Illinois 78-Western Michigan 63: Hoops Musings for the Morning After, Gm. 7

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Maybe this Illinois men’s basketball team has matured far more than I have been giving it credit for.

In what could have been a slip up prior to games against North Carolina and Gonzaga, the Illini took care of Western Michigan on Saturday, coming out in the first half with great urgency and patience on both ends of the ball.

All in all, Illinois really impressed yesterday, with the exception of a sloppy start to the second half, leading to some very positive observations.

Give credit to Bruce Weber. He was harping how the WMU game could be dangerous if Illinois looked ahead. While his team consistently took games for granted last season, Weber’s Illini were sharp, focused and ready against the Broncos. It was nice to see the Illini overwhelm an inferior opponent from the get go, with a 25-point lead at the break a nice cushion indeed.

Weber and his coaching staff had a wonderful game from an Xs and Os standpoint. Illinois made it a point to shut down WMU star Flenard Whitfield, who scored 17 points in Champaign last season, and the Illini did better than imagined. Whitfield had just 2 points on 1-for-7 shooting and 0 rebounds (!) as Mike Davis took him completely out of the game.  Of course, the game plan on Whitfield allowed WMU center Matt Stainbrook to have a big game inside, something that the Illini were willing to live with.  Back to Weber. With 0.9 seconds left to go in the first half, he called a timeout to draw up a play underneath the WMU basket. The play worked, as Mike Tisdale set a screen and then slipped to the basket, where he received a beautiful lob pass from Demetri McCamey and laid the ball in at the horn. Talk about the perfect exclamation point to a dominant first 20 minutes of basketball.

Speaking of McCamey, he is proving to be quite the master at the lob pass. McCamey has hit Tisdale and Meyers Leonard (see the Maryland game) with lob passes at the rim off of inbound plays. In the last two games, McCamey has had beautiful assists on lob dunks by Brandon Paul.

Weber threw me a curveball when he started Paul in place of Bill Cole. Paul responded with a very solid first half where he was hitting from the inside and outside, dishing the rock, playing under control and causing some havoc in the passing lanes, where he should regularly flourish as he is not that good at containing the dribble. Weber said the move was to take some pressure off of Cole, who has been tight lately, but ESPN3.com analyst Tim McCormack hit it on the head by saying that this move was made in preparation for the athleticism of North Carolina on Tuesday night. Cole seemed to respond when coming in the game yesterday, immediately crashing the boards and tapping out an Illinois miss. At the end of the day, Cole is better off the bench, where he can infuse some much-needed energy and hustle. While I feel Paul is a great spark off the bench, either Jereme Richmond or he should be starting at the small forward spot. Personally, I’d prefer Richmond since he’s an absolute gamer and provides great toughness down low.

While this Illini team is not all that great defensively (at least yet), Illinois played with superb intensity on this end of the floor in the first half. Illinois was quick to the ball, contested shots and turned WMU over often in the first 20 minutes. Davis helped set the done by getting in the passing lane for a steal and dunk in the game’s first couple of minutes, and McCamey kept it rolling by showing active hands and coming up with two loose balls early on.

Illinois was extremely patient on offense in the first half, displaying excellent ball movement and passing up on threes for mid-range twos. On several occasions, Illini players such as D.J. Richardson and Paul used shot fakes to either free up an easier shot for themselves or teammates. It was great to see the Illini not settle for OK shots and rather work the ball for very good looks.

Mike Tisdale had some trouble guarding Stainbrook and finishing at the rim, but still had 18 points. While Tisdale has missed some bunnies that he usually makes in the last couple of games, I like the fact that Illinois is making a concerted effort early on to get him some post touches. Tisdale will eventually start hitting these shots as he is just too good of a shooter.

The Illini dropped off in the second half but didn’t let the game get any closer than 15 points. Just when it looked like WMU could get the game in the single digits, Illinois got the lead back to 20. WMU established the tempo in the second half, and the Illini fell into the breakneck pace at times, forcing some quick shots. While Illinois did a good job of getting the game back under control, the Illini still need to work on slowing down the game when other teams are making runs. Illinois fell into similar traps against Texas and Maryland. The Illini also aren’t that good at containing dribble penetration, with WMU getting to the basket at will in the second half. Ultimately, how Illinois stops the dribble and rebounds will determine this team’s fate.

Here are some quick player observations.

Demetri McCamey

8 points (2-8 from the field, 2-4 from three, 2-4 from the line), 4 rebounds, 10 assists, 0 turnovers, 1 steal, 1 block and 2 fouls in 34 minutes

I may have been a bit too hard on McCamey when I called him out for not getting on the floor for a loose ball against Yale on Tuesday night. While McCamey struggled again with his shooting, he really impressed with his defense and overall floor game against WMU. McCamey had active hands early, coming up with two “50/50” balls. And no turnovers in 34 minutes is just phenomenal. McCamey basically controlled the game without having a big scoring output.

D.J. Richardson

8 points (4-7 from the field), 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 turnover, 1 steal and 2 fouls in 29 minutes

In the last two games, Richardson has seemed to settle down, taking his time on his jumper rather than rushing threes. Richardson did a nice job of not settling for threes on Saturday, using two pump fakes in the first half to get mid-range shots that he drilled. Amazingly, Richardson did not shoot a three on Saturday, which may have been a first in his young Illini career.

