A long, long, long, weekend of watching Hoops: the NCAA tourney, the Illinois State High School Finals. In the Big Dance I have 12 of 16 teams remaining, and all my Final Four. Didn’t do a particularly good job picking the upsets, and I overestimated the power of the Big 10 (as usual). See, I drank the ‘we play defense in the Big 10’ kool aid, and it turns out the good teams from other schools play some D too. Also, a lot of these teams have playmakers. You know, guys who can do stuff of the dribble…
Which brings me to the Illinois High School 3A and 4A finals. In 3A, Champaign Centennial looked very much like a well-coached team with good athletes and two very good playmakers in Kinney and Rice. If the Illini were where they need to be in terms of talent, maybe they could run motion like Centennial, and if I were Bruce Weber, I’d offer Rayvonte Rice a scholarship right now. Rice has the body and mentality of a linebacker and the skills of a 2-guard. I was glad to see the downstate boys win. In 4A, the games were a lot more frantic and a lot less disciplined. In the end Whitney Young won. Not coincidentally, they seemed to be the the best coached fundamentally sound team. Waukegan, with Illini recruit Jereme Richmond played Arkansas style with little regard for running any kind of offense. In fact, in the 4th quarter, they flashed the stats and Waukegan only had 5 assists. 5 assists. It was one pass and shoot it, and Richmond, their biggest and most effective player, looked frustrated. He needed the ball in the post at least 12 to 15 times. Instead he seemed content to make moves from the wing. The good news is Jereme is the kind of get-your-shot athlete Illinois sorely needs; the bad news is, he has another year of high school.
Illini fans should also take heart in two recruits competing in the finals of the dunk contest. Myers Leonard, 6-11 junior from Robinson, showed good hops and athleticism. Joe Bertrand from Sterling won the contest with an acrobatic dunk that incorporated a backflip. Yeah, Bertrand will look good in Orange & Blue.
Back to the NCAAs. A theme emerged as the weekend neared its close. You have to have excellent guards and someone who can rebound (well, that’s not new), but you also have to be able to execute in more than one fashion. You need several defensive wrinkles, such as a press or ocassional match-up zone. You need different looks on offense and the ability to take advantage of transition. You can’t play the same way all the time. Watch the games this weekend and tell me I’m wrong – I dare you. Hopefully Coach Weber has been paying attention also, because Illinois has become stagnant and predictable. We appreciate the way he figured out the how to win this year, an excellent job of hiding multiple weaknesses and making role players effective, but that approach won’t get you to the second week of the tourney and beyond. And with guys like Bertrand, Richmond, Leonard, and others coming in, with more maturity from the returnees, the second week and beyond becomes the objective.