Hoopster Time


This evening the Fighting Illini begin their 2011-12 basketball season against Loyola-Chicago.  It’s the first in a series of games against lesser opponents with the goal of building confidence and cohesion on this young team.  The schedule is weak – not Syracuse weak – but soft enough to pile up some wins before the Big 10 begins.  And this makes sense because  the two Mikes, McCamey, and Bill Cole have graduated.  Jereme Richardson, who might have been the leader this year instead finds himself in trouble and out of basketball.  Because Bruce Weber knows he needs to somehow get this team to the NCAA tournament –  both to show well for the new AD and to impress upon important recruits that the program is headed in the right direction and can be a national contender again.

If you look at the schedule you can see a roadmap to 22 or 23 wins and an upper division conference finish.  Win a game or two in the Big 10 Tourney and you’re looking at a mid-level seed in the big dance and the chance to make some noise in March.  That would be the ideal.  You can also see the team struggling, losing games they should win (especially if senior guard Sam Maniscalco can’t go) and fighting to get above .500.  So the question becomes – what has to happen for these Illini to succeed?

We have to start with  a couple of key assumptions:  the team has depth and athleticism and Coach seems to have instilled a play-hard ethic.  They lack skill, savvy, experience in key positions, and don’t seem to have a star player or go-to guy.  They should be able to play defense the way Weber wants it played – for the first time in years.  The motion offense will continue to bog down and become predictable towards the end of the year (we don’t like it, but Coach does not change, so we won’t rehash our criticism of the motion again), but maybe Maniscalco, Paul, and the others can add some new wrinkles.  I do like the new found willingness to throw it into the post  I thought I observed in the exhibitions.

So based on these assumptions, what are the signposts to success?

less hack, more attack

  • Leonard steps up.  Everyone who follows this team knows about Meyers Leonard’s potential.  He’s a superb athlete at 7’1″, with strength, speed, and decent shooting skills.  If he becomes the go-to guy by the end of the year, the Illini could be pretty good.  Right now he still lacks low post skills, although he has some decent offensive moves.  I’m talking about the dark arts of the post-man – the ability to feel angles on the block, to get low and nudge and push with the lower body, controlling space, drawing fouls, and avoiding fouls on defense.  Don’t really know how much of this can be taught and learned in a given time, but Meyers needs to acquire the post-man repertoire.  This is a big reason we were advocating hiring former Illini post-warrior Deon Thomas as an assistant coach…  but anyway…  Leonard has looked good against DIII teams in limited minutes.  He appears more mature and is saying the right things, and the coaching staff will ride him hard (much like they did with McCamey).  If he makes progress he can play with any center in the country.  And that would be fun to watch.
  • The Illini become a fearsome pressure team.  This is certainly one of Bruce’s objectives, and his early practices have been bloody, bruising, and combative.  It helps to have depth and athleticism, but even more important is the mindset – the chip on the shoulder – and the team-first mentality.  If the team can acquire that, they could become the kind of team others don’t want to play.  Weber’s SIU teams played that way, and so did the Final Four squad.  Full court pressure should be part of the equation
  • Paul finds his role.  Many have opined that junior wing Brandon Paul should be the top scorer.  Maybe.  He will have more leadership responsibilities, and the coaches want him to be a complete player who defends, rebounds, passes, and makes good decisions.  Last year he had a tendency to chuck it too quickly – he seemed overly concerned about getting his shots.  This year he should get as many shot attempts as he wants, which hopefully leads to better selection.  Brandon’s versatility may lead to confusion early on.  He will probably play some point guard in spots as Maniscalco’s ankle limits his play and may have trouble transitioning  between point and wing mentality.  The sooner he figures this out, the better off the team will be.
  • Abrams and Sam

    Freshmen play well.  With six freshmen on the team and so many minutes from last year gone, the new guys will have to play.  The exhibitions have provided glimpses of goodness for nearly all of them.  Nnanna Egwu will need to settle down and battle inside without fouling too much.  Myke Henry needs to find his shooting touch.  Ibby Djimde and Devin Lankford look like redshirt candidates, but that can quickly change if injuries occur.  Mike Shaw looked tough against the DIII teams.  He gobbled rebounds and loose balls and was very physical – just what the coaches hoped he would provide.  If he can just provide physical minutes and hit some garbage buckets this year he’s well on his way.  Maybe the best development among the freshman has been Tracy Abrams.  His hard-nosed play and quickness were as advertised, but even better has been his decision making and ability to initiate the offense.  The team is going to need him to play starter’s minutes and hit a few jumpers.  Coach Weber loves his bulldog mentality.

