Their pre-season publicity poster had the theme, Ready for the Dance, but like many in Illinois, we figured this inconsistent team would go one-and-out at the hands of ex-Coach #1. Instead the Fighting Illini looked as good as they have in months while dismantling Lon Kruger’s UNLV squad. Then, facing ex-Coach #2 in Bill Self, the team had the chance to make history and knock off a #1 seed. Had we been playing Pitt or Duke I’d have liked our chances, but the Jayhawks’ power in the post and physical ‘D’ proved too much.
Adding to the drama: news of Jereme Richmond’s stealth-suspension or whatever you call it. Not having one of your most talented players – even if he’s coming off the bench – is obviously bad. We’ve heard some rumors but will not add to them here. Suffice to say, we hope Jereme gets it together. He needs to realize basketball is a team sport, and part of being on the team is realizing everything you do has consequences for both the individual and the team. Weber has consistently given players who get into trouble second chances, and that seems to be the case here (otherwise JR would not have even traveled with the team). We will all just have to wait and see what comes of this.
Whether you were disappointed in this season overall (and I certainly was – my pre-season expectations were to compete at the top of the Big 10 and make the Sweet 16 with a chance to move on), you had to like the execution on Thursday and the effort on Sunday. But let’s just consider one more lost opportunity in the mix of recent results.
Had Illinois hung on to beat Michigan in the Big 10 tourney (or pulled out one or two of their many other late-game collapses), it very well could have been the Orange and Blue as the #8 seed in the West Regional instead of Michigan. That means it would have been the Illini taking on the Tennessee Volunteers in the first round. That would have given us the chance to put Bruce Pearl to the sword instead of Michigan. Think about that for a minute. How sweet would that have been. Hell, I’d rather have the opportunity to steamroll the dejected cheating Vols than to move up to a higher seed and an easier draw.
Regarding the actual games, Five points in your final Illini Hoops Pentagram for the season…
- Promising signs from Paul, DJ, and Crandall. Next year’s three returning guards showed signs of the future. Brandon Paul stuffed the stat sheet against Vegas, while DJ re-discovered his stroke and helped keep us in the game against KU. They still have a lot to improve upon, but these two can go into the off-season feeling better. Then there’s Crandall Head. He just looks like a gamer. Yes, his jumpshot needs a lot of work and he will defend better next year, but some of the plays he made in those games showed the kind of instincts and fearlessness this team will need.
- Tisdale and Davis stepped up their games. Davis has probably been the team’s best player the last two months, and he was all over the place both nights. Tisdale did all he could, knocked down some shots (but not enough of them, dammit) and grabbed a lot of rebounds. If a couple more Tis 3’s go in, you’re looking at a fight to the finish against the Jayhawks. It’s worth noting that one or both of these guys probably should have redshirted their freshman years, and if not for the well-documented recruiting misses and the Jamar Smith accident, we might have one of them back for next year. Another year of strength and toughness would have helped the Mikes.
- DMac should have forced the issue against KU. If a team hedges high on ball-screens to stop the pick-and-roll, you have to attack it. Especially if you have physical strength and handles (which DMac does). This was how Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan State, and Wisconsin all slowed him down. What did McCamey do? He bounced laterally off the screen, giving the guard time to recover, and continued to run the motion (same as he’s done all year). He should have put his shoulder into whichever Morris twins’ hip, drove, and forced a foul or more help every time until KU adjusted. Maybe the Motion offense doesn’t allow a guard to go straight to the hoop early in the shot clock. If so, another negative in the Motion column. Maybe McCamey has heard so often he needs to get his teammates involved he forget that this also includes driving, dishing, and loosening things up. Maybe the Coaching staff didn’t emphasize it, and if so big negative on them. But every single team that disrupted us the past two months employed just this tactic. You might think that either the Coaches or McCamey would try to counter this. And if you want to see the results of a point guard attacking off the high ball screen, look no further than VCU’s destruction of Purdue, where the little Rodriguez guard repeatedly turned the corner into the lane and either scored or assisted.
- The Motion giveth, the Motion taketh away. The UNLV game showed the motion at its best, with ball movement and passing leading to quality shots. Of course a big reason was UNLV’s style of scrambling and trapping, which opens up seams. Illinois was also able to run the break against the Rebels. Against Kansas, however, there were several stretches of futility. Part of this was KU’s strength underneath, part of it the way they focused on McCamey. However, the real problem with the Motion is how it becomes predictable as the game goes on. The supposed fluidity of the motion instead becomes one or two screens and passing it around the perimeter with little hope of getting anything going towards the basket. If you’re not hitting your jumpers, you’re done. Let’s just come out and say it: Weber needs to expand on this offense. The only time it’s worked really well was with Deron Williams running the point, and he’s a once in a generation player.
- The Defense came a long way. Against the Rebels and for about half the game against KU, Illinois was really good on defense. Stifling, even. Considering the lack of quickness on the floor at several positions, this was no mean feat. Considering the marginal-to-inept defense by these same players last year and earlier this season, this is a promising sign. We’ve criticized the coaches for their strict adherence to man-to-man, and you had to wince at how easily KU scored in the final 10 minutes once they figured out the two plays they needed to run (good coaching by Self, dammit). But a zone would have been disaster against the Jayhawks. The Illini did all they could considering the strength and quickness of the players. Next year, though, the team will have more athletes, better speed and quickness, and more physical strength (assuming no key departures). If they continue to employ the old-school Keady-style defensive principles, they should be a nasty defensive unit. This could lead to more steals, deflections, rebounds, and run-outs. And Illinois will need to be good defensively to win, because 75% of the offense and rebounding just finished their eligibility.