For Fighting Illini fans, the weekend was a tale of programs moving in opposite directions. Friday night we were treated to the rare West Coast swing as the football team lost another close game to California powerhouse Fresno State, 25-23. Then Saturday, the basketball team took the floor in Seattle to decisively beat Gonzaga in a “neutral site” matchup, 73-61. So, in review: sell Zook, buy Weber.
The football team came out very aggressively against Fresno, and the Bulldogs deftly used that against them with a series of draws, screens, and short passes to move down the field and score on the first drive. It didn’t help that the field was in terrible condition and the Illini players couldn’t seem to keep from falling down. On offense, Fresno stacked 8, 9, and yes on one play 10 men in the box to stop Leshoure and the running game. And it was working. Meanwhile, Scheelhaase was running for his life everytime he dropped back to pass (which wasn’t often), and before they knew it, Illinois was down 16-0. We’ve seen this before – lack of execution or emotion leading to a terrible start. In this case it looked like the team was fired up and Fresno gameplanned against it. And it doesn’t help when you have no passing game.
As has often been the case this year, the Illini settled down and battled back. Partly due to finally spreading the field and completing some passes on offense. Partly because Fresno turned conservative and tried to run (their passing game killed us). The defensive backs played very soft and seemed horrified they were going to fall down again – it looked like a snow game. Meanwhile, special teams played poorly – miscues and penalties led to horrible field position.
Big mistakes and/or questionable calls hurt us in the 4th quarter. Yes, the 3rd down penalty on Bellamy was a poor call, but all he had to do was get his head up and play the ball and he likely gets the interception (that’s twice he’s cost us big in the 4th quarter; refer to the Minnesota game…). The ridiculous spot on 4th down and subsequent refusal of the replay official to turn the play over was inevitable. This is why no one wants to play WAC teams on the road. Down go the Illini, hello Texas bowl and a mediocre Big 12 team in Baylor.
The venerable one notes Illinois is 1-5 in games decided by seven points or less, and if you go back in Zook’s tenure, you’ll find a similarly dismal record in close games in every season but the Rose Bowl year. This seems to come down to those mistakes we so often see, not holding guys accountable, and inability to execute when it really counts. I believe this starts at the top. Zook often seems unsure and slow to the decision in short-game/high pressure situations, and this has to trickle down. If for no other reason, this is why I’m ready to see him go.
Unless we get lucky (see Rose Bowl year), we will continue to lose these close games. So how about it, rich alums? Who wants to step up and buy out the contract? What, no takers? You mean you don’t want Ron Guenther doing another one-man search committee? One silver lining to a 6-6 year that should have been 7-5 or even 8-4 (should beat Minnesota and Fresno State; yes, we got lucky and played Penn State at the right time), there are likely to be fewer AD’s sniffing around Paul Petrino, and despite our anemic passing game, I like that guy.
Meanwhile, Bruce Weber has the hoops team in fine position heading into the showdown with Mizzou. A couple of tuneup games and final exams and it’s down to St. Louis to face a Top 20 Tigger team. You have to like the variety of offensive weapons the Illini can deploy, and anyone can admire the ball movement and perimeter shooting that was on display in the 2nd half against Gonzaga. Tisdale finally did what we’ve been begging for – he took a bruising bigman out on the arc and bombed away. With Billy Cole and DJ also hitting, that was the game.
Another development should give us even more encouragement – the defensive progress. DJ locked down the Zag’s leading scorer Steven Gray, and after Elias Harris hit some easy baskets, Weber put Jereme Richmond on him and the freshman proceeded to block a shot, get low and move his feet, and generally frustrate him out of the game. Richmond had a similar stretch of D against the Tarheels earlier in the week. Meanwhile, Myers Leonard showed why he’s not yet ready for primetime; he still doesn’t understand positioning and timing. But Leonard and Richmond are only going to get better, which bodes well under the basket.
The only other defensive wrinkle this team needs is a little 2-3 zone to protect Tisdale and crowd bruising scorers like the Zag’s Sacre, but Weber equates zone with the Anti-Christ so we’re not likely to see it. Opposing teams will continue to try to go down low against the Illini, and we can only hope that we don’t have too many off nights with the jumpshots.
With McCamey and Richmond and Brandon Paul’s progression, you start to see some guys who can slash and draw fouls, even if Richmond is the only real post-threat. Maybe Tisdale will still prove effective down low in certain situations, but I’d rather get him out away as a deep-shooting decoy to unclog the lane.
As the weekend reiterated, watching basketball is a lot more enjoyable for Illini fans. Sure, I’ll sit down to watch the Texas Bowl – maybe even go to a watch party. But no way am I carting the family down there – not with this mistake-prone team.