  • Winning time.  Because of the inexperience and youth, this team will give up big runs and likely find ways to lose games they should win.  But this cannot become a pattern like it did the last couple of years.  McCamey certainly won some games for the Illini at the end, but those teams were far more likely to collapse in the final few minutes.  This year’s team needs to somehow develop a knack for closing out games.  That lockdown mentality on defense will help, but you also need to hit shots and draw fouls.  The motion offense predictability factor is at least partially to blame for the Illini’s struggles in winning time, but much of it comes down to decisions and clutch mentality.   This was supposed to be where Sam Maniscalco stepped in.  Will he be healthy enough to do it?  Can Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson hit in the clutch.  How about pounding it into Leonard – can he make free throws?  How will the freshmen react at winning time?  We shall see soon enough.
It will be a much different team to watch this year, and if Weber is the coach we hope he is, it could be fun.  But if you want to watch this team early, you’ll need tickets or a fast internet connection and a $15 a month subscription for streaming content, because the first several games don’t appear to be on TV.  And here we thought the Big 10 Network would put an end to that nonsense…

3 thoughts on “Hoopster Time

  1. The Rube CANNOT overstate how disappointed he is that he has to wait several days to see the games after they’ve been played due to a…uhm…not fast internet connection.

    With that out of the way The Rube will expound a bit on Mr. Ville’s comments. Meyers Leonard heretofore reffered to as Leo will be key to this years team. Not just rebounding and scoring, but providing a defensive stopper at the back end of our man to man. Not that The Big Noodler Mike Tisdale was horrible, but lets be honest….that bumpkin wasn’t necessarily the most intimidating presence. As of the date The Rube is writing this, The Beloved are 2-0 and Leo is averaging 5-6 blocks per game….sure we haven’t played a team with a good big man yet, but honestly other than 2 or 3 in the league this year we won’t once we get into B1G play have to worry as much about that. In the pre-season I’m sure Misery will have a decent big and I think that Bald freak is still at Gonzaga so Leo will get his chance to proove himself before he gets hosed with horrible foul calls against tOSU and the Sullinger (that kid is the Jordan of college basketball…gets all the calls and rarely is the whistle blown on him). But The Rube digresses. Leo along with Banana (Egwu) will hopefully prove to be a tough tandem for opponents to deal with as they both get up and down the floor VERY well and Banana doesn’t have a shut off…..period…The Rube will stand by his prediction that Leo will break an opponenets hand or at least finger(s) with a dunk before his career is over as he’s vicious going to the rim.

    Tyler Griffey may be the overall key to this team. With DJ struggling to find consistancy from his jumper and BP3 trying to do too much Griff may be our go to guy for big shots. The Rube needs to get a message to Griff to wear the knee high socks and some Chuck Taylors as Griff is a throw back kind of guy. He looks the part at least. Plus, he’s long been considered the best pure shooter on the team by the coaching staff. If he can chip in with 5-7 rebounds and a couple blocks per game to go along with some consitant 3-7 or 2-4, 3 point shooting every night he’ll be HUGE for this team. Griff should also get a few post moves and putbacks as he seems to have a knack for the ball now that he’s getting consistant PT sans Onion Rings (Mike Davis). Bottom line from Leo, Banana and Griff we need 30 pts and 15 rebounds to go along with 4-6 blocks per game to win.

    At the guards we’ll group them together. DJ and BP3 will get all the minutes they want as Weber is loyaly to a fault with guys no matter how badly they’re shooting. BP will be key as will DJ in leading the team both in play and verbally along with SamMan (Maniscalco). The Rube likes SamMan’s nononsense approach and hardnosed do more with less talent style of play. Reminds The Rube of…..well The Rube back in his glory days! ;^) Need to get more assists, less tournovers and so much defensive pressure from these 3 that opposing guards are completely stifled. Can’t wait to see SamMan and TAB (Tracey Abrams Barackus or Bulldog haven’t decided yet) match up against that little Nazi over at tOSU who is second only to the Sullinger in the league for fouls called for and against! Should be some EPIC battles! Need for BP3 and DJ to average 25 ppg between them and have 3 assists to every turnover they have. In additon it shouldn’t be out of the question to expect these two to get 2 steals per game as well as 6-8 rebounds between them. SamMan and TA need to average 10-12 assists between them and make more than they miss from the outside as well as take turn pressuring the ball until they wear out every game. No to very little turnovers (mostly TAB) and making sure the motion doesn’t stagnate.

