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

demetri-mccamey-illinois-fighting-illini

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

kelvin-sampson-illinois-assembly-hall.jpg

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.

orange-krush-fans-illinois-indiana-kelvin-sampson.jpg

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)

Awful Football Weekend and Land-o-Links for 10/17/2007

adrian-peterson-vikings-bears.jpg 

After having a beautiful double revenge of the FIBs over the Badgers and Packers last week, it was followed up with one of the worst football weekends in the Frank the Tank household in awhile with the Illini and Bears both losing games that were more than winnable.

I noted last week that the road trip to Iowa City for Illinois was going to be a proverbial trap game since Kirk Ferentz just seems to have our number and that proved to be more than correct in an ugly 10-6 loss. The Hawkeyes kept our running game in check while we had virtually no passing attack until Eddie McGee came in to close out the game. Despite the fact that McGee threw a poor interception in the red zone on the final Illini drive that probably would have turned the outcome of the game the other way, his passing skills to even get Illinois into that position (as well as a gem of a throw to Joe Morgan – who has always thought that Ryne Sandberg and Roberto Alomar could never hold a candle to him as second basemen – for an 82-yard touchdown that was called back on account of an illegal formation penalty) is forcing Ron Zook to start out all of his press conferences with a “Juice is our quarterback” speech.

Speaking of the Zooker, the recipient of a new contract extension from Ron Guenther made a few calls that must have had Florida Gators fans giggling by choosing to accept penalties on third down as opposed to declining them to force fourth downs not once, but twice. The first time backfired into the only touchdown by either team in the game, while the second time resulted in an Iowa first down conversion. This made me flashback to last year’s game against Indiana when Zook decided to go for a 2-point conversion on the first touchdown in the first quarter of the game for absolutely no reason at all, which we subsequently failed on (and we of course lost the game by 1 point). Now, I love that Ron Zook has brought Illinois back to football respectability way ahead of schedule, but these calls are just simply off-the-wall – it isn’t even about overall technical game strategy, but rather plain-old common sense. Anyway, the Illini are still in line to get to a pretty good bowl, but in order to make the Rose Bowl now, we’re going to have to win out for the rest of the season (which means beating Michigan in a monster prime time game next week and #1 Ohio State in Columbus). The fact that this is still a possibility shows how far Illini football has come over the course of the year, yet it’s still tough to stomach that we lost a very winnable game on Saturday.

The Bears, of course, couldn’t help but to pile onto that frustration on Sunday. Ever since the Vikings selected Adrian Peterson in the NFL Draft last spring, I’ve been telling everyone that would listen to me that Minnesota is the team that scares me the most in the NFC North since he’s such a special player. Well, he backed my thoughts up and then some by just shredding the Bears’ defensive and special teams units.  Honestly, I believe that Peterson is better situated to become an NFL superstar than even Reggie Bush since the former Sooner has the size and strength to pound the ball inside as an every down back as well as having breakaway speed to the outside and past the line of scrimmage.  I have no clue as to why Minnesota is still having him split carries with Chester Taylor.  While Devin Hester did everything he could to keep the Bears in the game with yet another touchdown return and finally getting an offensive pass play call for him that worked perfectly for another touchdown (I’m pretty sure that the Bears can just have Hester sprint down the field all day and he’ll burn anyone that’s on him), the rest of the team just couldn’t contain Peterson.  This season just has a bad feeling to it – the Bears  improbably stormed back with two touchdowns against the Vikings in four minutes to tie the game only to blow it within the final minute and a half.  Can the Bears go 8-2 the rest of the way to get to the 10-6 level that will probably be required to make the playoffs?  Unfortunately, I don’t have much faith in that (and even more unfortunately, I’ll continue to watch since I’m a glutton for punishment).

Let’s get off of the depressing news with some links:

(1) And Simpson Makes Four! (Mark Tupper Weblog) – After a year of continuously grim recruiting news for Bruce Weber and Illini basketball, this past weekend saw oral commitments to Champaign from four high-profile recruits.  Will this answer all of the concerns about Weber’s recruiting skills?  Let’s hope so.

(2) Indiana Punishes Sampson Over Recruiting Calls (ESPN.com) – Speaking of old oral commitments from recruits to Weber, have I ever told you how much I hate Satan’s Spawn?

(3) Local Recruits Infuse Illinois with ‘Swagger’ (Washington Post) – The Washington Post takes a look at how D.C. recruits have catapulted the Illini football program.

And finally…

(4) Can Anyone Explain Dane Cook to Me? (Freakonomics Blog – New York Times) – If University of Chicago economists can’t figure this out, there’s no hope for the rest of us.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)