Pentagram: Illini Basketball Preview

chief_logoThe Fighting Illini 09-10 Basketball season tips off tonight against SIU-Edwardsville.  Coach Weber has four freshman to incorporate, three of which have already proven they will play (and Joseph Bertrand might be in that mix too if not for a knee injury), and his top three returning scorers in McCamey, Davis, and Tisdale.  Illinois has three more talented players coming in next year, and Weber deserves a lot of credit for his recent recruiting success.

But if the football team has taught us anything, it’s to be wary of the local hype surrounding the Illini.  Don’t get carried away with lofty prognostications.  That said, we’re optimistic about this year’s hoops team.  They will be fun to watch with young athletic players and depth on the bench.  The days of low-scoring milk-the-shotclock-and-hope offense should be behind us, and we won’t see many more games in the 40s and 50s (let alone that nightmare Penn State game in the 30s).

Last year’s team overachieved its way to a 24-10 record behind the grit of Chester Frazier and the scoring of the now-junior class.  So what do we see for this year?  Five points in the pentagram…

  • Who will stop the other guy? I’ve listened to the two exhibition games and the postgame chat with Coach has included the same lament: who’s going to guard?  Last year you could put Frazier on any non-post player and he would hold them down, frustrate them, and give the Illini a chance.  It was part of the gameplan.  This year, young DJ Richardson show signs of the stopper mentality, but you can’t expect him to be your lockdown guy.  Mike and Mike are both theoretically a year older, stronger, and wiser, so they should be better post defenders.  They’d better be…  Coach has toyed with the idea of a zone but has publicly stated he sees it as “giving in to the guys”, which doesn’t seem that helpful.  If you need to play zone to steal some minutes and protect your best players, figure out a way to do that.  And a little full-court pressure would add a wrinkle and take advantage of the depth.  But thinking about matching up with Evan Turner, Robbie Hummel, and Kalin Lucas – not fun…
  • Will we have a star this year? Weber’s teams have traditionally featured balanced scoring with about four guys averaging in low double-figures.  It’s a hallmark of his motion offense.  Will someone emerge this year as a primary threat?  The most likely candidates are Mike Davis and Demetri McCamey.  Davis could average 16-20 with a concerted effort to get him the ball and if he can grab a few more put-backs.  Judging from the exhibition games though, you wonder how the competition among the guards will affect his field goal attempts.  McCamey has the skills and talent to lead this team and dominate games – we’ve seen this since he was a freshman.  It might be best for the team if he averaged 15 a game but was the designated guy for tough shots and possessions.  From all the preseason news, it sounds like D-Mac has matured greatly and is ready to be that leader.
  • Rotation expansion – Since the Final Four team, Coach has been reluctant to play more than seven guys in his rotation.  We criticized him on this last year (it’s one reason why the team always seems so worn down in late February), and we will really stick him on it this year if it happens.  Depth should be a strength of this team, and nine or ten guys should expect to play.  If the Illini go up-tempo, press, and play to offensive strengths, an expanded rotation is a must.  Who fills out that rotation might change and vary until January.
  • Variation on offense – Another trend in recent years has been the stagnation of the vaunted motion offense late in the year.  I’ve complained about this often.  By the second pass in the Big 10, everyone knows where we like to pick and cut, and they shut us down.  The only time this hasn’t happened was when you had a true maestro in Deron Williams running the show.  So how does Weber rectify this?  Running some set plays, teaching the offense differently, changing his approach?  I’m really hoping we’ll see some signs of this.  You get really tired of hearing him lament, ‘they have to go cut and go screen someone’, as if his hands are tired.  Change your strategy, Coach, and don’t make excuses for the freshman.  You finally have guys who can dribble-drive and almost everyone can hit open jumpers.  If the offense bogs down late this year, it’s on the coaches.
  • How to spell success? Last year’s Illini exceeded expectations in the win column, but pretty much did as expected in March (they lost four of their last five).  Coach did a great job getting 24 wins and finishing in the upper half of the conference.  This year the Big 10 is the toughest deepest conference in the nation – it’s as good as it’s been in a decade.  To finish in the upper half, maybe with a shot at the title in the last two weeks should be the goal.  To do that, you’ll need to hold service at home and steal a few road games.  Your conference champion could very well have as many as five or six losses.  So if the team avoids major injuries and other meltdowns, they should be shooting for a chance to win the Big 10 tournament and make the Sweet 16.  We also want to extend the streak over Mizzou, avoid any non-conference losses in Champaign, and show well against Gonzaga in Chicago.  Whatever happens, it should be fun to see some new variations on the themes of the past few years, and with more talent on the floor and more on the way next year, we’re really looking forward to it.
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