Big Ten Preview: Illinois

Prior to the Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri, I figured this post would have gone in only one of two possible directions: (1) I’d be lamenting the fact that Illinois just got blown out, proving that the win over Gonzaga was a fluke, and that the struggles against Illinois State, St. Bonaventure, Cornell, etc were a more accurate measure of how good this team really is (see also Illinois from 2007-2010); or (2) I’d be waxing poetic about my love for sports (a la Dave after Indiana’s upset win over #1 Kentucky) after Illinois pulled off the upset, and boasting about how Illinois could compete for the Big Ten title and potentially make a deep NCAA tournament run.

Reflecting on the border-war game, I’m stuck somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Illinois lost a game they could have won easily if not for some untimely turnovers and underclassmen mistakes. Illinois showed their grit (a continuing trend), rallied back, and refused to let the game slip away even when they were down by as much as 14 in the second half. All this against a legit top 10 (or, more likely, top 5) team, a team that is reminiscent of Illinois’ own 2004-05 three-guard attack with Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head.[1] So, while it’s still a loss, it was a good loss to a good team. It showed not only how well Illinois can play but also how much  improvement they can still make to reach their ultimate potential.

So where does this team stand heading into Big Ten play? It’s clear that Illinois is talented, though inexperienced, and can hang with and beat good teams. That much we’ve learned. They beat  a good Gonzaga team (convincingly) and fought off some scrappy teams along the way (Richmond, Maryland, St. Bonaventure) that I think are better than their records indicate. Illinois’ only losses have come at the hands of two ranked teams, one on a historically low offensive night and the other in the last minute after some costly turnovers.

Obviously, then, the ceiling Illinois can shoot for is still the Big Ten title and a deep tourney run. Whether that happens is dependent upon their continued growth, especially on the offensive side. It’s clear that they have a lot going for them. Leonard is turning into a legit NBA prospect who can dominate if he touches the ball (he was on pace for a triple double against Missouri within minutes of the 2nd half). Richardson is back to his Freshman of the Year form, hitting big shot after big shot.  Maniscalco brings great leadership and basketball IQ, a piece missing from last year. Most importantly, though, this team plays with energy  and passion and refuses to lose, something the Illinois program hasn’t had since the grand ol’ days of Meacham and Frazier (but with talent!).

They do have some issues, chief among them their inexperience. Richardson is the only starter from last year, and really only he and Paul (both juniors) played significant minutes the last two seasons. They rely heavily on at least two freshmen (Abrams and Egwu) and two sophomores (Head and Bertrand).  And probably their biggest issue is that no one except Paul can create his own shot on a consistent basis. This leads to what most teams will throw at them – a 2-3 zone switching to man-to-man and switching at every screen, and double- and triple-teaming Leonard down in the post. The biggest question going forward is whether Illinois can learn to attack those defenses to create open shots.

If there’s a silver lining to this 11-2 nonconference schedule, it’s that the inexperienced players are gaining invaluable experience in close, hard-fought games. They’ve played in so many of them this year (Richmond, Illinois State, Maryland, Gonzaga, St. Bonaventure, Cornell, and now Missouri), and won all but one, that I think the experience they’ve gained will help them immensely in conference play, where games are often decided in the last few minutes on a handful of possessions.

So, finally, after several years of piss-poor teams with either no talent or talent with no will to win, this team has both. AND they’re a fun bunch to root for.  Here are my bold predictions for conference play (rankings are current as of 12/23/11):

Tuesday Dec 27  vs  Minnesota – Win (Losing Mbakwe for the year is gonna hurt Minnesota.

Saturday Dec 31 @ Purdue – Win  (I’m not sold on Purdue. I think Illinois can take advantage of their size.)

Wednesday Jan 4 @  Northwestern – Win (Hopefully Shurna doesn’t make 9 threes in this game…)

Saturday Jan 7    vs  Nebraska – Win

Tuesday Jan 10  vs  #2 Ohio State – Loss (though if Sullinger stays hurt, I think Illinois has a chance)

Thursday Jan 19  @  Penn State – Win (Normally, this would be the letdown loss of the year, but there’s no more Taylor Battle winning games single-handedly)

Sunday Jan 22  vs  #14 Wisconsin – Win (I love me some Bo Ryan, but man are they boring to watch. This coming from an Illinois fan!)

Saturday Jan 28  @   Minnesota – Loss

Tuesday Jan 31  vs  #20 Michigan State – Win (MSU is dangerous…again…but I think Illinois matches up athletically.)

Sunday Feb 5   vs   Northwestern – Win

Thursday Feb 9  @  #18 Indiana – Loss (This hurts to say, but something tells me the College Basketball Gods are going to favor Indiana this year…like in scheduling, where there is no trip to Champaign.)

Sunday Feb 12  @ #19 Michigan – Loss (This will be a “good” loss on the resume, but really I’m not buying Michigan as a legit top 20 team yet. They beat an overranked Memphis team, their one quality win so far, and lost to Virginia…)

Wednesday Feb 15 vs  Purdue – Win

Saturday Feb 18   @  Nebraska – Win

Tuesday Feb 21 @ #2 Ohio State – Loss

Sunday Feb 26 vs  Iowa – Win

Thursday Mar 1  vs  #19 Michigan – Win

Sunday Mar 4  @  #14 Wisconsin – Loss (even though Weber has “success” up in Madison, Wisconsin is just too tough at home).

Total: 12-6, probably good for 3rd in conference, an overall record of 23-8, and a 5-6 seed in the tournament.[2]


We’ll see what happens. Go Illini!

[1] This comparison is making the rounds on the interwebs, but the key similarity I find is having three guys that can dribble the ball and make one-on-one plays, especially on the fast break. It’s very rare in college basketball to have two guys, let alone three, in your starting line-up that can destroy you off the dribble. Add those skills to their speed, and we might have to get Steve Lavin back in the booth to make some roadrunner/”beep, beep” analogies.

[2] I could also see them doing much worse than this, but what the hell, glass half full, right?

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