I tried to warn you that USC is a very good team and maybe
should've been playing LSU for the title. The LDN's own Greg Taylor
may be correct when he says that the Trojans are really the nation's
You'll probably want me fired when you hear that I did
not see a single play of the Rose Bowl. I had the choice of watching
the game by myself or going on a family picnic... and since I had
spent precious little time with my family since Thanksgiving, I
chose the picnic, and we had a fantastic time!
Later I did see some highlights and some lowlights and agree with
Greg that had we scored on one of those botched plays and pulled to
within one score, perhaps SC would've panicked and given us a
chance... I guess we'll never know.
However, one of the reasons that I spoke of why we need to
celebrate the journey that got us there is because I believe we
arrived there one or two years early! That's right. You heard me
correctly. I didn't think the Illini gridiron train would be
arriving at a major bowl depot until year four or five of the Zook
regime. So, to get there early was just frosting on the cake. I
believe that teams need to learn how to win on the biggest stages,
and therefore this was a huge bowl of frosting for the program. I,
too, join Greg in cautioning the fans that Illinois could be vastly
improved next year and come away with a worse record. Have you
glanced at that schedule yet? I have... and it's brutal!
I still think it would be a nice gesture for the fans to
celebrate the amazing season that we did have. I salute the National
Coach of the Year, Ron Zook! I salute our players, especially
knowing full well what all of our seniors went through to get us
where we are... I won't soon forget it! I salute Rashard Mendenhall
and wish him well in the NFL. This season was one of the funnest
rides I have ever had, and I look forward to doing it all over again
All I can say is that I warned you in advance as to what could
happen to our beloved hoopsters. If you'll check my last few
offerings (list), I warned that
there would be some jubilant times and that there would be some
times of despair. In case you need help identifying those respective
emotions, I would call any win over Missouri in the Braggin' Rights
contest a good win, especially this season. Losses to Tennessee
State and to Penn State are not easy for me to digest. But analyzing
our schedule and suggesting to you that we might struggle was no big
prognostication. When you don't have shooters, it's going to be hard
to beat people.
Chemistry, leadership and confidence are three aspects of
basketball that are little understood. All I can tell you is that
when you don't have them, you're in deep doo-doo. Hence the location
of the beloved Orange and Blue as we speak. When you find yourself
on that street, you may find yourself buying instead of renting...
Why do I say that? Because usually when you lose your confidence, it
takes something almost monumental to bring it back. Someone or a
group of someones on this team are going to have to draw a line in
the sand and simply state that we're not going to take it anymore.
Until that time arrives, I don't think the Illini will get out of
Greg remarked to me early during the Ohio State game that he
thought our guys were sick, because we were not aggressively going
after rebounds. I filed his comment away and didn't think much more
about it until I heard that Penn State had hammered us on the boards
2-to-1! That should never happen. But when your dobber is down, your
feet are stuck in the mud and you are not quick to rebounds,
deflections or loose balls. And when you don't shoot it well, you
have to rely on getting extra possessions to have a chance to
compete. So, when you lose the rebound battle and the turnover
battle and you don't shoot free throws well... you tell me... How
are you going to win games? Better than that, if you know the answer
to that question, would you please stop whatever you're doing at
this very moment, drive directly to Bruce Weber's office and give
him the correct solution!
[to top of second column]
There is no easy answer to the dilemma. Not quitting is a good
start. Returning to basic fundamentals can also help. Illinois must
be more aggressive, no matter how many calls are made against them,
to show their opponents that they won't back down and that beating
them will take everything they've got. The Illini must screen
better, they must make better passes, and they must value
possessions. Our players must make the extra pass and play smart,
As the college game is now played in segments, Illinois must
focus on winning those little four-minute battles, because if you
win enough of those, you will once again find yourself in the win
column. If you keep breaking down the way they have been lately, it
is impossible to find victory with that formula.
So there, I haven't really told you much you didn't already know.
However, I did find out an amazing thing about college players back
in the day when I coached. They're just like students in any
classroom. They're just like students in any of my Bible studies.
They're just like the colleagues that you work with... Everyone
needs to be reminded of what to do almost all the time. When an
organization masters and excels in the little things, success is
achieved. I just read Tony Dungy's book, "Quiet Strength," and he
credits that approach (with a big assist from the Creator) to
winning the Super Bowl last season. I believe that would be termed
strong evidence for continuously executing the little things well.
Furthermore, I believe that this Illini contingent has been
playing with the weight of the world on its collective shoulders
since last winter. Everybody you talked to had an opinion on what
the team should do... what should happen to certain players... could
Coach Weber recruit or not... and on and on the issues and concerns
flowed. Take a good look at our players the next time you catch a
game. Do you see much joy? Do you see any smiles on anyone's face?
This is college basketball, for crying out loud! Nobody's punching a
clock. We don't have to be miserable. It's supposed to be fun! I
know it's not much fun to start the Big Ten season 0-4, but you
still need to play with a swagger, especially at home. When you're
not loose, and you're not playing and having lots of fun, and you're
pressing all the time, and you throw up shots hoping that they will
go in instead of knowing that they will, you've got a team that
looks much like our Fighting Illini right now.
Greg says play the kids now. I don't know if that's the answer or
not. I do know that if I was on the team, I would tell my teammates
to forget the fans (and if I had time, I would write a scathing
article on the deplorable actions of many of our so-called fans
lately) and to forget the media... we're playing for us now. Let's
encourage one another. Let's have some fun. I might even get the
team completely out of the gym for a day or two and just go out and
do something fun. Creating some camaraderie might help these boys in
the biggest of ways. To me, that's how you get out of the funk.
Good shooters' shots will eventually fall. Since that is not this
team's greatest strength, it must find ways to improve shot
selection and find more ways to score. It must return to a shored-up
defense, and it absolutely has to rebound the basketball. You never
stop doing the things that are right, no matter how long the losing
streak gets and no matter what your won-loss record is.
I never said that this season would be easy... in fact, I warned
that it would not be. To those who jumped off the bandwagon... good
riddance... didn't really want you onboard anyway! To those of you
who stay loyal... I hope you will see this team come out on the
other side with experience, with exuberance and with confidence. I
once heard it said that Rome wasn't built in a day... Neither is a
good college basketball team! Here is my warning... to all who have
ears, let them hear: The Illini will be back, and they'll be back
soon! I'll be right alongside them as one of their wing men. Until
then, I've got their back!
[By JEFF MAYFIELD]