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I am very encouraged today after a few days in the dumps. As I write this, the 1998 Alamo Bowl is playing on the Big Ten Network’s Greatest Games. I know I have it on tape thanks to Boilerdowd, but if it is on TV it simply calls to me. You readers selected it as the second best win of the Tiller Era, and I certainly agree.

I am also heartened by the fact today is a big basketball day for me. Not only is Purdue opening the Big Ten season with at home against Illinois, but I get to go cover my beloved Kokomo Wildkats as they face Westfield tonight. It is the first time I will get to see this year’s team with promising freshman D.J. Ballentine. From everything I hear about him he may be a potential recruiting target for coach Painter in a few years.

For the purposes of this blog, however, Illinois needs to be the focus of the day. The Illini bring in a very strong record. They are more than capable of derailing our march to the Big Ten title before it even gets started. Before getting to the preview, I recently had the chance to speak with Joe from Paint the Town Orange about the Illini and here is what he had to say:

1. In your opinion, what is the biggest difference in this year's team from last year, especially since they are now winning close games instead of losing them.

The biggest difference between this year’s Illini team and the '07-08 team is our front court. The anchor of last years team was the combination of Brian Randle at forward and Shaun Pruitt at center. I feel bad to pin so much on these two players, but neither of them could run the motion offense very well because of their lack of mobility, and for as big and strong as they were, they would both vanish when it came to rebounds for long stretches. Pruitt also had a long standing feud with Weber that bubbled over a few times last year, and his complete inability to make even 50% of his free throws lost the Illini at least one game that I can think of. This year’s front court, at the very least can make its free throws, which has contributed to our turnaround in close games this year.

2. With 12 wins already in the bank and some good ones in that group, how many Big Ten wins are you expecting to seal an NCAA bid?

It’s tough to say how many wins it will take to make the tourney this year, especially given how much better the conference seems to be this year. I am almost positive that given the high profile non-conference victories the Big 10 has had this year, we will be sending 5 teams. Last year a 10 and 8 Big Ten record was good enough for 5th place, so that’s what we would need, at the very least. We also really need to beat up on one of the 5 teams that should finish better than us. I am hoping Michigan or Minnesota. Realistically an NIT is far more likely for the Illini this year.

3. With four players averaging in double figures who is the true go to guy on this Illinois squad? What do you see as this team's weakness?

On a team that starts 3 Sophs, a go to guy one game might vanish in the next. Our two seniors don't fit the description either as one is not known for scoring, and the other has been very inconsistent shooting the ball while being guarded. As the year goes on, it will become more and more McCamey and Legion who will make the big shots but both are still learning the offense or learning to play their hardest in every game. The weakness for this team will be when our 3 pointers aren’t falling and our front court will be over matched by size and strength. When it comes to Big 10 play we will need scoring from the guards every night, because we are just too light at center and forward.

Thanks Joe!

Record: 12-1, 0-0 Big Ten
2007-08 Postseason: lost 61-48 to Wisconsin in Big Ten Tournament final (eliminated Purdue 74-67 OT in quarterfinal)

2007-08 Final Record: 16-19

Blog Representation: Paint the Town Orange, The Quad

Illinois was the biggest disappointment in the Big Ten a season ago. They were a team that was certainly good enough to make the NCAA Tournament, but free throw shooting was a major Achilles heel. They showed how good they were by making a Big Ten Tournament run that nearly netted the automatic bid. Ultimately, they ran out of gas against Wisconsin. Non-conference losses to Miami (OH) and Tennessee State were prime examples of that weakness. All told 13 of Illinois’ 19 losses came by 10 points or less. Sweeps by Indiana and Penn State were especially grueling.

There will be no 19 loss season for the Illini this year. They are once again on of the teams in the Big Tent hat has a serious chance at an NCAA berth. Their 12-1 is very nearly a 13-0, as a two point losses to unbeaten Clemson in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge serves not only as their lone blemish, but it tipped the challenge in favor of the ACC. They are not only winning this year, they are winning decisively.

The best win came at Vanderbilt back on November 20th. The Commodores have been to the NCAA’s the last two seasons and are a threat to do go again. Georgia and Missouri are also a couple of good wins. They have faced a pair of common opponents with us. They pounded Detroit by 31 but struggled a little with Eastern Michigan this past weekend.

