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It's Time for Illinois Basketball

By Jeff Mayfield

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[November 07, 2007]  Well, the wait is almost over. The longest dry spell on the calendar, the one that runs from April Championship Monday to the first official game the following November, is about to end. That's because your Illinois Fighting Illini will take the hardwood this Sunday in a 1 p.m. contest versus Northeastern.

Since so many of these first-semester games will be contested while Greg and I both have ministry obligations, we're going to miss at least a month of the season. That will be by far the longest stretch of missed Illini hoops for either one of us for quite some time. Knowing that going in, we did something we haven't done in years, and that was to attend an exhibition game together last night. It was good to see the Orange and Blue and begin to get a feel for this ballclub. What follows is my attempt to give you a very quick scouting report on the beloved.


I've got one word for you: brutal. I can promise you that neither Taylor nor Mayfield had any input into this train wreck. Those who have been clamoring for a tough, challenging slate of nonconference games have gotten their wish this year. My grandma used to say to be careful what you wish for 'cause you just might get it, and that would aptly describe my feelings about this slate of games. It's one thing to be challenged; it's quite another thing to be overwhelmed. A team's psyche is much more brittle and vulnerable than you can imagine. Break a kid's spirit or a young team's heart and you may never get them back the rest of the season. The Illini do possess some seasoned veterans, but leadership has not been one of this team's strongest suits. My hope is that we're even more ready than I think we are and that we'll hold our own during this very difficult stretch.

How difficult is it? Well, how 'bout going to Hawaii to play before the Maui Invitational even begins. Then try strapping them up with Arizona State, then Duke, then maybe recent Final Four teams LSU or Marquette. Then if you survive that, you fly all the way home in time to grab the shut-eye to the East Coast to take on Maryland, a team we always seem to struggle with. When you catch your breath you'll quickly realize that Arizona and Missouri are still looming on the first-semester horizon. And I won't even go into the Big Ten scheduling dilemmas until I recover from thinking about the non-league tilts. This would've been the perfect schedule for the '04-'05 Illini; I hope it works out as well for this edition. In honor of yesterday being Election Day, let me just say that I vote NO on this schedule and would gladly take a rerun of last year's model!


I think Bruce Weber could get pygmies to play lock-down, in-your-face defense. That is a given. Even these new guys, who played zone in high school, already seem to have some of the keys to Weber's ferocious "D" down. Playing championship-caliber defense not only makes the Illini competitive, it just always puts them in a position to win.

Last year's nightmare of injuries left the team with little depth and not in a position with lots of fouls to give. I don't see that as being nearly as big a problem this season. In fact, with the early emergence of some of the "bigs," Illinois has a chance to be vastly improved in areas that were affected by injuries and other incidents last year.

Weber's club does a good job in transition defense and usually makes the opponents work, claw and scrap for anything they get. That is a must for this year's squad to be successful. They also will need to eliminate silly fouls that they draw because they aren't moving their feet, they're out of position, they're reaching, or they're taking too many risks and chances. When they play it straight up, they can be tough to score on.

It all starts with pressure on the ball, and who better than Chester Frazier will get that assignment? I think it was Michigan State coach Tom Izzo who called Frazier "the toughest player in the Big Ten." High praise coming from one of the most fiery, intense coaches in the business. I don't want to disappoint our loyal LDN readers, but I don't always buy coachspeak from coaches on any level; in fact, I seldom do. However, in this particular case I think Izzo might be correct. Frazier just brings it every night, and he sets the tone. If he ever finds a little more offense to go with his great defensive tenacity, the Illini will be onto something.

Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt will have to plug up the middle. They will also have to do it without constantly putting their teammates behind the eight ball by committing crazy fouls. At this point, my guess is that maybe Rodney Alexander and Trent Meachum will be rounding out the starting quintet. Alexander appears to have the athleticism and the savvy to be a stopper, but Meachum needs to step up and perhaps even be more physical to help the Illini's cause. Other newcomers who could be in the mix are Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis, Demetri McCamey, Richard Semrau, Bill Cole, Steve Holdren and Jeffrey Jordan.

With a roster this deep, I would probably look to run a variety of full-court, three-quarter and half-court presses. Luckily for you, the fans, Weber doesn't care what any of us think. Greg commented to me after the game that Bruce is an old-school warrior who believes games are won and lost in the half court. Since Weber is tied for the best record in all of college basketball over the last four years, I'm going to defer to him (though I sure would like to see this team in a press for a segment to see what they could do).

Final analysis: If you're a worrier, don't worry about this aspect. Weber will have it covered. Save your worry for the offensive end!


I know it's early, but I sorta like what I see on the offensive end so far. I think this team is quicker and faster up the court. I think it has overall better vision and a better idea of what they're trying to accomplish. Though I didn't see it in print, I think one of last year's biggest weaknesses was in the passing game. Our passing was pathetic. Guys would telegraph passes, try to thread impossible needles, throw to guys in positions where they couldn't do anything with it and just basically broke down at the worst possible times (roll footage of the Virginia Tech meltdown).

