After wasting one of their best halves of the year, Illinois came
out for the second half like they were taking a nap. Again, anyone
who has ever dealt with a gopher problem knows that if you sleep or
if you nap for even a moment, the gophers can take over. That is
basically what happened.
You actually got a bad feeling about it
just before halftime. One of the peskiest Gophers, Rodney Williams,
threw in a circus shot that bounced off the backboard, good for
three points and downsizing Illinois' lead from 13 points down to
only 10 at intermission.
The infestation grew worse as the Gophers were coming on in
hordes! Minnesota outscored the Illini 37-27 in the second half.
Fortunately, Illinois outscored the Gophers 11-2 in the second
The Illini had five -- count them -- five men in double figures,
led by Brandon Paul with 21 points and Meyers Leonard with 20.
Joseph Bertrand and D.J. Richardson tallied 13 points each and Sam
Maniscalco added 10. Illinois held the Gophers to just 38 percent
shooting for the contest and outrebounded them 42-35 for the game.
The Illini converted on 82 percent of their free throws, going 18 of
It's hard to tell if it was the pesky Gophers or Illinois
breakdowns, but the following trouble areas need immediate
Passing: This team
hasn't demonstrated the ability to be a very good passing team.
They appear to be careless with the ball and at times just fire
the rock around the horn with not much purpose. One thing that
would help would be for receiving players to move toward the
pass on the catch. I think the ankle passes, especially to our
bigs, have run their course. When the passes got up in the air,
good things happened. Hopefully that was a big lesson learned
turnovers at home versus Minnesota is way too many. You might be
able to tolerate 13 or so, but more than 15 is unacceptable. On
the one hand, some of our players need enough playing time to
get in the flow, but on the other hand, you can't make more than
three turnovers in a ballgame. You can try going to the bench a
little more often, but there must be positive production when
you try to use the depth. Those turnovers allowed Minnesota to
not only stay in the game, but should have allowed them to steal
a victory at the Hall last night.
Savvy: This team
needs to be a little more aware of situational basketball. We'll
cut them some slack as they have just been through finals and
Christmas break, but much more focus is needed. Carelessness and
nonchalance add to the dilemma. I would like to see one or two
of our players step forward, take charge and get us out of that
helter-skelter or lackadaisical mode. It could be D.J.
Richardson or could be Sam Maniscalco, though his ankle and just
the overall wear and tear on him may force Tracy Abrams to
develop even quicker (again, cutting down turnovers will be a
Defense: I don't
have the official stats in front of me, but I counted at least
15 layups that the Gophers fed on last night. That's about 12
too many. The on-the-ball pressure must be better. Hustling into
passing lanes must improve. Too many easy, uncontested shots
were allowed. You can't keep letting Leonard or Griffey or Egwu
pick up extra fouls, because guards are getting around the top
and around the corner way too easily. Also, if you pack it in a
little more, you could force teams like the Gophers to make
shots, and they just hadn't proved they could do that. The
blocks were great, but sometimes teams are getting the Illini
off their feet and having an easier time of getting to the rim.
I believe this is an area that can be fixed, and attention to it
immediately will help.
Shot selection: For most of the season,
it appears that shot selection has been better than the last
couple of campaigns. However, a step back was witnessed last
night. Not only was selection not good at times, but many times
an Illini player would go up for a shot, change his mind and
throw the ball at either his own feet or the feet of our tallest
players... not what we are looking for. Also, since the Illini
have shown an improvement in attacking the basket, of driving to
the rim, the admonition to keep it up would be the ticket. If
this team can get to the free-throw line more and more, it will
take pressure off of having to score all the time in the
half-court motion. It was also good to see some conversions on
run-outs and fast breaks. This has been a struggle the last two
or three years, and those golden opportunities must be cashed in
by this team, as the margin for error is so small.
[to top of second column]
Illinois has used a smaller lineup the last two games, mostly
out of necessity because of matchups. Beyond that though, it
seems to have shown our identity or at least something to
consider. The team appears to be quicker and moves better in the
motion with those smaller lineups on the floor. The more
athletic the lineup, it seems the more propensity there is for
success. It seems that opponents are having trouble defending
Illinois in those matchups. Illinois players are getting by
defenders, getting better shots and getting fouled more. Those
are trends I'd like to see more of.
Playing loose: I know everyone is
frustrated. The fans are tired. The coaches are exasperated when
they have watched film, done tireless instruction and then they
see players throw the ball out of bounds, sometimes making
unforced errors. Relax. It was a good thing we had a couple
players who demonstrated poise and composure coming down the
stretch last night (Meyers Leonard not the least among them) or
Illinois takes a big, fat, embarrassing loss.
Hopefully, escaping the pesky Gophers will give this team a
booster shot of how much harder, how much scrappier, how much more
intense they will have to play to have the kind of success they hope
for. For me, that all starts with the players. I was pleased last
night that even though I was having my own private meltdown (special
thanks to my buddies Payne and Hudson Coady for keeping my head in
the game), many of them were not. They stayed tuned in to what
needed to be done and somehow they found a way.
Critics of the team the last few years need to at least
acknowledge that this group is different in that they never quit and
seem to find a way. The Big Ten favors teams that find a way,
survive and move on. IF they continue to do that, they will give
themselves a fighting chance the rest of the way.
The more they can enjoy it, use their speed, quickness and other
abilities to the max, the more fun they will have.
If they can block out those fans who have issues with the coaches
or even some of the players and circle the wagons among themselves,
they will improve their chances.
Remember... almost all of the experts saw this team in the middle
of the pack... and they may end up there... however, I see some
upside and the possibility that these guys could get better than a
lot of those experts said. Not saying that they will, but if they
give attention to these concerns that have been identified, they
could surprise some people along the way.
I noticed that the looser Illinois was, the more the intensity
picked up on defense. It seemed like shot selection was better,
there was better screening and opportunities to score. I know that
some people like a more regimented, disciplined system, but to me,
the more swagger, loosy-goosy these guys are, the better. And yes,
there is a fine line between that and being nonchalant... I can't
describe the difference, but I know it when I see it. I saw some of
it the second half versus Missouri and the first half versus
Minnesota... Now I'd like to see it consistently for 40 minutes...
just to see what we could do... Wouldn't that be fun...?
...like getting rid of your gopher problem...
[By JEFF MAYFIELD]
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