You had everything going for you. A CBS national TV audience, your Chicago alumni base out in full force, and a Gonzaga team playing a short turn around early in the morning (for them). And how do you respond? You sleepwalk through the first 10 minutes and find yourself down by 20. Then, mounting a furious comeback to actually take the lead, you play the final 6-8 minutes like you’ve already won the game. And you lose. This is Illini Basketball.
At the beginning of the season we predicted more losses for this team than last year’s edition but a more dangerous team come tourney time. Well, now it’s time to acknowledge that the tourney in question is likely to be the NIT. This precisely what local scribes Tupper and Supine wrote after the game. One point I agree with from the Tupper article is that some blame needs to go to the coaching staff. How do you not have your guys up for game like yesterday’s? Why do you stay man-to-man when you can’t guard the other team in the post? Why don’t you play other guys to shore up the interior? Weber sound frustrated and annoyed in the post-game, which is pretty much how the fan-base feels today. But unlike the rest of us, he’s the guy who can actually do something about it.
Five points in your frigid pentagram:
- Tisdale got zero calls by those refs, and two of those post-jockeying fouls (including his fifth) were absolutely atrocious, but his lack of minutes/effectiveness are symptoms of a larger problem: he’s still not strong enough or savvy enough. The big French dude (much like the guy from Georgia a few weeks back) started initiating contact at the freethrow line and was thus able to post six feet from the hoop. You don’t think the other Big 10 coaches have noted this? Take it from a former undersized rec league postman, you start the bumping with your knees, then you use your hips, thighs, and butt, and your arms and shoulders should be an afterthought. That’s how you establish or deny position. But you know what? Battling in the post is a lot of thankless hard work, so…
- Why not use Semrau and/or Simpson? They’re both bigger and wider than Tisdale and Davis and could prove effective in the classic Earvin Small/Robert Bennett role, ie smash-and-board. Yet these two guys are so far down the end of the bench they’ve barely sniffed a minute since we started playing real games. Why? Because of the dreaded Weber hierarchical pecking order, in which he only trusts 7-8 players and seems loathe to make any changes. What I would do is sit Semrau and Simpson down and show them some video of Bill Laimbeer and Horace Grant (pre-jump shot) and say “this is your role now guys”. Whichever one wins the spot goes into the rotation immediately.
- How do we get more energy to start the game? Easy, start Jordan and/or Dominique. Jeff Jordan helped spearhead the defense during that run, and Dominique, in addition to hitting all kinds of shots, was running around after loose balls and generally being a pest (his post D sucks too, however). After these last three games, Weber has commented in the postgame interview, “maybe I need to make some changes”. Maybe? Coaches in general and Weber in particular always seem so hesitant to change things up these days. Two theories on this: 1) it illustrates that the coach’s earlier judgement and conclusions on who should be playing weren’t correct – and you can’t have that, and 2) the continued fragile psyche of today’s pampered athletes. What would I do? Start Jordan and Keller in place of the two freshmen, who are now on double-not-so-secret rebound probation, because…
- The guards have to rebound. Let’s throw out a few names of past Illini guards: Kendall Gill, Richard Keene, TJ Wheeler, Chester Frazier, Frank Williams, Doug Altenberger, Glenn Blackwell. Some of these guys were great players, some were role-players, but if you go back and look you’ll find they all averaged 4-6 rebounds a game. A look at the stats from yesterday tells us that Brandon Paul (he of the explosive leaping) pulled down exactly one rebound yesterday. McCamey grabbed three boards. DJ had four in reduced minutes (good for him). But not good enough in total. There’s really no excuse for Paul. Illini fans have compared him to Kendall and D-Wade, but those two guys both hit the boards. Until he shows something other than the ability to jack up three-pointers and jump really high, he’s coming off the bench if I’m in charge.
- Why did we let Gonzaga close the gap at the end of regulation? Two reasons: fatigue and ‘clock management’. You tend to get tired when you have to mount a furious 21 point comeback, but it doesn’t help matters when Coach leans heavily on the same players. Mike Davis was clearly out of gas (especially in overtime), and Keller and D-Mac also looked worn down. Again, Coach, please, adjust your bench rotation. This at least contributed to the Illini tendency to shoot long jumpshots during the final stretch (at a time when the Zags were down 6-8 points and you knew they were going to make a final run) when they should have been playing through post and driving the lane. We also reverted to the classic ‘clock management’ ball of last year, ie pass it around on the perimeter until 10 seconds on the shot clock then shoot a bad shot. Thus we became passive, thus we lose momentum. To make matters worse Gonzaga ran the exact same pick-play for Matt Bouldin towards the end and we could not stop it.
Next up for Illinois, three games against the perceived lower tier of the Big 10: Iowa, Indiana, and Penn State. Lose any one of those three and you can officially kiss your fleeting NCAA aspirations goodbye.