A Year Ahead of Schedule: Illini Basketball Mid-Season Report

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As Illinois anihilated Indiana by 31 points on Sunday, I felt a certain amount of vindication with the plight of the Hoosiers.  My hatred of the Indiana Hoosiers has been well-documented on this blog over the past couple of years with the actions of Satan’s Spawn – I want these guys get pummeled more than any other team in all of sports, including the Packers and Duke.  The tough thing going forward, though, is that I have a massive amount of respect for new IU coach Tom Crean, particularly with how he was always able to produce extremely competitive teams in the Big East at a Catholic school in Marquette that doesn’t have a football program to supply loads of revenue (unlike the horrific first 4 years of DePaul in arguably the toughest basketball conference in the nation, which I’ll be writing about in a separate post shortly).  Despite that, I can guarantee you that I’ll never get over the way Indiana completely bent Illinois over in the Eric Gordon situation – when one of your biggest rivals takes steps to completely fuck over your program in the long-term, you can never forget.

Fortunately, this season for the Illini has been more than a fantastic surprise on my end.  Back in October, I was basically counting down the days until Alex Legion could be activated and looked at it as a rebuilding year overall.  In fact, I thought that Illinois would look a lot like last year’s team and be hard-pressed to receive a bid to the NIT, much less the NCAA Tournament.  Instead, the Illini have proven to be a pretty good (not great) team in a revitalized Big Ten and would easily be in the NCAA Tournament if the season ended today.  Assuming that we don’t end up taking conference’s automatic bid in the Big Ten Tournament, winning on the road at Purdue and the blowout of Missouri in the Braggin’ Rights Game are already excellent entries on our NCAA Tourney resume.

There are a few key items that I’ve noticed as we get into the heart of conference play.  First and foremost, the Illini can finally score again with regularity after two straight seasons of anemic Bears-like offensive output.  Four Illinois starters are averaging double-digit scoring each game and the team’s overall free throw percentage is over 73% (compared to a Shaq-esque 60.8% last season).  Even though Illinois lost at Michigan a week ago (which will hopefully be avenged on Wednesday night in a quirk in the Big Ten schedule having to play the Wolverines twice in the first four conference games), I was actually refreshed to see the Illini keep up with the frenetic three-pointing ability of scUM up until the last few minutes of the game.  If last season’s Illinois team were on the court, Michigan would have crushed us by over 30 with that type of long-range shooting performance.

The offensive balance has impressive with Trent Meacham and Demetri McCamey both drastically improving their outside shooting and Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale becoming consistent presences in the post.  That balance was something that didn’t exist at all last year, when if the ball didn’t get into Shaun Pruitt, the Illini were pretty much dead in the water.  Just as important is that Chester Frazier has been able to finally get placed into the role that fits him, which is to concentrate on bringing defensive intensity to the floor.  He was unfairly subjected to more booing than anyone last season from the Assembly Hall crowd mostly because he was thrust into a spot where Eric Gordon should have been, meaning that Frazier was being to asked to perform tasks (particularly on the offensive end) no one should have reasonably expected.

Speaking of Frazier’s defense, the rest of the team has performed an excellent job overall on that end of the floor, as well (as characteristic of Bruce Weber-coached squads).  The one concern that I have is that we will have issues with teams that have more athleticism (as exposed by Michigan and will be seen even more so against Michigan State on Satruday) – Illinois has shown to be a better than average running team, but they are more suited to agressive half-court sets throwing down to Tisdale or Davis for short baskets or kicking out to McCamey or Meacham when the buckets in the paint aren’t there.

