Thursday, March 21, 2013

Illinois 2013 Tournament Preview

It's been a crazy season for the Illini. They started strong, racing out of the gates to a 12-0 start that no one saw coming, including an epic win at Gonzaga and a championship in the Maui Invitational. Then there were the struggles during Big Ten season, where the team started to fall into the old precipices that were hallmarks of the Bruce Weber era. Finally, there was the nice rebound to the season, where Illinois pulled off some key victories, including a monstrous win against number 1 Indiana on an epic buzzer beater from Tyler Griffey. Now, on the verge of an NCAA Tournament appearance that few predicted before the season, the legacies of a few and the beginning of a new coach's era hangs in the balance.

No one thought this team would be here, let alone as a 7 seed. This is virtually the identical team from last year, a team that collapsed under Bruce Weber and sputtered to an embarrassing finish. This year, John Groce has reinvigorated the program. He saw them off to a blazing start, but more importantly, showed his coaching stripes when they fell into the depths of a slump that would have finished them off totally in recent years. Yet here was Groce, encouraging his team, believing in them, and even more than that, getting them to dig deep and do what they could to go out strong. Groce has made toughness and togetherness the main tenets of this season, and digging down and reaching for those traits got the Illini into the tournament.

It didn't hurt that Groce not only rejuvenated this program, but got more out of the senior group than Weber had in three years prior. I'm quite impressed with the development that DJ Richardson has shown throughout the season. This is a player that only a year ago was finding time on the bench and couldn't even find the confidence in himself to hoist up shots and keep up his defensive intensity. Groce found in him the toughness inherent in seemingly all Peoria basketball players, but for the first time since DJ's freshman year found a way to get it out. When Illinois was down and struggling in the middle of the season, it was DJ who help spark the team to a turnaround. He started to regain an intensity on both ends of the court that he hadn't had since he was Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and he produced more consistently on the offensive end than he ever had.

DJ and the rest of the seniors
More than that, though, was his leadership, both by example and vocal. Leadership has been a problem for the Illini since the Dee Brown era ended, and for the first time the Illini had a guy (except Chester Frazier and maybe to a certain extent Brandon Paul as well) that they could both look to vocally and to lead by example. It makes a world of difference to have a guy like that on your team in college basketball, because of the game by game grind through the conference schedule, the natural ups and downs of a season, and the fact that it's a game of runs led by college kids. My hats off to DJ for the way he showed this type of improvement even as a senior. It's a testament to John Groce as his coach, but also to DJ for putting in the extra effort to improve his game in his 4th season.

The big issue faced by the team though, and nearly any college basketball team looking to make a name for themselves and establish a program identity, was consistency. By definition, shown by the extreme highs and lows of their season, Illinois struggled all year to achieve basic consistency. They ran into problems establishing some kind of winning stability even within games, where they would hit freezing cold streaks that would make a lead disappear or put a game out of reach for the other team. I can tie this back into leadership all day, but at the end of the day you wonder if Illinois has enough offensive talent to carry the team any further than the first round.

A team with talented seniors like Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson, along with solid contributors Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin, should not struggle to be consistent this much. I go back to the way Bruce recruited, never identifying those natural leader types that could take a team with talent like this and make it win on a consistent basis. Maybe, besides maybe DJ, the guys on this team just aren't wired like that. Who knows. What we do know is that for the Illini to not only beat Colorado, but then have any chance of advancing further, they're going to need to be consistent on both ends of the court.

Paul is the key to success
This means Brandon Paul. Paul is the undisputed best player on the team, but in the same vein is a microcosm of the inconsistency that has plagued this program for years. There will be the games where you wonder how he isn't mentioned more in the national spotlight, and then there are games that drive you mad with his disappearing act. At this point in the season, though, Paul can show the type of player he really is. He can come in and hit big shots, like the buzzer beating game winner against Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, but he has to do it all game. Illinois looks to him first and foremost for offense, something I'm sure the opposing team knows as well.

He'll need his teammates to help support him, but when it comes down to it, this is a legacy defining game for him. He's been the best player in the program for at least 2 years and maybe 3. He has a chance now to put himself in the same conversation as all the other greats that have come through Illinois. His recruiting class came to Champaign as the much ballyhooed future of Illinois basketball and it hasn't panned out nearly as much as people hoped. But right now, with this tournament, he can change all of that.

I remember a few weeks back, watching both him and DJ participate in senior night, thinking, where has the time gone? These kids are seniors? Their time in college, like everyone else's, has flown by. I'm sure they'll look back at their time and remember their teammates, their coaches, the grueling practices, the travel, the wins, and the huge losses. But at the end of the day, Brandon now has a chance to not only cement a memory for him and his teammates that he'll never forget, but forge a legacy that will identify him with an entire fan base and alumni group. It's feelings like those that make college sports - and college in general - special. I hope he realizes that and capitalizes on it.

Schematically, the Illini need to play together. We all know that Brandon and DJ will be at the forefront of the offense and defense, but this team is going to need to do their best together to even advance past an underrated Colorado team. The mental lapses on defense that have plagued this team all season, with the failure to rotate, get up on the man, take the best positioning off a screen or against a penetrating defender - this is all stuff that had to practically be retaught to this team and is still having trouble showing up on the court. A guy like Tracy Abrams needs to come back and resemble the bull dog leader and defender we've seen in the past, and Illinois has to preach fundamentals on the offensive and defensive boards. Guys like Nnanna Egwu and McLaurin have to remember to box out and fight hard and hustle for every board. They need to use their size and strength to their advantage. If Illinois can break even on the glass and hit some three's, they should be successful in the tournament.

I also think we should see some adjustments from John Groce. Far too often we saw this team fall into a lull on offense that stymied anything resembling creative basketball. This team, from Joe Bertrand to Tracy Abrams, has athletes that can get to the hole and create offense. I don't care if it's Tracy on a drive and dish - settling for three's all day is going to kill not only any offensive rhythm, but good looks at offensive rebounds as well. And on defense, the team can slip into a zone to stop the athletic guards that permeate this tournament or stick with man; either way, they need to come out and practice defense as a team.

Even if Illinois puts on their best act, they still may fail to advance. The team is, whether they want to admit it or not, in the grips of a full on rebuilding mode as Groce figures out which players Weber recruited can actually play at this level. But with the senior leaders on this team, Illinois should at least play hard. They're talented enough to get out of the first round and have some potential (if they're on their best game), of shocking some people. Even if it doesn't happen, Paul and the rest of the seniors at that point can finish their careers at the school knowing they gave everything they had for that last tournament. They should want it to last as long as possible, because as everyone who has ever gone through college can attest, when it's over, it over. All you have at that point are the memories. Time for this team, these players, this coach, and this program, to get out there and make some for themselves and a fan base dying for them.