Brandon Paul

14 points (6-10 from the field, 2-3 from three), 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 turnovers, 1 steal and 2 fouls in 19 minutes

With the exception of briefly drawing Weber’s ire in the second half, when he missed a point-blank layup that he should have dunked and then tentatively ran a three-on-one break but still hit a jumper, Paul was very solid and efficient in his first start of the season. Paul came out like a machine, hitting several open threes, making a crazy banker and using a nice head fake and dribble to set up a Tisdale jumper from the corner. Paul also got into the passing lane on a WMU inbound pass that he knocked out of bounds. While Paul still had three turnovers, he has played under much better control this season versus last. The difference has been night and day. Illinois fans should be very excited about the sophomore’s development thus far. Paul could be the X-factor against UNC.

Mike Davis

12 points (6-9 from the field, 0-1 from three), 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 turnovers, 1 steal, 1 block and 2 fouls in 27 minutes

It was nice to see Davis get involved early, scoring Illinois’ first four points, with his second bucket created by his defense. All in all, Davis had a very efficient performance and brought some decent energy. While he has been forgotten a bit in the offense, Davis has not been pouting. However, there is one thing that is worth watching: Davis only had four rebounds and hasn’t had a double-digit rebounding game in the last three games. In fact, Davis only has one double-digit rebounding game so far in seven games. All in all, Davis and the Illini need to bolster the boards, where they were destroyed in New York by Texas and Maryland.

Mike Tisdale

18 points (6-12 from the field, 0-2 from three, 6-6 from foul line), 7 rebounds, 1 assist, 0 turnovers, 0 steals, 2 blocks and 4 fouls in 31 minutes

Tisdale missed some chippies and struggled against the surprisingly nimble Stainbrook but bounced back with a very solid game, particularly from the outside. Tisdale led the Illini in rebounding with 7 boards. His rebounding has been a pleasant surprise all season. If he can convert his bunnies and play better defense without fouling (Tisdale had four fouls on Saturday), the Illini will be even better as a team. With that said, expect Tisdale to start converting down low but continue to struggle defensively and always be in foul trouble.

Jereme Richmond

12 points (6-9 from the field, 0-1 from three), 5 rebounds, 0 assists, 0 turnovers, 1 steal and 1 block in 22 minutes

Richmond is quickly becoming a favorite. This kid just knows how to play on the interior. I love the fact that Richmond comes in the game and immediately establishes himself on the block. In a day and age when players love to bomb jumpers, Richmond makes his living doing the dirty work. Against WMU, Richmond had his most efficient game in my opinion, proving to be a stabilizing force inside when Illinois needed some buckets in the second half. How Richmond and UNC’s Harrison Barnes play on Tuesday night could go a long way towards whether the Illini or Tar Heels come out with a victory.

Bill Cole

2 points (1-for-3 from the field, 0-1 from three), 2 rebounds and 1 assist in 12 minutes

Coming off the bench, Cole seemed more relaxed to me, hustling down a quick offensive board and later scoring on a put back. In some regards, it’s had to be tough for Cole with more talented players like Richmond and Paul on the bench and capable of supplanting him, with it being a matter of when and not if. At the end of the day, Cole is a team player who will accept whatever role he has. While better suited for the bench, Cole will prove especially valuable with his energy and experience come Big Ten season.

Meyers Leonard

0 points (0-1 from the field), 2 rebounds and 2 fouls in 9 minutes

As the Tribune’s Chris Hine said, Leonard is a bull in a china shop at this point in his career. He has been playing a bit too fast and physical in the past couple of games. Leonard struggles a bit in terms of getting too physical with his body, which can lead to some cheap fouls. With that said, Leonard did display his ability to run the court in the first half, breaking up a WMU layup and then saving the ball to the Illini. While his freshman season should have some highs and lows, Leonard’s talent for a 7-footer is incredible. I’m already starting to worry about how long he will be in Champaign. As of Thanksgiving, NBADraft.net had Richmond and Leonard as the 6th and 12th picks of the 2012 draft. That would mean only two years in Champaign. I’m hoping three seasons for both these guys, though this is probably wishful thinking.

Tyler Griffey

4 points (2-4 from the field, 0-1 from three), 2 rebounds and 1 block in 8 minutes

Griffey had a nice bounce-back game after a rough outing against Yale, hustling his way to two tip-in baskets and doing a good job with the little things. Griffey did leave the game in the second half after getting his legs accidentally cut from underneath him and landing on his head, thus requiring stitches. Leonard is expected to play against UNC and will be needed as he usually steps up in big games (see MSU and OSU last year).

Crandall Head

0 points (0-1 from the field), 1 rebound and 3 turnovers in 6 minutes

Prior to two bad turnovers late in the game, Head was actually under control when playing meaningful minutes. He passed up on two shots that I can remember to run some clock. As Weber has indicated, Head will need to have an impact on this team as a defender during his freshman season.

Joseph Bertrand

0 stats in 1 minute

Bertrand probably could have seen more minutes in this game with Illinois up big.

Kevin Berardini

1 rebound in 1 minute

Berardini came up with a nice rebound in the final seconds.

Jean Selus

0 stats in 1 minute

Along with Bertrand and Berardini, Selus saw action very late when Illinois was instructed not to shoot the ball out of respect for the score.

Alright.

Until UNC.