Illinois may have gotten better this year because of addition by subtraction, as noted by Joe above. Long time contributors Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt are gone, but they had major flaws in their games. Pruitt was an abysmally bad free throw shooter of Shaq-like proportions. Randle wasn’t much better as he was below 60% for his career. Teams exploited this a season ago and it was painful to watch the pair brick games away.

One player I am very sad to see return is an even bigger factor now. Demetri McCamey only had five points in the game in West Lafayette last year, but he had 15 in Champaign and blew up for 26 in the Big Ten Tournament contest. In Indianapolis McCamey was 6 for 6 from 3-point range. One of those threes came with Kramer in his face and sent the game to overtime with 18 seconds left.

The sophomore is back for more this year and is just as dangerous. He is tied in scoring with Trent Meachem at 12.2 points per game. Forward Mike Davis is just a tenth of a point in back of them as the Illini are very balanced at the top of their scoring charts. When you throw in 7’1" sophomore Mike Tisdale’s 11.6 points per game they feature four guys averaging better than 11 points per game.

That balance is very similar to our own in that you don’t really know who is going to lead Illinois in scoring each night. Tisdale is obviously a matchup problem for us, especially with the 6’10" Davis helping him out in the paint. A solution is to go big with Calasan, Johnson, and Hummel together inside, but that leaves us dangerously short on personnel if someone gets in foul trouble. If Illinois is smart they will exploit this advantage. Tisdale has had a career high of 25 twice this year, but he’s also been shut out in a game.

Davis is just as up and down in scoring. He only had a point against Eastern Michigan, but had 28 against Clemson. That’s especially odd considering that Eastern Michigan may be the worst team they have played and Clemson is likely the best. Meachem is probably the more dangerous shooter than McCamey. McCamey can be a little streaky, but Meachem shoots 50% both from the field and from 3-point range. He also shoots almost 92% from the free throw line.

That is probably the biggest difference for Illinois. As a team they are shooting almost 73% from line, which is a vast improvement over last season. McCamey is 89% from the line while Davis is the weakest of the big four at 72%. Considering that Randle and Pruitt were both comfortably under 60% it is a huge step forward.

Despite their size advantage Illini is not a strong rebounding team. At 7’1" Tisdale should accidentally get 8 rebounds per game, but he only averages 4.7. Davis is the leader at 7.8, but as a team they only average 34 per game. Part of it does come from the fact that they are shooting better, meaning fewer chances for offensive rebounds. Tisdale does have a good number of his rebounds on the offensive glass, so it will be important to box him out on every shot attempt.

The scoring numbers also suggest that Illinois shares the ball very well. The assist totals back them up on this. Meachem and McCamey are very good at distributing the ball, averaging 2.7 and 4.5 assists per game. McCamey currently ranks 6th in the conference in that category. The duo doesn’t even lead Illinois as Chester Frazier plays the role of the true point guard. He’s only scoring 6.2 points per game, but he leads the Big Ten with 6.5 assists per game. Frazier is the engine that drives this team. It will be paramout to prevent him from controlling the pace and getting the ball to his teammates in the right spots. Unfortunately, McCamey and Meachem have proven they are capable of distributing the ball as well.

Illinois also features a very deep bench. Dominique Keller, Calvin Brock, Richard Semrau, and the son of the Great One: Jeffrey Jordan have all played in very game. They mostly spell the starting five who do most of the work. Brock plays the most while Keller contributes more than 6 points per game.

If Illinois has a weakness it is turning the ball over. They give the ball away 14 times per game and Frazier turns it over almost half as much as he gives an assist. The reality though is that Illinois is the second best shooting team in the conference. They also stay out of foul trouble. This will be a strong test for us to begin the conference season.

The area that we have to watch out for is if Illinois gets an inside-out game going on us. If we collapse down on Davis and Tisdale their guards can light it up from long range. If we stay out on them we open ourselves to getting killed in the paint. I do not feel good about this game because of these issues. It will take a tremendous defensive effort for us to win.

Some teams may have less overall talent than others, but for whatever reason they match up extremely well with certain opponents. I feel Illinois is like that with us. Jacksonville was awful this year, but for some reason they just match up well with the Colts and give them fits. The same is true for San Diego. Good teams find a way to overcome this and still win. If we’re truly a top 10 team we will find a way to do this, especially at home. We need the Purdue that played against Davidson to show up, not the Purdue of the last two games. I think we will answer the call because we often play to our level of competition. We have better competition than our last two games and I expect to respond accordingly. Purdue 69, Illinois 65