Fighting Illini basketball has a completely different feeling to it in 2011 than it did in 2010. After last year’s exhibitions, there was a lot of bellyaching about our failure to dominate Division II competition. Illinois fans experienced the nagging fear that this would be the same old team that failed to make the NCAA tournament in 2009. The angst turned out to be pretty well justified. While the Illini made the tournament and, mirable dictu, won a tournament game, the general feeling amongst the fanbase was that Illinois had stumbled into the tournament with no back to back victories since the dawn of the B1G season. This year, we’re coming off comfortable victories against admittedly inferior opposition. The Illini have a full complement of scholarship players for the first time in a while, and it’s been a pleasure watching the young guys and the forgotten guys (h/t Bert) get out there and compete. For the first time in a while, we don’t know what we’re getting. It’s the reason that getting Christmas presents is more enjoyable than just going on a shopping spree; the anticipation and surprises add a frisson to the proceedings.
Player reviews (plus/minus for the Quincy game in parenthesis)
Brandon Paul (+25): Brandon has faded into the background thus far this preseason. This could be due to his desire to “let the game come to him”. However, while he has seemed a little less present than I and other fans had hoped, BP3 is still shooting an aggregate 50% from the field and is averaging 2.5 assists per game. I’d rather have him play within himself than try to do too much. Let’s not forget that Demitri’s game suffered from the weight placed upon him.
DJ Richardson (+23): Among the players we thought we knew, DJ has been the biggest revelation. He seems to possess more strength and lateral quickness this year. DJ has continued to take the ball hard to the hole, and his shooting has been electric. It’s almost as if he’s gotten all the benefits of his hard work for this season and last all at once. He’s also looked more sure with the ball, which is crucial given our current lack of depth at point guard.
Sam Maniscalco (+4): And now for some less optimistic talk. Sam seems a little slow. This is doubtless due to his lack of conditioning. The coaches need to exercise a great deal of caution with Mr. Maniscalco; he must get as much rest as possible during the theoretically less challenging games on the schedule so that he can provide depth during the B1G season. Sam only played 13 minutes, stroked a nice three-ball, but the offense struggled while he was in there. The other players seem to give him a great deal of respect, so if an example is needed, I believe Sam can provide it. I do find it unlikely that he could play more than 20 minutes/game given his current level of health.
Tracy Abrams (+15): Tracy continues to impress. He has proven to be an excellent on-the-ball defender, even against quick guards. Quincy did not possess one of those on Monday and Tracy took advantage, forcing a couple of turnovers. TA also showed a willingness to get his nose dirty on the offensive glass, hauling in three o-boards out of his total of five. Running the offense, it seems he is the anti-McCamey-he doesn’t dribble a lot on the top of the key, preferring to initiate the offense quickly and get into his cuts. He suffered from a poor shooting night on Monday, but found other ways to contribute. He may turn out to be what we thought Sam would be, if that makes any sense.
Joe Bertrand (+10): JoeTales continues to impress. He really has a knack for filling up a statsheet without consuming too many possessions. 8 points on 50% shooting, 5 boards, three steals, three assists- all in just 21 minutes. It seems Weber is also letting him run some point. On this team, the point guard designation has a little less meaning than it has in the past. There are currently four or five players who initiate the offense. The highlight for JB against Quincy was a nice steal and layup early in the second half. His defense has been surprisingly effective-he does a good job interrupting passing lanes and getting back home to his man.
Myke Henry (+6): The other Illini to make his long awaited-debut was Myke Henry. Myke had a rough go of it early; he seemed uncomfortable with the ball on the wing. However, as the game wore on, Myke found a way to contribute, corralling 8 rebounds and tossing in some garbage baskets. This seems to be the tendency amongst the new players; if their specialty isn’t working for them, they find a way to contribute. Myke’s defense was a little foul-prone. He has the athletic gifts to play better defense and we should expect that moving forward. He’s a bit of a chucker, but at some point those shots are going to go in.
Tyler Griffey (+7): Griffey attempted just one shot on Monday. He was held scoreless but managed to do some dirty work with effective defense in the interior and 5 rebounds. Weber has recently designated the power forward position as a possible nexus of competition. I don’t think Shaw is comfortable enough in the offense to displace Tyler as the starter. Tyler also has been developing a really nice high-low attack with Meyers, and he got another pretty find for a dunk on Monday. Expect TG to have an up-and-down year in terms of scoring. If there’s nothing there for him, he won’t force his offense, which in my mind is not a bad thing. He’s also been used as a steadying influence with younger lineups.
Mike Shaw (+18): Mike, along with TA, has been the most impressive freshman. It seems he has the tendency to toss up some heat-check threes early in his appearances, Thus far, these have not been successful. Once he discovers this, he cheerfully retires to his station down low. Shaw got 9 rebounds last night. It seems Weber is rotating him with Griffey exclusively. I don’t believe they’ve been on the floor together thus far. Shaw’s comfort with dirty work makes him a great complement for Egwu. Shaw made another couple of nice passes which would have been assists if not for fouls. His passing ability should make him a great combination with Egwu, much like the Tyler-Meyers connection.
Nnanna Egwu (+13): Egwu had a rougher go of it against Quincy’s bigs. He turned the ball over three times and put up 5 points to go along with his 5 rebounds. He’s a physical specimen who’s a work in progress on the defensive end. A bright spot was the he seemed to be moving his feet more and leaping less-a bit of progress on the not-fouling front. Egwu also struggled from the line-he was long with several of his free throws and wound up 3-8. As he shot freebies well in high school, I’m not terribly concerned with that performance.
Ibrahim Djimde (+15): While Djimde clearly enjoys being active, he needs to develop his skills more to be an effective member of the rotation. He’s flashed some nice passing ability- managing to find TA for a layup as the clock wound down in the first half. However, his offensive skills are pretty lacking. He also continued his poor performance at the line. His 0-fer on Monday left him at 17% for the exhibition season. I’m hoping for a redshirt here. He’ll be a monster along the lines of Jajuan Johnson if he manages to develop an offensive game.
Meyers Leonard (+7): Meyers once again demonstrated his all-around improvement in the Quincy game. He’s not the foul machine we had feared-he just drew one foul while blocking 4 Quincy attempts. Meyers was also once again a paragon of efficiency on the offensive end. He added 10 points in his limited minutes, choosing to dunk everything he can. He showed flashes of a post game and a turnaround jumper as well. Weber continues to limit his minutes-just 15 on Monday. I can’t figure out whether it is health precautions or a desire to see what other players have on offer driving this. Still, it seems Meyers will make major contributions for the Illini this year. He’s probably the least challenged of any of the starters, as Egwu is too far from ready to lay a claim to the spot.
Jean Selus (+1): Canada is as Canada does-got a basket Monday.
Kevin Berardini (+2): Fan Favorite. Currently aspiring to Steve Roth Status. Threaded a nice assist to mark on the score sheet.
Aggregate plus-minus for the two exhibitions:
Predicted Starting Lineup for Loyola.
Same lineup as started the Quincy game. You could make an argument for Bertrand, but with Sam gimpy, I feel like he’s more valuable off the bench.