This year’s Illini feel like the 2005 Ohio State team that happened to upset a perfect Illinois regular season, where Buckeye fans were initially looking forward a year to the incoming Greg Oden/Mike Conley recruiting class but were pleasantly surprised by the quality play of that veteran-laden team.  Similarly, most Illinois fans (including me) were focused on the excellent recruiting classes that will be coming to Champaign over the next couple of years, yet these Illini are making everyone take notice a year ahead of time.  I’m just thrilled to see Illinois safely back on the Bracketology projections again.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

Satan’s Spawn’s Swan Song and Wishing the Illini Could Party Like It’s 1999

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Every once in awhile, a snake is exposed for what he is and gets what he deserves. The only thing that could have been better than this is if this story had not broken on the same day that Roger Clemens misremembered his testimony in front of Congress so that Kelvin Sampson could have had an extra day a national media fury. I have no love for Indiana, but I do have faith that the administration there will take the same swift action in this instance as it did with Bobby Knight a few years ago. Hopefully by the end of this week, I won’t need to write about Satan’s Spawn (at least when it comes to Big Ten basketball) ever again.

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Meanwhile, there was a brief moment last week when Illinois pounded Minnesota that I wondered if this team could make a Big Ten Tournament run in the manner of the 1999 Illini team (which finished last in the Big Ten with a 3-13 record but had a remarkable spark to make it to the conference tournament final at the United Center, where they lost to eventual Final Four team Michigan State led by the Mayor of Munchkin Land AKA Mateen Cleaves). That happens to be the last Illinois team to not have made the NCAA Tournament. However, a listless Illinois performance at Penn State shut down all of those warm fuzzy feelings right away. The difference between 1999 and this season, besides the power and glory of Victor Chukwudebe, is that the ’99 team gave us all the feeling that they were poised to make a leap in 2000 and beyond. Cory Bradford was the Big Ten Freshman Player of the Year that season, Sergio McClain was developing guns that would have scared off Ron Zook, Lucas Johnson was firmly establishing himself as the nation’s top irritant during his college tenure and everyone was looking forward to Frank Williams, who at the time was considered to be one of the most highly-rated high school recruits in the history of the state of Illinois, coming on board.  Within two years, Illinois went from being last in the Big Ten to the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament (with a gut wrenching loss in the NCAA Regional Final in San Antonio to Arizona, who they had already split 2 games with in the regular season).  (Alright, I’ll admit that this was all a thinly veiled excuse to be able to reference Victor Chukwudebe for the first time in my blog – I’ve been waiting for this moment for over two years.)

Are the Illini of 2008 set up to make a similar turnaround?  Unfortunately, this team hasn’t shown me that it would be set up to be competitive to be even a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament in 2009, much less having any greater success. Back in November, when the Illini played well in the Maui Classic and hung in with Duke, I thought that this would at least be an NCAA Tournament team this year. However, they’ve seemed to regress ever since then (or maybe opposing teams just figured out that a zone defense plus a Hack-a-Pruitt technique would essentially shut down 90% of the Illini scoring), with Demetri McCamey being the one main bright spot for the future. The incoming recruiting classes look more fruitful in two years, but that seems like an eternity for Illinois fans who thought that 2005 would place the program into a permanent place in the upper echelon of college basketball. (Maybe Suppo Sanni, one of my fellow Homewood-Flossmoor Vikings that is one of Ron Zook’s top-rated football recruits, can help out Bruce Weber, as well, since he’s got my old high school basketball team at #1 in the state rankings. Hopefully, that can provide some relief to the H-F community, which has had a tough couple of weeks.)  It’s ironic that while Satan’s Spawn’s pilfering of Eric Gordon pretty much single-handedly caused this horrible season (considering how close Illinois played Indiana in their two season meetings, you can see that Gordon is the difference between an awful team that will be sitting at home in March and a club that’s a legitimate Final Four contender), the two most enjoyable moments for Illini fans this season have been the spectacular and relentless booing and heckling of Satan’s Spawn and Eric Gordon in Champaign for over two straight hours when Indiana finally came to visit (a heartbreaking game in the end for the Illini, but the atmosphere in Assembly Hall that evening was as if the soul of Philly’s Veterans Stadium was resurrected into a basketball arena) and the subsequent smackdown of Satan’s Spawn by the NCAA. I guess you have to take the positives where you can get them.

(Images from Illinois Loyalty and Chicago Tribune)