And while there were a myriad of reasons that fans failed to show up
and support this 2008-09 edition of the Fighting Illini, let me give
you a few reasons why you should consider supporting them:
is not last year's team. For whatever reason, that team just
seemed to be snakebit. I don't know if all the injuries suffered
were just bad luck, but bad things seemed to snowball in a negative
way early in the campaign. There appeared to be chemistry issues.
You've read me for some time now, and I will never stop harping on
the importance and the power of positive chemistry. And when it goes
south, it's not only a momentum-stopper, it's a momentum-killer!
That team couldn't seem to buy a break even if they were playing
with Mark Cuban money! Without getting into a lengthy research
paper, the only thing I'll say about the calls last season is that a
foul's a foul no matter if you're a ranked team or not. It just
seems that in the Big Ten they tend to protect the teams at the top
a little more than they need to. Let's leave it at that.
I think the thing that disappointed some fans last year was that
they didn't always see the hustle and the unselfishness that you
equate with Illinois basketball. When you put all those issues and
concerns in one basket, I guess it equals 2,000-plus patrons who
didn't renew their season ticket privileges. I won't go so far as to
label them fair-weather fans or bandwagon fans, but it does make you
wonder. If this team won a few more games and got in the tourney,
would those seats still be up for grabs? And if you don't want to
come now, why come later when these youngsters improve? You will
have missed the journey, the all-important development stage!
I'm trying to stress with my boy why good decision-making is
crucial as a life skill. Basketball is just one arena in life where
99 percent of the time a poor decision doesn't cost someone their
life. It is an incubator where we can rehash plays and analyze what
choices should've been made. It makes me happy and proud that the
light is starting to come on and he's beginning to understand the
game -- not that I'm much help in translating it for him. He's just
beginning to see its beauty, its charm and its elegance.
This year's team looks like it will be a blue-collar team.
That is something Bruce Weber knows a lot about because I think that
description aptly describes the teams he was a part of under Gene
Keady's reign over at Purdue. They used a Bill Self phrase of
"muddying-up" games like no other team in the league. They played
hard-nosed, physical and intense hoops. They were not pretty. They
clawed, they scratched, they gouged, and they were as wiry and
springy as they could be. Their forte was defense and being
tough-minded. They tried in every way they could, not to beat
themselves, to keep other teams honest and to make the other teams
physically beat them in order to win the battle. Those Purdue teams
either owned the boards or made teams earn every possession they
got. They played methodical, smart, intuitive basketball. This
Illinois team will have to replicate at least some of those traits
to have a measure of success this year.
This team's effort level and intensity level will be higher.
I don't know how high yet, but I think this team will have an
"all for one and one for all" attitude. I know I will like it if
they can continue to foster that kind of an environment. I tell my
son that being the underdog is one of the best places to live ... at
least until you can be the top dog!
OK, with all of that said, what will it take for the Illini to be
successful this season? In a word, a lot ... but here goes with at
least a few ingredients useful in making a successful adventure:
Bigs will have to play big. Mike Tisdale, Rich Semrau,
Dominique Keller, Stan Simpson (if he doesn't redshirt) and C.J.
Jackson will have to bump and grind on the boards and bang bodies
for 40 minutes a contest. They will have to let opponents know that
they were in a fight for their very lives in the paint. These men do
not have to dominate, but they must be solid and contain teams who
may appear to have an advantage in the lane. Illinois cannot afford
to give teams multiple possessions on every trip. If they can limit
other teams' chances, they will have a chance to be successful.
Since no one has asked me, you LDN readers will get a bonus here.
If it was up to me, I would rotate these guys like crazy. I would
keep fresh legs on the court as much as possible and have these bigs
race up and down the court in a constant flow of motion. I think we
made it too easy on bigs from the other teams in the past, either
because our rotation was too short, we were too lazy, or we had
different agendas. If this team can stay away from that junk, they
give the Illini a chance to win.
Guards and wings need to hit shots and distribute the rock.
This means that McCamey needs to lead by example, Meacham needs
to knock down open shots, and Frazier needs to make crisp passes
instead of over-dribbling ( I could mention ALL the other players on
the team here, but I think you get the picture).
I know it sounds simple, but perimeter shooting has been an issue
the last couple of seasons. I hope it's not this year, but even if
it is, Illinois needs to find ways to "get 'r done" no matter what.
As I already mentioned, bigs need to post up big, and when the ball
goes inside, perimeter players need to quickly relocate and the ball
needs to go back to them in a hurry. The better the floor balance
(and maybe the longer 3-point distance will help Illinois spread the
floor more), the better the ball movement, and the more unselfish
they play, the harder they will become to defend.
My take last year was that at times we felt sorry for ourselves.
So, we're out on the court moping around and one defender can guard
two Illini. Guys didn't make hard cuts, didn't wear out their
defenders and didn't take the ball hard to the hoop. You don't have
to be especially skilled in math to quickly understand that defenses
were able to double-team us, take huge risks and gambles, and still
rotate and recover because we didn't make them pay. IT IS IMPERATIVE
FOR THIS TEAM TO MAKE ANY CHEATIN' TEAMS PAY FOR PLAYING US IN THAT
Obviously, converting our free throws would be a huge plus.
Hopefully, that was addressed in the offseason, and I look
forward to cheering our boys on at the charity stripe! Enough said.
NO ... let me say one more thing to the fans here. Could we
please quit with the gasping, sneering, condescending taunts that we
give our OWN players at the free-throw line! That is disgusting, and
I hope that we will all make it stop. I'm tired of seeing negative
energy bring our teams down. Let's build them up and encourage them
and see what happens in the months and years to follow... That is
just a small, little suggestion.
