The Illinois Fighting Illini: Five Issues To Overcome As Big Ten Play Heats Up

David TorbertContributor IJanuary 30, 2009

After a disappointing loss to Minnesota Thursday night, the Illinois Fighting Illini (17-4, 5-3 Big Ten) now look ahead to a nine-game stretch that will either make or break their 2008-2009 season.

During these nine games, Illinois is going to have to combine several factors together—some they do well and others they need to improve upon—if they want to head into the Big Ten Tournament with any kind of confidence.

On the road again

It’s a well-documented fact that Assembly Hall has traditionally been a safe-haven where its home team is all but guaranteed a victory. However, Illinois must travel in five of their remaining nine games, so the ability to win on the road will be paramount.

The Fighting Illini has not fared so well at opposing arenas this season, holding a record of 4-3 as the visitors. When compared to the 14-1 mark at Assembly Hall, “Home Sweet Home” doesn’t say enough for Illinois, who must now face teams such as Wisconsin, Northwestern, Indiana, Ohio State, and Penn State on their home courts.

Illinois is struggling to score in opposing arenas, averaging 52.3 points per game over their previous three road contests—all three of which resulted in losses to Michigan, Michigan State, and Thursday’s loss to Minnesota.

A major reason Illinois wins at home is the atmosphere provided by the sea of orange and blue, and by the students-turned-fanatics that show up as part of the Orange Krush student cheering section.

Let’s just hope a lot of those orange-and-blue crazies decide to skip class and make the long treks to support their team as they push through a tough stretch of Big Ten basketball.

No excuses necessary

Following Thursday’s defeat to the Gophers, senior guard Calvin Brock  said, “They just wanted it more than we did, and they took it.”

Wait, what? You didn’t WANT to win?

Now, I know I’m taking his exact words very literally, and most of us know what he meant, but we hear that excuse way too often in sports. There is no excuse for not stepping on the floor ready to take home a victory.

Sure, the other team might come out hitting on all cylinders, so even a team’s best effort might not be enough, but giving your best is what it’s about in sports. Coming out “flat” is ridiculous, and that statement reflects poorly on not just the coaching staff for not making sure you’re ready, but on the players for not knowing it is game time.

That’s what the word “leadership” is all about, and why Illinois hasn’t reached the same heights since their 2004-2005 run, with players like Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and James Augustine on the floor. Sure, they were a talented trio, but they also had the ability to make adjustments to how the others were playing. If one guy didn’t have it, another stepped in and did what he did best.

Chester Frazier has assumed a leadership-type role, but he is nowhere near the caliber of player that he needs to be for Illinois to be successful.

So, going forward, Illinois must press on and prepare mentally and physically for every opponent like each potential game could be their last. They need to make sure everyone is on the same page, and no one will settle for anything less than a “W”.

Potential X-factors still riding the bench

Let me start this section by saying that I, in no way, find a player like Calvin Brock to be a God among men in college basketball, but as a senior who has been in Bruce Weber’s system for the past few years, he needs some more minutes—maybe he’ll surprise us all and actually be productive.

I use Brock as an example, but there are others I feel should get a chance to play, simply to get playing time, improve their skills, and most importantly, to give your work-horses a little rest.

Frazier assumes the role of a leader (and I use the term “leader” loosely,) because he’s on the floor 31.9 minutes per game. Putting others into the game to shake things up would give the senior guard some time to rest his legs, thus saving himself for not only the end of that game, but so that he is fresher down the stretch in either the conference tournament, or the NCAA tournament.

Again, I know most critics will drill me for this because of his bloodline, but playing a kid like Jeff Jordan will not only allow Frazier and fellow guard Demetri McCamey some rest, but it will allow Jordan the chance to gain valuable experience so he’s ready to assume a leadership role either next year, or in his senior season.

You’ll never know just how much of his dad’s basketball DNA Jordan got until he’s smack in the middle of clutch situations. My guess is, he’ll catch on quickly to those tense, Big Ten moments, and he’ll be a great leader to have come off the bench once Illinois hits March Madness.

Patience is a virtue

This year, and in the years since Weber came to Champaign, Fighting Illini basketball has been about setting the pace of the game, and forcing the other team to adjust to the style of play the Illini want to play on a given night.

Everyone who follows the Illini knows that their tempo is one of good ball movement and waiting patiently for a shot. Well, after Thursday’s performance, I’d be re-thinking strategy right about now.

Patience is fine and dandy, and I would rather see a well-calculated shot than one you take hoping to make a highlight reel, but all teams in the Big Ten know your game plan by now, so mix things up. Don’t run the shot clock down to single digits just because that’s the pace you want.

Admittedly, I didn’t catch Thursday’s game, so I don’t know the specifics on the pace of the game, but having watched more than a few this season, I know that at least part of the reason Illinois jacked up so many three-pointers was because they ran the clock down too far, realized they had no other viable scoring options, and hurled up a long one.

Granted, it could be that Minnesota’s defense was so stifling that the Illini had no other choice, but the fact they took eight three-pointers in the first half alone is alarming. Even more, they were 0-for-8 in the half. Combined with other poor shot selections, Illinois was 7-for-28 in the first half.

With all of that said, throw in another offensive set that spreads the floor, or puts your big men down low. Don’t keep sending your seven-foot center up past the free-throw line to set a screen. Keep him in the paint, if not to score an easy two points, then to rebound the ball to create more second-chance buckets.

It’s called a “charity stripe” for a reason

The free-throw line is a place like no other on the floor. You don’t have a defender up your nose trying to stuff the ball down your throat, and you don’t have to worry about being in a certain spot to catch and shoot.

So, in connection with what I previously discussed in the way of changing up the game plan, I think the Illini need to utilize the charity stripe more to create more scoring opportunities.

Let’s look at the numbers from the line for Illinois.

As a team the orange and blue are sitting at .726—good for third in the conference. However, Illinois has 55 fewer attempts than conference-leading Michigan State. Illinois’ leading free-throw shooter is center Mike Tisdale, who has connected on 40-of-50 attempts this season.

With Tisdale down low, why not feed him the rock? Either he turns and scores (no foul), gets fouled and scores or misses and is right there to fight for the rebound.

If Tisdale isn’t open, get it to senior guard Trent Meacham, who, if he doesn’t have an open look outside, should drive it in and try to get the foul call. Meacham is leading the team in free-throw percentage, connecting on nearly 90 percent of his attempts.

Despite Meacham’s impressive free throw accuracy, he isn’t among the conference leaders because he gets an average of just 1.85 attempts per game.

Big Ten play often comes down to clutch free throws, so Illinois' inability to make one of the easiest shots in basketball could cost them dearly in the coming games.

So Illini fans, I leave you to ponder these areas of interest I’ve explored as Illinois heads into their final stretch of the regular season. Feel free to share your thoughts and make suggestions on how you think Illinois can win over the final stretch of the regular season.