Illinois Basketball Non-Conference Recap: The Good, Bad and Ugly


Greetings Illinois fans,

As the holidays approach and teams prepare for conference play, it is time to look back at Illinois’ non-conference portion of the schedule and point out what was good and what needs to change in order for the Illini to have success in conference play and the postseason.

We will start with the bad, not because there has necessarily been more bad than good, but simply because it is always better to end on a positive note.

A week ago, Illinois players felt that they had a chance of achieving their goal of a top-10 ranking by Christmas.

After two straight losses, Illinois will likely drop from the top 25 all together when the new polls are released on Monday.

The Illini must take note of what has gone wrong and correct it before they begin conference play at Iowa on December 29th if they hope of a good seed in the NCAA tournament.

Here are some observations about the Illini that have been frustrating and problematic.

  • Illinois is 1-2 against teams in the top 25 this season, and their only win, against #24 Gonzaga, is not as impressive as the Bulldogs have not been in the top 25 since that game. Both Gonzaga and UNC (preseason top 10 but unranked when the two played) are solid wins that will look better as the season progresses, but the Illini have a hard time finishing games against quality opponents.
  • Once again, energy is a problem. The Illini have no problem getting pumped up for big games like UNC and Missouri, but they continue to look past mid-major opponents. It hurt them last year when Bradley and Utah upset the Illini, and it came back to bite them again as UIC pulled off the shocker in Chicago.
  • No team starts the second half as flat as Illinois. This is not a statistic, there may be a team that is worse, but not that I’ve seen. Big game or small, Illinois seems unable to carry any momentum into the second half. The Illini always seem in a daze and are forced to find a rhythm all over again.
  • Mike Tisdale can’t stay out of foul trouble. The senior has fouled out of four games and had four fouls in another five. After all the talk in the offseason of how he had matured into a more physical center, it appears that all he learned how to do is swat at everything and everyone in his path.
  • Despite having the tallest average height of any college team in the nation (that one is a fact), Illinois can’t rebound. The Illini have been outrebounded by opponents six times this season. One big reason is that players continue to try to bring  down the ball one-handed.
  • Players don’t move. Watch the Missouri or Texas game and you will see what I mean. On offense, these teams always are moving, cutting, driving, making the defenders work. Now watch Illinois on offense. Demetri McCamey will stand at the top of the key with the ball, and the other four players will just stand there. It is one thing to try and slow the game to your tempo, but Illinois’ players seem like if they don’t have the ball in their hands, they are weighted to the ground.

Having listed these issues, let’s take a look at the positives from the Illini thus far.

The Illini sit at 10-3, one win better than last season, but this year’s losses (aside from UIC) are much easier to swallow.

Texas and Missouri are both teams that will go very far in the tournament, unlike last year’s teams such as Bradley, Utah, and Georgia.

Just an interesting observation, Illinois is 7-0 at home, 1-0 on the road, and 1-3 at neutral sites.

Here are some good things the team has done and needs to continue to do in conference play.

  • Making the three. Despite its terrible shooting from behind the arc in the last two losses, Illinois is still 20th in the nation in three point shooting. The team shoots an impressive 40.6% from downtown.
  • Passing the rock. Illinois is also 20th in the nation in assists per game, thanks in large part to McCamey. The senior is fourth in the nation in assists, after finishing last season second, and recently became only the sixth player in the history of the entire Big Ten conference to record 1,400 points and 600 assists.
  • Defending the home court. Every one of the Illini’s seven home wins has been by double digits. Establishing Assembly Hall as a place opponents are afraid to visit is important, and one of the team’s stated goals is to go undefeated at home.
  • Jereme Richmond is legit. With fellow freshman Jarred Sullenger putting up Player of the year numbers in Columbus, Richmond has gotten little national recognition for how well he has played thus far. The freshman is sixth on the team in points per game and third in rebounds per game off the bench, and those numbers could improve if he stays in the starting lineup, which he just cracked into before the Missouri game. Richmond provides great energy and is the most aggressive Illinois player under the basket.
  • It is no longer all McCamey. While McCamey is still the unquestioned leader and orchestrates the entire team’s offense, the Illini have 4 players averaging double figures and two more averaging more that 7 points per game. Even when McCamey struggles to score, there is another player who is there to step up.
  • D.J. Richardson is a lockdown defender. No one seems to be talking about the sophomore the season after he won Big Ten freshman of the year honors, but not only is Richardson second on the team in points, minutes, assists, and 3-point percentage, but he is constantly tasked with guarding the opponents top scorer. Not only does his defense help the Illini by keeping points off the opponents board, but it allows McCamey to focus on running the offense instead of worrying about stopping the other team’s star (not that McCamey has ever been known as an excellent defender).

A 10-3 record is nothing to be ashamed of at this point in the season, though it is admittedly not what many had been expecting. The good news for Illinois is that it has a strong chance to build a 4-game win streak in its first few conference games.

The road trip to Iowa to start the Big Ten slate should be another double-digit road win for Illinois.

Iowa is barely over .500 after an embarrassingly easy non-conference schedule.

Wisconsin’s visit to Assembly Hall, the first game for Illinois in 2011, will be tough, but the Illini should be able to defend their home turf. Northwestern’s visit to Champaign will be no picnic for the Illini either, but is very winnable.

A trip to Penn State should give the Illini a confidence building win before they face a brutal stretch of games: at Wisconsin, Michigan State at home, and Ohio State at home.

While no games are a sure thing in the Big Ten this year, Illinois is still a realistic contender for the conference title as of right now.

For now, Writing Illini would like to with everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holidays.

Here’s to an exciting and successful 2011!