Illini a work in progress
I had hoped that Greg Taylor was right. I had hoped that Illinois
would be farther along by now. I had hoped that they were looking to
run the table on the non-conference portion of their schedule. But
fate would not allow it. Injuries, suspensions, player rotations,
perhaps even chemistry let to a rare home loss versus Maryland and a
tough road loss at Arizona. The sad thing to me about those games is
that they were both very winnable. Going into both I felt like the
Illini might be overmatched, but after seeing what transpired I felt
like we let two games just get away. Albeit Illinois was not at full
strength, but when victories are on the cusp and just need to be
snatched you have to find a way to bring home the bacon.
All that led us to the annual Braggin’ Rights game down in one of my
favorite all-time towns, St. Louis. Again, I had hoped that Greg
Taylor would be correct. He promised me an Illini victory of 11
points in a game I wouldn’t have to worry too much about. However, I
fooled him. I had researched ol’ Mizzou and I knew they would be
much better this time around than they were during the Quin Snyder
years. I’ll never understand those Snyder years as long as I live.
How does somebody hang around coach K for all those years and then
get his kids to play some of the most uninspired hoops you have ever
seen? I’ve gotta tell you…I have no answer for you. I can tell you
that if I ever had the chance to coach a D-I team they would’ve come
out on the court breathing fire or there would’ve been some arrests
made! One of the two of us, either the team or the coach would’ve
never made it out alive if they did some of the things his players
did there. But that’s all water under the bridge now. Wherever coach
Snyder is today, I wish him well…he seemed like a nice guy. So nice
in fact, that I lobbied for him to get a lifetime contract at Mizzou…I
guess my Missouri connections are all washed up!
Enter Mike Anderson and 40 minutes of hell. If you think I was
scared of that then you’re starting to get to know me. After
watching my beloved Orange and Blue toss 22 turnovers into the
stands against the Belmont Bruins, I shuttered to think of what
catastrophes laid in wait for the unsuspecting Illini. I predicted
that this game would be an old-fashioned barn burner, a white
knuckler and a game destined to go down to the wire. I don’t study
the game like I once did, so Greg’s predictions are a lot better and
a lot more accurate than mine. But when I am right I just like to
casually move on.
Somehow Illinois found a way to win 73-70. Did I mention that I
thought it would be a close game? When Missouri got the ball back
with less than 5 seconds to go with a chance to tie I wished more
than anything that Greg had been correct. Again, the Illini found
some way to pull out the victory and once again the Seniors went
home with a sweep. But in one year Missouri got closer than they had
in quite awhile.
What we learned
I had been looking for some fight in the Illini all year. In fact,
even though they were down a body or two in the before-mentioned
losses, I thought some grit might have gotten past the Terps and the
Wildcats. I just didn’t see the moxy, the savvy that I have come to
expect of the team I know as the Illinois Fighting Illini. That
Tuesday night, I saw it once again…it had returned with a vengeance!
I loved the affect that Brian Randle has on this team and if he can
continue to ratchet things up a notch or two the whole unit can get
I loved Jamar Smith coming out in the 2nd half and lighting the lamp
when his team needed him most.
I loved the fact that even though the haters love to dump on Rich
McBride he buried two crucial late-game free throws and played some
great defense through out the night. So, save your breath if you’re
waiting for some hating from me. In fact, I will continue to support
the young man as long as he continues to strive to give his best
effort and from my chair that is what I see him doing!
I loved that Bruce Weber must have had Greg Taylor’s microphone
pumped into his coaching seat. Whenever Greg was desperately pled
for the ball to be dumped down into the low post…Shaun Pruitt would
invariably get it and deposit it into the basket! We both agreed
that that was one of our favorite actions of the night.
I loved the fact that even though I panicked about our poor passing
and the fact that we were prone to turn the ball over often,
Illinois did not turn the ball over in the back court until the
final 5 seconds of the game. Hey Mayfield, how’s that for mental and
physical toughness? I stood corrected…but, I have to say that it was
a thing of beauty to behold. And if Illinois continues to rise to
the occasion when I doubt them, I will be one of the happiest
campers in the country…okay, at least I’ll be one of the happiest
campers behind the cheese curtain.
