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?
- 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.
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.