You are by far the most prolific and consistent scorer we have on offense. Take the game over when you're feeling it and ride the wave. We need you to average ~ 20 points / game next season and you're capable.
  2. Tisdale - man- up my friend. You need to get much stronger and more aggressive. Seems like every night you get man-handled in the post, or at least give up more inside than you should in terms of rebounds and points.
  3. Legion - work harder. You're not that good. Atheletic ability may have carried you at Oak Hill in high school, but you have a long way to go to reach your full collegiate potential. Start with patience. Learn to position yourself better on both ends of the court. Basketball is more than jacking - up empty 3-pointers. Ugh! What you expect and what you're capable of producing couldn't be a larger gap.
  4. McCamey - if this is going to be your team to lead next year, you have to learn patience, the meaning of a good possession (no empty results), and clock management. Cut down on the turnovers. You make too many of them. And keep your head in the game for at least 40 minutes. Your missing-in -action moments are far to many and frequent.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

State of the Illinois Union - Pre BIG10 Tourney

Well, the tribe didn't exactly end the year as I would have liked with two consecutive losses to Sparty and Penn State (two tourney teams), at home and away. We gave Sparty a battle at home last Sunday before they pulled away with a bit more talent, especially on offense and in transition. We had the Lions on the ropes with 5 minutes to go (down 10) before we let them crawl and slap their way to victory on a last second scoop and score drive. Ugh!

Still, the big picture says we're 23-8 (11-7). Not bad after a 16-win campaign in 2007-8. I'll take 50% more wins YoY anytime. Weber did a good job from the bench this year with a young squad that should only get better in 2009/10 with McCamey, Tisdale, Davis, and Legion all coming back as Juniors. We should also have a good freshmen class as we continue to build the positive team chemistry. Sure, we'll miss Meachem, Frazier, and Brock.

So, where does the state of the Illini nation stand as we head into BIG-10 tourney week? The short answer is we have more work to do. The improvement never stops if you expect to make a deep run in the BIG DANCE. Here are the pros / cons starting with the positives:
  1. Nobody does a better job of scoring off assists than the chief. We're a selfless team which at times has hurt us late in games when we need a clutch score. It's true that the pass is quicker than the bounce, but when it's all said and done does the rock go through the tin?

  2. Euro-ball is alive and well in Champaign. Our big men (especially Davis and Tisdale) would rather turn and face-up than take it to the hole. Don't get me wrong, both have outstanding range from 15-feet. Davis is especially silky smooth.

  3. Defense is our hallmark. We don't give up too many easy baskets.

  4. In other words, it's old-school basketball that Weber is teaching at Illinois. He stresses execution in the half court more than a speedy transition game. Making the extra crisp pass usually leads to the easier open shot.

Now, for the negatives:

  1. We're not a physical team, just look at how our biggies play in the post. As a consequence, we don't get to the charity stripe often. When we do get there, it's still somewhat of an excursion. With the game on the line, the tribe will most likely under-perform at the line. We're last in the conference again in 2008/9 in free-throw attempts.

  2. We don't have a reliable go-to scorer. Sure, several guys have stepped up this year from time to time, but we don't have the consistent striker a la Ben Griffen, or Jodie Meeks, or Tyler Hansbrough, or even a Taylor Battle.

  3. Consistency. We've had some bad losses this year (Wisconsin in Madison, Minnesota in St. Paul, and Penn State inside Assembly Hall). We've had some good wins: at Purdue and at home, over Ohio State (twice), at Vandy, and over Mizzou. Just what you would expect from a young team on the rise.

  4. A killer instinct. We're a good little club that tries hard sometimes. We get what give. Problem is we don't bring it each and every night we take the floor. I still haven't seen us play a game all year up to our full potential (perhaps on the road at Columbus over Ohio State). Best example I can think of recently is our failure to put away Penn State in Happy Valley this week. We were the better team most of the night except at the final buzzer.

My post-season predictions for Illinois:

  1. We earned a 1st-round bye in Indianapolis next week. That's the good news. I expect us to win at least 1 game next week but not to win it all with the depth in conference this year, except for Iowa and Indiana who are both down.

  2. I'd like to think we can win a game or two in the BIG DANCE. But, the tourney has taught me over and over that there are no sure things. I expect this year's field of 64 to be one of the most - balanced (parity) we've seen in years. Don't expect the four #1's to advance to Detroit this time.

  3. Illinois probably wins just 1 game in the NCAA tourney and goes down in the 2nd round to a better team from a power conference (ACC / BIG EAST). A trip to the SWEET-16 would be exceptional and unexpected. Anything more than that is too much to ask for right now.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Sparty Got Us at Home - They're that good!

Give most of the credit to Sparty today after the 74-66 win inside Assembly Hall. Actually, the game was much closer throughout and was probably one of the most competitive affairs in conference this season. Both teams came to play and left it all out on the court at the final horn.

Michigan State was just too strong at both ends of the court, but especially on defense; which really surprised me some. I expected them to get some easy transition baskets since they like to run, but they really held our half-court offense in check most of the game. I'm not sure we had a bucket in the last eight minutes of the game. Most of our points came from the charity stripe where we went 16 for 19 this afternoon (not bad).

Davis and Tisdale both played well at times, but neither was able to assert his will down the stretch with 8 minutes to go. Michigan State recognized that stopping Tisdale was going to be key; it was; they did. Give credit to Izzo who always seems to get the most out of his players at this time of year. They are looking like a strong 2 seed in the Tourney and the odds-on fave to take the BIG-10 Tourney again.

But, we had our chances. Sure we gave up a few too many easy baskets, especially in transition. Turnovers didn't help us either (we had 17 to their 11, ouch!). Our deep shot disappeared today on just 4-14 at home. Hopefully we'll learn NOT to live and die on the 3-ball come tourney time from today's lesson. You have to be able to execute in the half-court without depleting the shot-clock and being forced to jack-up 3's all day. Of course, take what you're given and let the defense generate 'easy' fast-break opportunities.

Up next, the final regular-season game on the road in Happy Valley. That won't be easy. None are in conference this time of year. Still, at 23-7 (11-6 in conference) I like the direction the team is heading. We didn't lie down and rollover against Sparty today who's poised for another deep run to Detroit and the FINAL 4.

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