Monday, December 26, 2011

Direction of Illini Up in Air on Eve of Conference Play

I made a mental note to myself while watching the first 25-30 minutes or so of Illinois' loss to Missouri in the annual Braggin Rights game on December 22nd to avoid writing a "sky is falling" post after the game. As luck would have it, Illinois rebounded from its horrid start to begin an epic comeback and eventually take the lead, only to collapse again in miserable, typical Illinois fashion. As I watched this happen, I realized that this game, and the onset of conference play tomorrow against Minnesota, is the perfect opportunity to assess the stance of both the program and this young team.

Paul is at his best slashing to the basket
During the Missouri game, you had every component that symbolizes the Illinois program not only this year, but during all of Bruce Weber's tenure as head coach. First, you have highly recruited players that either fail to live up to expectations, are inconsistent, or simply aren't developed from what they were as high school players. Brandon Paul is a great example of this. The kid has all the talent in the world; he has NBA athletic ability and can take the ball to the hole with great success. Yet, he sits around the three point line launching threes time and time again. He's much too tentative and his lack of aggression can cost Illinois games, or at the very least render their motion offense ineffective. As a junior and the defacto best player this year after Demetri McCamey graduated, he's supposed to take a step up and lead by example. When the rest of the team sees him too tentative to use the motion offense to his advantage and penetrate into the lane for easy baskets, they do the same thing. Moreover, he's so wildly inconsistent that you simply don't know what you're going to get from him. One night he'll pour in 20 points and win games single-handedly (like the win against St. Bonaventure), and other times he'll disappear and other players will have to pick up his slack (like the win against Richmond).

Look, I like Brandon Paul. He's a great guy, great teammate, clean player, and has all the talent in the world. But how does he not recognize the limitations in his game and how they hurt the team? Take a quick look at his numbers. Paul's FG percentage this year is only 36%. His 3P percentage is even worse, at 27%. Yet he still attempts nearly 4 threes per game! How is this not an emphasis in practice? If you look at when Illinois is at their best, and Weber's motion offense is most successful, it's when you combine certain elements of a dribble-drive offense with a hard multiple screen look, creating open passing lanes and forcing the defense to overcompensate into passing lanes. The whole goal is to create easy baskets and not have to rely on three point attempts to win games. The version of the motion offense that worked so well with the 2004-05 Illinois team was somewhat different because both Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and Luther Head were such great three point shooters, but the same basic elements were there. They had quick, athletic guards who could penetrate, work off multiple screens, and get open looks and easy baskets. What is so frustrating is that Weber and his staff have recruited players like Paul, D.J. Richardson, Joe Bertrand, Crandall Head, Tracy Abrams, Myke Henry, etc. for this exact type of system, and yet none of them seem to buy into it or execute it well. Instead, for much of the game Illinois passes the ball around the three point line until finally launching an ill advised shot as the shot clock expires. It's maddening to watch.

Leonard can be a dominating force
Moreover, the system works even better with an elite big man in the post to suck in double teams and kick out for open looks. James Augustine worked this to perfection in 2004-05, and Illinois now has a player with even more talent than Augustine in Meyers Leonard. The problem is, and I simply DO NOT understand how this happens, is that Illinois struggles to get him the ball. During the Missouri game, Leonard had absolutely no one guarding him that could stop him. He should have touched the ball on nearly every possession. Instead, Illinois played the dribble-around-aimlessly-and-either-launch-a-bad-shot-or-turn-the-ball-over game, something that Illinois fans know is incredibly difficult to watch. Yet, later in the game, when the Illini made a huge run, it centered around the post play of Leonard and the penetration and shot creation of -gasp- Joe Bertrand (more on him in a minute), Paul, and Richardson. For all the Illinois fans who've watched Leonard this year, he's a breath of fresh air for a program struggling with big men since Augustine graduated. He can dominate for stretches at a time and has his ticket punched for the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft. For now though, Illinois - and I can't believe I have to say this - needs to make him more of an emphasis in the game plan.

Bertrand could be a breakout star
Back to Bertrand. A member of the same class as Paul and Richardson, he's fought injuries and the depth chart since he arrived at Illinois. Weber threw him into the Missouri game as he went with a 4 guard lineup down the stretch to combat the elite speed and quickness of Missouri. Bertrand replaced Crandall Head, who is another player with all the talent in the world who can't stop turning the ball over. Once he was in, Bertrand (a 6'5, 200 pound matchup nightmare), did everything that Brandon Paul should do in every game. He used his great athleticism to get to the hole, mixing in easy layups and quick, pull up jumpers in the lane. He recognized that he can use the strengths of his game to keep the Missouri defense off-balance and at the same time create opportunities for the rest of his teammates. If Paul did this on a daily basis, not only do we beat Missouri, but we beat UNLV at the United Center a week ago and sit undefeated headed into conference play. I really hope that the Missouri game serves as a huge confidence booster for Bertrand and he continues his great play, which would provide a MUCH-needed alternative scoring option for Illinois for when they inevitably forgot how to score for prolonged periods of time in each game.

Time for Weber to prove himself
Knowing these realities, where does this put Illinois headed into conference play? At 11-2, Illinois is far and away better than they have been the past few years. I expect there to be more growing pains with the younger players on the team, like Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Mike Shaw, Henry, and Head. But at the same time, Weber needs to have those guys ready to go. Moreover, the big-name players need to be more consistent and productive. Paul needs to adapt his game and stop pretending he's a great shooter. Leonard needs to control his emotions and get the ball more. D.J. needs to step up and be a leader, both vocally and by example. But in my mind, the most important factor down the stretch is Weber. This is his 6th season at Illinois since the likes of Dee, Deron, Luther, and Augustine (all recruited by Bill Self) have played in Champaign, and in those seasons he has exactly 1 NCAA tournament win. He knows that this is an important season for both the program and his career. He needs to prove that he can win in his system with his own players. Weber knows that AD Mike Thomas is evaluating both the football and basketball programs, and we all know what happened on the football side of things after a disappointing season. Granted, he's had problems in the past of players not holding up to their end of the bargain (see Mike Davis and Demetri McCamey), but by all accounts this team is all-in with Weber. If he can get the team to play on a consistent level, the talent of this Illini version will be enough to get into the NCAA tournament. But that won't be enough. We need NCAA wins. Recruits need to see NCAA wins. And for Weber himself, he knows he won't settle for anything less. He worked magic with the 04-05 team; now it's time to do it again with his own guys. And after another bad football season, Illini Nation needs it.


Anonymous said...

Weber has turned this program into a mediocre nothing. If the new AD means what he says, then this is Weber's final year. A new coach will inherit incredible talent, so this is surely among the best opportunities in the nation.

Dave Johnsen said...

Who's anonymous? I agree that Weber leaves something to be desired, but he has reestablished the recruiting pipeline to Chicago that was missing early in his career. From what I gather, he puts players in the position to succeed, but he's not out there causing Brandon Paul, Richardson, or whoever to not execute the motion offense. I don't think he's going to get fired. He's one of the good guys in coaching. Having said that, I think he will get canned if we miss the tourney. That's just unacceptable. Bottom line - everyone needs to get their act together.