    Finally, the rest of the yahoos. JoeB (Bertrand) needs to show us some of what he was doing on the Italy trip when he led the team in scoring. Need him to slash, rebound and wreak havoc on defense, he’s our first line of defense for a subpar BP3 or DJ from game to game. The Rube has a sneaking supicion that JoeB will either get forgotten by Weber (see lots of different players over Weber’s tenure thus far) or will hit a hot streak and go nuts for 6-8 minutes and then get forgotten. Give us Head! Crandall is following in his brothers foot-steps screwing up off court, lets hope he gets it together as well as Luther did before this years out as he could be the best athelete on the team not named Leo. Head can provide awesome defense and streaky shooting. If Crandall gets back on the floor this year he’ll hopefully provide some good defense and an attitude that this team has lacked the last couple years of nastiness. Shaw….The Rube likes Shaw’s game. Does the dirty work, scraps for loose balls, rebounds plays good D, can make a layup through contact and will not care one iota if he doesn’t get a shot…refreshing after what we’ve seen at the 4 spot over the last several years. Shaw will spell Griff and bring a different facet to the 4 spot. More hardnosed than Griff, but not as skilled Shaw needs to bring his lunchpail every game and prepare for not just the mental brutality, but the physical banging the B1G will offer him this year. Most Freshmen Bigs back down from that their first year…don’t think A Mike Shaw will. Mike Henry never met a shot he didn’t like…reminds The Rube of…well Mr. Ville! However, unlike Mr. Ville Henry will be automatic once the game slows down for him a bit. Having been injured etc. he’s a few weeks to a month behind the rest of the freshmen, but The Rube has every confidence he’ll catch up. Could be a Glenn Rice type guy by the time he’s a Sr.! Ibby and Langford. Here is where The Rube will disagree with Mr. Ville. Ibby won’t redshirt…he’s our new banger 6’10” 245# and hasn’t been playing basketball long enough to know that he should back down from The Sullinger or (insert Wisky and or MSU football/basketball player here). Ibby could be an X factor if he can get some garbage baskets and use his weight and ALL his fouls to his and the teams best interest each game. I would have no qualms about Ibby even starting agains a Tosu and The Sullinger and let Ibby put his fatassness to the floor 3 or so times in the first 5 minutes…Maybe then when Leo or the Banana change their breathing patterns within 5 feet of The Sullinger they won’t get called for a foul!

    Bottom line is this team will be more fun to watch for a couple reasons. One, lower expectations….we’ll hear “This young Illini team” more often than “Nick Smith the tallest player in Illini history” and only sleightly less than the references to The Big Noodlers “6000 calorie a day diet.” They’ll win some they shouldn’t and lose some they shouldn’t, but should finish in the upper half of the B1G behind maybe Wisky, MSU, Purdont and Meatchicken? They’ll be the team others DON’T want to face in the Big Dance and again….Leo will break someones hand dunking the ball! Second, they should pressure and run more. With so many people that can play there is no reason someone should ever be on the floor longer than a minute or so and be out of gas….run run run, sub and run some more. Motion be damned! The Rube wants 4-5 Alley-oops per game, a touch for Leo EVERY time down the floor within 5 feet of the basket and if he gets what he wants The Rube will enjoy a 24-26 game winning season! If not…The Rube will still enjoy watching these kids grow and when they screw up…it won’t be for lack of effort or heart like it has been for the Passive Illini of the last few years.

    ~The Rube….out.

  2. I have returned to bring reason to a sometimes unreasonable lad. After cancun it is apparent to me that Bertrand should be starting over the human turnover – Paul. Also, while this team will go as far Leonard takes it, Sam will be the MVP. Only 5 games into his u of I career and I know already I’m going to miss him next year. Later

    PS the zook is cooked!

  3. Pingback: Illini on the Brink « Beemsville

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