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In Weber's motion offense, guys need to be constantly moving without the ball. They have to screen and pop, reverse the basketball, cut and go, etc. When guys stop moving and the passing is as ineffective as I just reported it was, you have a major malfunction. That's another of the many reasons you may recall that the Illini often went deep in the shot clock without getting a quality shot and then just had to throw some ridiculous herniation.

I believe that you will see some improvement with the offense this season. What is the reason for my optimism? Where are the facts and evidence supporting my keen prognostication? I've got two words for you: blind faith. Seriously, I think from a personnel standpoint, more of the needed pieces to a fluid offensive flow will be available to Weber this campaign. Hopefully the team won't have to deal with multiple injuries every week. And even if a few come our way (and they always do), there just seems to be more quality depth this year than most people imagined.

Biggest concerns? Scorers and scoring options. One of the reasons I'm excited to see the Illini run more is that I think it takes a lot of pressure off their half-court offense. When you can find a multitude of ways to score, you do nothing but help a team like this. Once again, Weber needs no help from anybody, but I'd run every chance we got. I'd run after missed shots and I'd run after made shots. I'd run on all free throws made or missed. Illinois just didn't have the bodies to do it last year. And I think when you do, you put constant pressure on your opponents, not to mention that you can really wear them down.

With that being said, I'm not sure who will emerge as scoring options. I vote for bringing back Jamar Smith and throwing the redshirt away. Since I think they have already tabulated my vote (read -- they don't give a rip what I think), someone else better get ready to step up. Pruitt and Randle need to be in double figures every night and need to haul down six to 10 rebounds per contest as well. Meachum has to get to the free-throw line and score points. Alexander and Tisdale need to make contributions on the offensive end. McCamey. Davis, Semrau and Holdren need to contribute anywhere they can. I just don't see that go-to guy yet, so I guess this team will have to do it by committee.

I think you will see more continuity and more flow in this year's offense. Having some really strong post-up guys like Pruitt, Tisdale and Randle, just to name three, makes the defense collapse more and have to guard the paint more than they want to. This puts a lot less pressure on the perimeter, and the Illini will need a little space out there because they don't have a lot of guys with quick releases on their shots. We'll give you more breakdowns of individual players once we see how they respond to the physicality and the speed of the college game, but there are lots of reasons for hope in Champaign this winter.

Final analysis: It will take time, but I believe that this team has the potential to be a much better offensive team than last year's squad was. And yes, I know that the Illini lost Rich McBride and Warren Carter, two of the LDN's favorite players. I just see more chances for the team offense to create shots for a variety of players and that this team might get it done more by committee than by the star system. It will be a better passing team, and it will move without the ball a lot better than a year ago. Look for this team to find more ways to score, and it will need to, to be successful.


Two months ago everyone was so down in the mouth about the state of Illini basketball, that there were regular meltdowns on the message boards. The coaching staff couldn't recruit, they couldn't coach; heck, they didn't even know how to dress! After a few recruiting "gets" (detailed by our own Greg Taylor), all of a sudden things became a little rosier in the Illini Kingdom. Let me just reiterate a few things here. Bruce Weber can flat-out coach. Love him or hate him, he'll still find a way to get it done. How he ever got 23 wins out of that squad last season is a modern-day miracle. He never takes a day or a night off. He prepares his team well and usually puts them in situations where they can be successful. He sees what you and I see, usually months before we see it, and he knows how to fix it. Sometimes it comes down to simple execution. When players execute properly, the coach looks like a genius; when they don't, the coach looks like an idiot.

Take free-throw shooting for example. People all over Illini Nation always ask me: When is he gonna fix that? You don't think he's tried? Due to a pretty large workload, I've been able to attend only a couple of practices the last few years, but I can promise you, guys were working on free throws when I was there. And I'll bet they each shoot hundreds per week. The catch is, can they make them when it counts? I have an idea. Let's just not talk about it. All the talk the last few years has done nothing to improve it. I will just hope, along with you, that the team will improve in that area. Heck, a 5-10 percent better percentage would go a long way to winning some of those marginal games.

Team chemistry seems to be good, but you worry who will be the odd man or men out when you have so many vying for playing time. Continued good chemistry will dramatically help this team if it is to surpass last year's unit.

The addition of new assistant coach Jerrance Howard has done nothing but raise the program to new heights. I still like my idea better (that was the idea to add Howard and a coach with Chicago ties and make one of them a DBO and the other one a coach), but I certainly vote for this hire. Howard will get it done on the recruiting trail, on the bench, in the locker room and off the court. What else do you need to know?

Final analysis: Intangibles may well determine the success or failure of this Illini ballclub. My impression is that this team will surprise a lot of people. I am happy to see so many experts writing them off. While they don't have a lot of marquee players, the collective sum of their parts is more than their whole, and that, my friends, is one way to win college basketball games. Is it easier to win with studs, burger boys and five-star athletes? Of course it is. But one great American once said, "It's not the final destination that's important, it's the journey." I, for one, vote to enjoy the ride.


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