Illinois’ play questionable
CHAMPAIGN, IL. Deep, talented roster. No. 13 ranking. A healthy shot of hype and the likelihood of lots of national TV games.
Not so long ago, this looked like the kind of team University of Illinois basketball fans have been waiting for since the 2005 run to the NCAA title game. After a pair of unconvincing exhibition wins over Division II teams, those high expectations seemed a bit lofty.
“Would I say we were popping champagne after the game? No,” coach Bruce Weber said aftern a 76-67 win over Southern Indiana. “Are we at a panic state? No. But doesn’t that mean we can’t improve. Yeah, we can improve, but it might take a little bit of time.”
Since that 2005 run ended with a loss to North Carolina, Illinois has missed the NCAA tournament twice and been knocked out in the opening round twice. Those teams sometimes struggled to score and rebound, searched in vain for leadership and occasionally lacked a sense of urgency when it counted.
Weber says he trying to plug many of those same gaps again.
Point guard Demetri McCamey is a preseason All-Big Ten selection but lacks energy at key moments, and sometimes doesn’t make the best shot or pass choices.
Mike Davis is a long-armed, 6-9 forward and the team’s top rebounder, but he seldom goes inside on offense. And center Mike Tisdale has always been more comfortable shooting from the outside than using his 7-1, 250-pound body in the lane.
This year was supposed to be different, the year that those three seniors and the cast around them challenged for a Big Ten title. Illinois is just one of four Big Ten teams—along with No. 2 Michigan State, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 14 Purdue—to start the season in the Top 25.
The Illini bring back all five starters and most of a young bench from a 21-15 NIT team.
that Weber and others were stunned didn’t make the NCAAs.
Add to that group three highly regarded freshman, including Jereme Richmond, a 6-7 guard-forward from Waukegan, Ill., who committed to Illinois four years ago. His coach and teammates say he could play almost every position on the floor, from point to either forward.
“When you see him you’re gonna say ’Whoa!’ ” McCamey said. “Crazy athletic dunks.”
But the exhibition games showed Richmond and the Illini the limits of raw talent and how much he has to learn, Weber said. The same, the coach added, is true of fellow freshmen Meyers Leonard, a 7-0 center, and Crandall Head, a 6-4 guard whose older brother, Sacramento King guard Luther Head, was a standout on the 2005 team.
Weber said Southern Indiana borrowed a page from his play book as Southern Illinois’ head coach, running a play he drew up there to great effect.
“They ran it three straight times and scored, and Meyers and Crandall still don’t know what hit them,” Weber said. “They are talented, but now they’ve got to learn the game.”
One big thing Weber wants them to learn—and needs his veterans to dedicate themselves to—is defense. He says he’s emphasized it in practices, spending up to 70 percent of his team’s time on it.
He thinks that’s part of the reason the Illini have been offensively limited so far, but he believes it’s essential in the Big Ten. Even the least of his Illinois teams have played solid defense, finding ways to keep scores low and give themselves a chance.
“We have put a lot of time in there,” Weber said. “You set a foundation early—and if you don’t emphasize it early, it’s hard to ever catch up.”
The offensive key for Illinois, like last year and before, will be McCamey.
He is the team’s only true point guard, averaging almost 35 minutes a game last season, scoring a team-best 15.1 points a game to go with seven assists. No one else averaged more than two assists a game.
McCamey’s been told he doesn’t have to do it all this year, that the talent around him is better than in any of his other three college seasons. He says he’s comfortable being the set-up man, the provider, but says he has to be ready to be the guy—taking the key shot, carrying his team with 20 points—on any given night.
“It’s all about the momentum of the game,” he said. “If I feel like I have to score for my team to win, I’ll do it. I’m trying to play like a quarterback now, being comfortable with my teammates.”