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.

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