After that the Illini struggled at times but eventually
overpowered weaker competition. However, I was so far removed from
the team that I had no idea of what to make of them. It was time to
zoom in for a closer look at the exact time that the schedule got
stronger all of a sudden. We were worried for our lives... not our
physical lives, but that we might be staring a loss or two right in
the face. That's why I realized that we needed to go visit them as
soon as humanly possible. With a tournament looming on the horizon
the new Sears Centre, which is only an hour away or so, we
knew that God had provided a way for us to go and help our beloved
in any way we saw fit. Once again we helped steer them toward yet
another tournament championship, but it was anything but easy.
In fact, the game we saw with the Miami, Ohio, Redhawks could
have and should have been a loss in 101 different ways. We were
totally outplayed, out-hustled and outworked in almost every way.
However, in typical Bruce Weber fashion (BTW, it is something I love
about him and his teams), we kept grinding for 40 minutes. I wonder
if Weber played a lot of hockey growing up in Wisconsin. Because a
trademark of his teams is that they keep grinding... never
quitting... never giving up... no matter how bad the circumstances
or the situation may be. It's a good thing, because the Redhawks had
us on our heels.
Somehow we dug down and found something extra in our tank. Late
in the game, when Warren Carter turned and fired a jump hook that
clanged around before dropping, Illinois had its first lead of the
night since it led 2-1 in the opening minute. Chester Frazier
followed that up with a drive to the hoop that will make the Illini
banquet highlight reel. He went up with the ball in his right hand,
and when a defender contested it, he calmly switched it to his left
and then banked it in like poetry in motion. Those two guys don't
make those plays, we don't win... it's that simple.
Then Weber showed his coaching prowess once again. In the huddle,
he made a defensive switch regarding matchups. That led to Carter
frustrating the Redhawks and eventually getting perhaps the most
important rebound of the night and getting fouled in the process. He
made the first and missed the second. I don't know if the miss was
intentional, but it used up the remaining time, not affording Miami
a chance to get off a final shot, and the Illinois had fought back
and won an improbable contest 51-49.
What we learned
I think the game confirmed what I had been saying early on. The
Illini are a young team saddled with some debilitating injuries. It
will be a long time before this team has everyone back, in full
health and hitting its stride. There will be some high points (like
beating Bradley to win the Chicago Invitational -- didn't see it,
had to work) and there will likely be some low points along the way
Sometimes injuries can be a blessing in disguise... that happens
once every 100 years or so. This may have been the year of reckoning
on that count. Losing Jamar Smith and Brian Randle so early in the
season, on top of the four-game suspension to Rich McBride, created
a boatload of playing time that I haven't seen the Illini have in
years. Going into the year I thought that Illinois could slowly work
players like Trent Meacham, Brian
Carlwell and Richard Semrau into the lineup and slowly get their
feet wet. I wasn't expecting anything from Calvin Brock... and maybe
I was surprised, if not shocked, that he even hung around and didn't
What have these kids done? Nothing but come up big when needed
most. Sure, they have all had their struggles from time to time, but
they have all produced much more than anyone had reason to hope up
to this point. Brock has simply been sensational. Meacham took over
a couple of games. Carlwell has demonstrated that he has a monster
upside, and Semrau has more than held his own from the outset.
All of their production has dovetailed nicely with the emergence
of Chester "Chet" Frazier at the point guard. Frazier is getting
more comfortable every game and has begun to alleviate fan fears of
him committing too many turnovers. I know the Illini don't win the
Chicago tournament without him. And for his efforts he was awarded
the MVP trophy!
Rich McBride is back and has not found his rhythm quite yet, but
he will. And while the haters are quick to jump all over him, I
wonder if they noticed that he still is getting it done on the
defensive end more times than not. (I'll never understand the
hating. These are just kids. Doesn't anyone remember what that was
like? College basketball was just something we did for fun.)
Shaun Pruitt has had his moments, too. When he spreads out and
makes quality moves, he's pretty hard to stop.
And of course I can't say enough about Warren Carter. I know the
haters love to attack him too, but I have always liked him. For one,
he's been especially gracious and friendly to me. He always has time
for any question even though he knows that the LDN will not likely
be confused with Sports Illustrated. He is a well-mannered,
articulate kid that I only wish good things for. Early in the season
he reminds me of the way former Illini Chris Gandy came into his own
during his senior year. If Carter can continue to explode onto the
scene, the Illini's upside may even be greater than I can realize at
Not sure what Marcus Arnold's role will be, but he needs to be
ready to give quality minutes and help the "bigs" rotation. Throw in
a few nice minutes from C.J. Jackson, another one of my favorites,
and the recipe is almost complete.
