Echoing sentiments of the Illini Nation: This is beyond old. Illinois lost another close game to Northwestern, 71-70 , in a familiar refrain of unforced turnovers, missed shots, and lost opportunities. As we’ve been saying, for over a month now – the next time these Illini when a close game will be the first time since mid-November. You remember that one, right? Overtime win against Maryland on Nov. 19…
Now we’re looking like another bubble team heading towards March. Decatur’s Mark Tupper opines Illinois might need a 5-3 regular season finish to make it, which would mean stealing one on the road and beating Purdue at home. To me, that doesn’t seem likely. 4-4 would equal a 9-9 conference record. Then we’d need to see maybe two wins in the Big 10 tournament to avoid another NIT appearance. And that might be asking too much. To paraphrase the lyricist: Well, how did we get here?
You may recall way back in the summer, when we were hearing glowing reports about Mike Tisdale’s excursion with USA basketball, about Mike Davis and Tyer Griffey’s (remember him?) renewed efforts in the gym, about Crandall Head’s (remember him?) recovery and Jereme Richmond’s defensive instincts, the Beemsville Hoops Bureau got excited like everyone else. This was a tourney team, a team that could compete for a Big 10 title, a team that could make it past that first weekend in March… But we are also realists, and back in July we came up with three basic objectives the team would have to meet to be successful. One objective for the players, two for the coaching staff. They are:
- Build toughness/become tough. Teams bullied the Illini at the end of last year; the recipe for success was to beat on McCamey on the perimeter and overwhelm the slender front line.
More importantly, the team lacked the mental toughness to stop runs, make big shots, and close out tight games. Much was written about off-season commitment in the gym and weight room. But how do you increase grit, determination, cool-headed resolve? Aside from promising signs from Jereme Richmond, and to a lesser extent, Brandon Paul, according to this season’s results, apparently you don’t.
- Extend the rotation; find ways to play nine or ten guys. A big reason folks were optimistic was the apparent inclusion of young quality athletes. More good players would equal more competition, would equal lots of different looks and tactics come game time.
We were advocating the kind of line-change approach employed by Dayton when they bounced the Orange & Blue from the NIT or at least a Michigan State-type rotation that employs the majority of the roster at times. Mostly, we were doing this because we understood the limitations of the four seniors and were hoping to see the young guys bring some additional fire. Well, that would mean Coach Weber would have to adjust some of his fundamental principles and employ some different strategies. Yes, change from the coaching staff. Where are we with that? We have a seven man rotation that occasionally employs Myers Leonard as the eight man. Crandall Head? Tyler Griffey? Joe Bertrand? Nary a peek, other than garbage time…
- Change in-game strategies; expand offensive and defensive tactics. This objective is squarely on Bruce Weber and goes hand-in-hand with extending the rotation. For years we’ve seen late-season slides which we attribute directly to the monolithic strategies employed by Coach. It’s motion offense, man-to-man defense, and nothing else.
The problem with the offense is Big 10 coaches have scouted the tendencies and patterns for years, and by February they can stop the motion’s go-to plays. Shooting percentages and point totals go down. Players get frustrated. With no set plays to fall back on, by March the offense looks painful. On the other side, the insistence on nothing but man-to-man means opponents don’t have to prepare for anything else. It also ignores the quickness and strength deficiencies of certain players, who might be more productive and less foul prone in the occasional 2-3 or 1-3-1 zone. Even if it were only 8-10 possessions a game, you have to think adaptability would make a difference. And this is to say nothing of the idea of employing full-court pressure. But again, Coach would have to be willing to play more guys for this to work. He’d have to start teaching set plays in addition to the motion. He’d have to concede that zone are sometimes effective. And that would have had to have happened way back in September…
Have we seen that? Has the offense adjusted to the fact that the two starting post-men cannot, in fact, score in the post? Do we consistently get the ball to Richmond down low? Do we switch up the high pick-and-roll when teams start jamming and doubling D-Mac? Would zone looks confuse other teams like they appear to confuse our guys at times? Would a small pressing line-up yield some results?
The answer to this is we don’t know, because the Illini do the same things, game after game after game. The Northwestern loss a week after the Indiana loss shows how little has changed. And now this team is listing slowly towards another NIT bid. Should that occur, it will be time for some long and potentially painful discussions between the AD and Coach Weber. After the football team slipped into fail-mode, Coach Zook was forced to bring in new assistants and change his philosophy. And judging by the Texas Bowl and recent recruiting swing, it worked. The same standard should be applied to Weber and the basketball team.