[to top of second column]
This team needs to be fundamentally sound. I haven't read
much about this area, and I have to tell you that I'm surprised by
I know that LDN is not one of the big boys in the major sports
market, but surely some of the famous analysts have watched Illinois
play the last couple of seasons. Surely they have consulted our
statistical charts and seen our turnover numbers. And if they
watched us at all, not even closely, they would've noticed that our
passing was many times ... atrocious. I can live with lots of
mistakes ... especially when they're risk-reward kinds of things.
But when guys telegraph passes or make lame, lob passes across the
court that get picked off for dunks on the other end ... I go
ballistic! I'm hoping to see better and quicker ball movement,
better fakes, and here's one that you rarely read about ... how
'bout some better catches? Yes, players can use their bodies in such
a way as to make better receptions. It also helps when the passer
hits the receiver in an area where he can do something positive with
the pass that he received. A problem that developed over the last
couple of years was that everyone was so panicky that they resorted
to over-dribbling before making ill-fated passes. I look forward to
seeing these things corrected this season.
This team needs better picks, screens and rolls. The
Illini don't have a plethora of people that can get their own shot.
But they should have many who can give up their bodies for a
teammate. There was not enough of that during the slide. If Illinois
can keep defenses honest and set some good, hard screens, at least
they will get some high percentage looks at the hoop. These things
will all help take lots of pressure off a team that seems to operate
with a slim margin. Slipping the pick is also a lost art that I hope
our bigs are working on big-time. For if they can slip a few picks
after establishing the fact that they can set good, hard screens,
Illinois could score some much-needed easy baskets!
Coach Weber knows what he's doing. Despite what many fans will
tell you, Bruce Weber is one of the top coaches in the college game.
If you choose to believe otherwise, there are lots of message boards
and fan sites you can visit where geniuses have all the answers.
Now, mind you, that none of them have ever played the college game,
coached a lick or know much about the sport, but they still know all
the buttons that Weber should push to right the ship. Or, even
worse, many of them would like to see the coach pack his bags and
head back to a mid-major somewhere. I have never been among that
group, nor am I among them now. I make no apology for my full and
total support of Weber. Here at LDN you get the straight scoop, and
that's what I will always strive to give you.
In fact, while Weber certainly doesn't need me as an apologist,
let me just add up that data and the evidence for your perusal.
Coach has won an astounding 646 games of the 923 that he has been a
part of. That's good for a .700 winning percentage. And I'm gonna
stop right there. If you want to read all the records that this man
has attained, I will direct you to the
http://fightingillini.cstv.com/ site and you can knock yourself
Let me just say this: Bruce Weber has forgotten more about
basketball than I'll ever know. And while I'm not nationally
recognized as a college basketball guru, I have wasted many hours
studying the game in my 52 years on earth. I've seen a few teams
play. And I've seen a few people coach. Weber is flat-out one of the
best ones that I have seen. When one or two people ruin a recruiting
class, the trickle-down effect is catastrophic. If you want to blame
Weber for that, then be my guest. On the other hand, if you jokers
run this man off, be very careful as to whom your replacement might
be. I shudder to think of the frightening possibilities. Though the
last two seasons didn't meet our high expectations, our future is
very bright, and Bruce Weber is the man to see it to its successful
conclusion. As for me and my house: "In Bruce We Trust!" (we also
have great assistant coaches, but I'll save that article for another
We could have some interesting
lineups. If I were asked to pencil in our lineup, I might shock some
people by having several different ones. I might play the matchup
game. For many games I might go:
McCamey or Brock
If you want to play three guards,
you could maybe bring Tissy off the bench and play Frazier as a
defensive stopper, or Jordan for more speed and offensive flow. If
you wanted to go big, you could add Semrau to the mix, and here's
hoping he has a healthy, successful season. If you want more
slashing, throw Cole into the fray. And when Alex Legion gets here,
things could really make a positive turn. My guess is that when push
comes to shove, Weber is likely to start three guards:
McCamey or Brock
And one of the
IF everybody works hard, goes all-out on every possession and
doesn't care who gets the credit or the stats, this team could end
up being better than any "expert" predicted they'd be. I'm hoping
for a pleasantly surprising run this season. What sayest ye?
At 2-0, some of these ideals have already begun to slowly
germinate. This will be a major work in progress and it has a long
way to go, but it's a lot of fun. I sat with Payne and Greg Taylor's
two kids, Jordan and Payton, for the home opener, and we all like
what we saw! While these guys won't make you forget the 2004-05
edition, they are a fun bunch unto themselves AND they deserve
support from the fans! We'll probably start learning a lot about
this team when they play down at Vanderbilt, a tough road tilt for
any team, and also against Clemson and Hawaii.
So, how will this Illini team fare? I think they'll be a little
better than last year's team for all the reasons that I mentioned
and more. I want to be optimistic ... Lord, help me when I'm weak.
At first I was gonna say .500, but I'm gonna go with 17-14, which
would be a great accomplishment for this group. And who knows ...
maybe the fans get behind them ... maybe they win a game or two or
even three that they shouldn't have ... and things will really get
fun then. But IF you wait until then to get on board, you will
already have missed the best part. As for me and my house, we're
already enjoying the adventure and glad we chose to pursue it!
Have a great month, everybody! And let's remember to be thankful
for our many blessings!
[By JEFF MAYFIELD]
Respond to the writer at