The segment is titled, “Interrogating the Opposition” and will aim at getting the questions answered about the opposing team from guest writers. Today, Chris Maynard of Writing Illini gives us the feel on campus and previews our opponent for tonight’s game.
S&G: After a tough loss to Michigan State, the Illini now stand at 7-7 in Big Ten play. What will it take for Illinois to get a shot at the NCAA Tourney?
CM: At 17-10 overall and 7-7 in Big Ten play with four conference games remaining, Illinois must win its two home games (Saturday, February 26th vs. Iowa and Saturday, March 5th vs. Indiana) and likely win at least one game in the Big Ten Tournament to get to 20 wins and feel safe come Selection Sunday. Of course, no win can ever be assumed with this Illini team led by an unpredictable senior class of Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Bill Cole. Iowa played Illinois extremely close during the Big Ten opener, and the Illini haven’t been impressive while beating the Hawkeyes three times in the last two seasons. IU beat Illinois earlier this season in Bloomington and has played Illinois really tough the last three contests. As Jay Bilas said during Saturday night’s game against Michigan State, these two home games are “can’t lose” as opposed to “must win” for the Illini.
As for Illinois’ two road games, I’m expecting losses. I don’t see Illinois knocking off the Buckeyes, an absolute matchup nightmare. Illinois probably should have beaten Ohio State the first time around but didn’t execute late in the game, which has been a problem all year long. And Ohio State is not going to lose two games in a row after falling to Purdue, which Illinois matches up well against. However, Purdue has been much better than expected without Robbie Hummel and I expect the Boilermakers to take down the Illini at Mackey Arena due to having a senior class of JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore that gets what it takes to win versus an Illinois senior class that doesn’t. If Illinois were to steal this game at Purdue, that would surely put them in the tournament, especially when considering what the Boilermakers did to the Buckeyes in West Lafayette on Sunday. But as said earlier, I’m not expecting Illinois to get Purdue.
Come the Big Ten Tournament, Illinois should be 19-12, 9-9, likely making its first game a must-win (just like last year against Wisconsin). As of right now, Illinois would play Michigan State in the 4-5 game. A loss there would put the Illini at 19-13 and in trouble, especially if other conference tournaments are up-for-grabs. Given the parity in college basketball, I’m expecting another ridiculous weekend of conference tournament upsets.
With that said, I could see Illinois getting in at 19-13 and being the last Big Ten team in the field (I’m expecting five teams as of right now), unless a Michigan or Minnesota gets hot and makes a run through the tournament. Illinois would be in better shape at 19-13 this season because it has the non-conference wins (UNC, Gonzaga) that it did not have last year. And I’m guessing that the much-disappointing Big Ten would save face with at least five selections (OSU, Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Illinois) given all the preseason acclaim.
S&G: It seems for the most part that at this point of the season, the offense remains pretty balanced. Who is the offensive leader to watch on Tuesday?
CM: I would say Demetri McCamey, who has been very disappointing the last month or so. McCamey was awful in the first meeting against Ohio State, and needs to have a bounce-back game where he’s getting in the lane and setting up teammates, cutting down his turnovers and hitting big shots when the Illini need them the most. Any semblance of defense would help as well, but that’s not McCamey’s game.
McCamey has never been a natural point guard. While he did a more than admirable job at the point last season, his decision making has been exposed big time this season. If he dribbles the ball to death against the Buckeyes, Illinois will be in big trouble.
S&G: At this point of the season, would you consider the year a disappointment?
CM: Yes, but not due to Illinois’ record. I was not buying the hype about this Illinois team and had the Illini with a slightly better record at this time of the year back in August during my pre-season predictions. I had Illinois as no more than a second-round team in the NCAA Tournament, and that looks like a stretch as of right now. If Illinois gets in, I’m expecting a one-and-done.
To me, Illinois’ greatest strength this year should have been its depth. The Illini are legitimately 11 deep but play a rotation of 8 (really 7 considering that Meyers Leonard doesn’t get significant minutes). While the seniors have always been complementary players, Bruce Weber should have used this season to play them in those complementary roles and start developing his youth. Unfortunately, Weber has once again failed to develop a bench, resulting in freshman Crandall Head wasting a year and promising sophomore Tyler Griffey getting no tick, which has been an absolute joke in my opinion. I’m very scared that Griffey will transfer after this season.
If this year has confirmed anything to me, it’s that Weber is too stubborn and inflexible of an in-game coach. While I think Weber’s a great person, I have big-time doubts that this program is going anywhere with him, even with all the talent coming in.
S&G: Bruce Weber was once considered the next best thing. Where do Illini fans stand on the coach and his future?
CM: Illini fans are irritated, and even the long-time Bruce Weber supporters (like me) are having serious doubts. A lot of people want Weber gone, which isn’t going to happen, even if this team misses the tournament for the third time in four years. Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther values the loyal Weber, who has a contract through 2015, I believe. The sad thing is that many Illinois fans, including me, have become apathetic with what the program has become. Frankly, it’s the same old, same old; Illinois loses a lot of close games that you know they’re not going to win. Weber prepares the team well but leaves a lot to be desired in terms of in-game adjustments, flexibility and rotations, and he constantly seems to be fighting with his players. Perhaps it’s this senior class, but that’s become an all-too familiar refrain during the last five or six seasons. I’ve pretty much given up on the season as this Illinois team is just not fun to watch.
S&G: What is one match-up on Tuesday that the Illini can take advantage of?
CM: Illinois had a lot of success against the Buckeyes in Champaign posting up freshman Jereme Richmond. I would like to see Illinois get Richmond some early interior touches against David Lighty or William Buford.
If I was on the Illinois coaching staff, I would also attack off the dribble with whomever Jon Diebler is guarding. Illinois took Ohio State to double overtime during the Big Ten Tournament last season in large part to getting Diebler in foul trouble. In his four years, Diebler has been an absolute Illini killer when on the floor. Even when Illinois seemingly has had Diebler contained, he has gotten in hot spurts that have been absolute back-breakers and momentum changers. I can’t wait until Diebler and Penn State’s Talor Battle graduate to be honest, because they have abused the Illini for far too long. Weber would be smart to start Brandon Paul over the struggling D.J. Richardson in this game (but won’t given Richardson’s status as a defensive stopper, which hasn’t been the case this season) as Paul would give the Illini another player who could attack off the bounce.