Illinois out-rebounded the Tigers 39-31 including an impressive 17-9
edge on the offensive glass, which led to the Illini outscoring
Mizzou 22-11 in 2nd chance points. They only turned it over 14 times
against Missouri’s vaunted press and yet made 14 assists (which is
much tougher in just the half court offense) and produced a whopping
12 steals of their own! Four players reached double figures in
scoring while the Tigers had only one. And a lot of this was
accomplished while the Illini had their starters sitting on the
bench with foul trouble.
[to top of second column]
Some final things learned
Mike Anderson is a pretty good coach and a pretty good recruiter.
Illini fans will love him when he beats a certain team in red and
I’ll never figure out college hoops officiating. Just when I thought
I was finally getting a bead on it…I had some guys right in front of
me call some things I didn’t see and vice versa and no I wasn’t up
in the nosebleeds, I was as far away from the action as I am from my
computer monitor right now. I have been calling for this situation
to be addressed as I have a friend in the home office. He thinks
little can be done, which tells me little will be done. And in the
words of the great Les Evans, “That’s too bad.” I do really like
Steve Welmer and maybe he could do some clinics for the other guys
around the country.
I learned that once again what a great coach Illinois has. Greg
asked me post-game who my MVP of the game was…and I said, Bruce
Weber. He had his team prepared for the ambush and his attention to
detail probably won it for his troops. His in-game adjustments and
player match-ups are just excellent. I loved the press-breakers he
employed and how he arranged things to get the ball in the hands of
the people he wanted handling it. So again, if the haters are
looking for some hate here, I’m happy to disappoint you. As long as
Coach Weber is at the helm, it will be the one constant that gives
me some comfort and some hope in virtually any and all contests.
I still think that the Illini are a work…and I’m not even gonna say
in progress, because they still have so far to go. Great coaching
can only take a team so far. At some point, players have to execute.
The next four months would be a great time for that to happen. I
still say that Wisconsin and Ohio State will be tough to beat no
matter how much progress we eventually make. Starting the Big Ten
season at Michigan before entertaining the Buckeyes to start the
campaign is way too much for me. However, Bruce resorting to form
hasn’t shown much yet, so maybe the boys will come out and do
something amazing. My 2007 vote is certainly behind them!
Typical Cards in the off-season
By now you know what the World Champion Cardinals will do in a
traditional off-season. They will count their money. This year
they’re counting while looking at their World Champion trophy. One
thing you know they won’t be doing is signing an ace pitcher on the
free agent market. IN the meantime they’re losing some of the
starters in their rotation. NLCS MVP Jeff Suppan has inked with the
Milwaukee Brewers…I was hoping to see him in Miller Park, but not
like this! Mark Mulder and Jeff Weaver will probably soon be gone to
the highest bidder too. The Cards have managed to sign Kip Wells and
Adam Kennedy, one of my all-time favorite Cardinals, but have they
done enough to keep up with their divisional rivals? I think not…but
I felt the exact same way last winter and it all ended up in a
World’s Championship…so maybe we’re on course after all. I’ll check
with Greg (because he’s elated at all the Cub signings) and we’ll
have more “hot stove” talk later.
Congrats to the Railers on a great start to the season…we hope they
keep it up. The staunch defense they’ve been playing is remarkable
and if defense doesn’t slump maybe they’re on to something. I am
amazed that no one is doing a book or video series on the way Coach
Alexander teaches the ball 1-2-2 press and the 1-2-2 zone. The way
he teaches concepts, angles, rotations, etc. is as fine a techniques
as I have ever encountered in the game. You’ve heard me say
something like that before, so I’ll give it a rest for now.
Speaking of Alexanders
Did you notice what a great job former Railer Geoff Alexander and
former Lincoln College Coach Joe O’Brien did against Illinois last
Thursday? O’Brien is head coach of Idaho State and Alexander is his
assistant and late in the 2nd half of their game with the Illini
last Thursday, they were ahead by six. Greg Taylor who was at the
scene, said they coached a whale of a game!
Well, there’s probably lots of other subjects I should weigh-in on
today, but I’ll wait for another time. Here’s hoping that all loyal
LDN will have a God-blessed 2007!
Have a great year everybody!!!
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