[to top of second column]
The Illini are frustratingly inconsistent. For them to be
successful, the game plan starts on the defensive end of the floor.
When they want to get down and dirty, they play intense, aggressive,
lock-down defense. However, when they get upright, start reaching
and --something that drives me crazy -- start chasing, they couldn't
stop one of our Upstart hoops teams at the church. When injuries
make you thin, you can't have guys in foul trouble all night. Also,
in a team defense concept, everyone must help everyone else. When
Illinois does that, they are hard to score on. When guys get
selfish, lost or lazy, the Illini get hurt badly. In the Miami game,
the Redhawks exploited that on several occasions. They scored on
easy layups. They scored on easy post moves. They attacked the
basket and made some easy free throws. Then Illinois decided to play
some lock-down D. If my stats are correct, they held Miami to three
points over the last 10 minutes of the game. That's pretty good
defense in any leagues and will probably win you a few games.
However, the former junk is so bad, it is hard to watch. The Illini
must not lose their edge, because bad defense puts them behind the
bubble so much that sometimes a hole that big cannot be overcome.
Bad offense has also reared its ugly head. I think the
knowledgeable fans expected that with three starters on the
sidelines. Notwithstanding the great early production by some of the
before-mentioned players, at times the offense is so stagnant it
looks like a moss-covered pond. Sometimes players are standing
around waiting for somebody to do something good. They stop
screening, they stop moving without the ball, they stop making good,
crisp passes, and the whole offense is just discombobulated. When
they get mired in bad offense, they need to remember a few things on
Hustle down the floor
and score in transition or in secondary offense, as it takes
tons of pressure off the half-court offense.
Attack the basket.
Getting to the free-throw line or being able to make the easy
inside dish takes loads of pressure off the half-court offense.
Make the other team
play hard-core defense for 25-35 seconds. The more you wear them
out on defense, the less legs they have to play quality offense.
Move a lot without
the ball, but only with purpose.
Pass the ball well,
emphasizing ball reversals, excellent pass and shot fakes,
giving the ball to somebody in a place where he can do something
These are just a few of the things that can be done to cure bad
offense. They are even more important when one, two or three of your
best offensive players are not even available. But, these concepts
are also very important when the team is at full strength. Guards
and point guards should always review them several times throughout
any contest. The good ones figure out what works against a certain
team early and diss the things that don't.
It's hard to imagine anything being uglier than bad defense or a
broken offense. But lo and behold, that was before we mentioned the
Illini's atrocious free-throw shooting. I have shied away from
commenting on it much over the last few years in fear that I might
jinx the team (and you loyal LDN readers know how I feel about
that). But as bad as they've been shooting from the charity stripe,
something has to be done. I've been around the game my whole life,
and believe or not, there are no easy answers to this problem.
Sometimes the more you talk about it, the more players press. The
last thing our guys need is more pressure at the line. The ugliness
of this aspect, though, does have a tendency to spill over into
other aspects of team play. That kind of ugliness we don't need. I
don't know what drills need to be employed that can correct our
problem, but we need to find a remedy fast. You can miss a few
against Georgia Southern, but if you miss a few against Maryland or
Arizona... that kind of stuff gets you beat.
I was going to talk about the refs and the fans at this juncture,
but I'm too happy that the Illini somehow won this most recent
tournament without all hands on deck. I will ask the question, "Did
anyone recognize the officials for the tournament games?" Because I
sure didn't. Are they just taking volunteers now, or what? OK, I've
already said more than I planned to say on that anyway.
In spite of some of the bad and ugly, this team still has the
potential to have a pretty decent season. Defense must remain a
constant for them to be successful. Offense must find a smoother
flow and continuity. Free-throw shooting will have to improve. But I
like the deep bench. I love the grind-it-out-at-all-costs mentality.
And I love it that our coach brings his game face every night. This
is going to be a very fun adventure, especially if you enjoy riding
in an out-of-control vehicle with your hair on fire.
As for me... oops... I did it again... by going to the tournament
and firing up the guys. They think they can keep on winning. I hate
it when that happens.
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