It’s been nine days since Illinois’ improbable win over Ohio State, and the Orange and Blue are back on the court tonight at Penn State. They are about to begin a key stretch of games that will tell us a lot about where this team truly stands. Just like Michigan State is better than it’s early season losses, just like Indiana isn’t nearly as good as their impressive home wins indicated, these Illini are tough to figure.
Brandon Paul’s awesome performance against the Buckeyes hid a lot of warts. This is still a team that plays uneven defense, gives up way too many turnovers, and can look downright awful on offense. On the other hand, they win close games, play hard, and have some of the better athletes at their positions in the country with Myers Leonard and Paul.
Bruce Weber and Co. have six more home games, which you should win but never know. And by my count, four toss-up road games, where you at least have a chance to win. If the Illini could somehow get ten more wins, they’d be looking at a share of the Big 10 and a high seed. Seven or eight wins are more likely. Six or less is a sign of implosion.
Much of the coming success or lack thereof depends continuing improvement by key players and the health of Sam Maniscalco and others. If Sam can play again, it opens up options. If he’s severely limited or someone else gets hurt, all bets are off. We also know the Weber will not change the offense, and that we are stuck with the motion. Again. So the only hope there is they avoid the excruciatingly long droughts, somehow pass better, and shoot well against the good teams.
Let’s check in on Beemsville’s pre-season keys to the season and see where we are…
- Leonard steps up – Myers has certainly stepped up. He’s avoided foul trouble and dominated stretches of games. He still has lots of holes in his post skills, he’s immature, and he overcompensates his foul tendency by not playing defense at all at times, but he’s become Illinois’ best player.
- The Illini become a fearsome pressure team – This hasn’t really happened. They play really good defense at times, but they’re not elite at this point. Breakdowns in when to pressure and when not to have led to a frustrating number of layups and bad fouls. The Illini need to improve defensively to make noise in March.
- Paul finds his role – The jury’s out on this one. Brandon was great offensively his last time out, and he’s had some solid efforts. In fact, he’s far and away the hustle-points leader (he also plays more minutes than nearly everyone). He rebounds, steals, blocks, and draws the toughest defensive assignments. He also leads the team in turnovers, horrible passes, and bad shot decisions. BP3 does it all. He just needs to do most of it a little better.
- Freshmen play well – This one is hard to rate. Abrams is improving into a solid sixth man and option. Egwu and Myke Henry have had their moments. But other than Tracy, they’re not playing as much or as well as we’d like. Weber has shortened the rotation, excluding Mike Shaw, and could do so again down the stretch.
- Winning Time – We noted how many close games the Illini lost the last few years. This year they’ve turned that around. The only close loss was against Missouri. They’ve won the rest of the close ones. This is testament to the will of the players and guys not shrinking after the final timeout. Because of how bad the team can play at times, they need to continue to control Winning Time.