Talking how much are we gonna miss Dee Brown blues

Big Ten Wonk stole my headline (and that of about 100 other would-be reporters) in his post today: "Where will the points come from for Illinois?" It's the question on every Illini fan's mind -- well, that and "Are we sure Dee Brown doesn't have another year of elligibility?" (I checked, and Dee is quite happy on the Jazz's inactive list, sitting beside The Rev. They've got the best seat in the house to watch Deron post 16 points and 8 assists a night for the up-and-coming Jazz.)

Last night's opening exhibition game against Lewis was quite possibly the most boring blowout I've ever witnessed (in stark contrast to the Bulls thrashing of the Heat on opening night). The lack of dramatic open-court dunks (Lewis fouled -- sometimes hard -- when those opportunities arose); the sloppy play (from both teams); the inability of Jamar Smith to ignite the crowd with a three-pointer (he was 0-for-8 following a 2-for-9 performance in the Orange/Blue Scrimmage); the whistle-happy refs (in particular one zebra who couldn't swallow his whistle over the game's final minutes as the other two had done); the Assembly Hall seats (gotta be the most uncomfortable seats in the Big Ten): it all made for one painful viewing experience. But the Illini still won 83-58 in a laugher against a team that didn't sport a player taller than 6-foot-6.

I think the bulk of what will trouble the Illini this season presented itself in plain detail last night against a mediocre, Division-II school. And here's a quick run-down:

1) Can this team shoot from beyond the arc if Smith's shot isn't falling? The answer as of last night is "NO!" Illinois converted just 14 percent of its three-point attempts. Sure, Rich McBride sat out on account of his (too light) penalty for a DUI. With him on the floor, the Illini have another three-point threat. Certainly, Trent Meacham (who shot 2-for-5 on threes) will be helpful from long range. But then you're left with, uh, Chester Frazier, Calvin Brock, and Brian Randle? I don't like those odds. Chet the Jet has shot 4-for-9 in exhibition from beyond the arc, but anyone who saw him shoot the rock last year has to question whether he can maintain that precision in games that count against quality defenders. Ditto for Brock and Randle, rebuilt shot or not. The troubling thing about Smith's inability to convert early on is that the defensive pressure is only going intensify on him this season. He's the new Dee Brown -- the guy who opponents' game plans will focus on. He's not going to get a lot of easy looks this year from beyond the arc. And that worries me.

2) Can this team rebound? They had a distinct size advantage over Lewis, and yet they were still outrebounded 40-37, including allowing the Flyers 13 offensive rebounds. That ain't gonna get it done -- especially when your guards are outrebounding your bigs (Frazier and Brock combined for 12 boards; War-ren Car-ter, Marcus Arnold, and Shaun Pruitt grabbed just seven). Lewis out-hustled the Illini on the glass, using quickness to get in a better position to rebound. That will have to change, and fast. For a team stocked with bigs, Illinois needs to own the glass. I hope to see significant improvement from Carter, especially, but also Randle.

3) Can this team defend without fouling the other team to death? At several points in the second half of last night's game, Coach Weber could be distinctly heard shouting "Don't foul!" to his players. Sure, the refs were breaking in their new whistles, but the Illini also gave them reason to blow hard. Illinois defenders were overplaying the perimeter players as typical, but then relying on their hands instead of their feet to help them out when the opposing player made a move to the hoop. They hustled their tails off on defense, but the team's inexperience showed in making some stupid fouls. Still, the defensive pressure forced 22 turnovers, including nine alone from Lewis' starting guards.

4) Can anyone sink their free throws? Last night, we shot 56 percent. If we shoot like that in the Big Ten, we're going to be a bottom-feeder. Frazier was only a 50 percent shooter last season from the charity stripe, and in last night's contest he was 1-for-6 after shooting just 4-for-8 in the team scrimmage. As primary ballhander, he's going to get some opportunities, and he needs to develop into at least a 65 percent shooter by Big Ten play. Pruitt will also need to greatly improve upon his 48 percent shooting from last season. As active as he figures to be on the offensive boards and as the team's primary low-post scoring option, he needs to develop some kind of stroke from the foul line. These two guys are going to shoot a lot of free throws this season, and if they're only hitting 50 percent of them, you can bet that Illinois is going to lose a few close games as a result.

Now, let's look at what I feel are this team's keys to success.

1) Brian Randle. We need him healthy and on the floor for at least 30-35 minutes a game. He's our best player, and more importantly our best defender on a team that will need to rely on defense and hustle to win games in the Big 10. There's been so much attention given to his offensive improvement; but to be honest, as long as he gets his four dunks a game, can hit the occasional open J, and improves his free-throw percentage (I'd be thrilled with 70 percent), that's good enough for me. I just want him on the court a bulk of the game, shutting down the opponent's best scorer. He'll have another offseason and his senior year to continue to make strides on offense.

2) Chester Frazier. The kid has really impressed thus far in exhibition games, showing an ability to hit a jump shot and get into the lane and to the rim. He's going to be a solid point guard, as he takes care of the ball and generally makes good passes and decisions. If he gives us anything as far as scoring is concerned, his teammates should be very thankful. We need him to make his defender play him honest, and I suspect he'll do that by penetrating often and dishing to open teammates. My prediction: fans are going to love this kid. By the time his Illini career is up, we'll be casually asking, "Do you remember that Dee Brown? Man, he was fast, but Chet the Jet, now there's a kid who can really get up and down the floor..."

3) The Illini bigs. We need our collection of tall boys to develop into a cohesive whole that is capable of becoming a strength each and every game. I don't mean simply in terms of scoring. Yes, some interior scoring will be helpful. But I'm more worried about neutralizing the opposing team's big men (and we have enough big bodies/fouls to do that) and getting it done on the boards. We need to post yet another top-notch points-per-possession number on defense, making sure that opponents get only one shot at scoring each trip down the court.

4) Rich McBride. He's been given a third chance to get it right, and the senior needs to take advantage of it. We need him to improve his three-point shooting from 40 percent to the mid-40s, and we need him to put the ball on the floor and drive into the lane with more frequency. Of our regulars, he's our best free-throw shooter by far, and we need him to get to the line at least five times a night.

Overall, I think we will live and die by our defensive effort each night. I don't think that we're a team that will be unable to score, but I do think that we'll need to remain focused on defense, forcing turnovers, and points off turnovers, if we're going to be among the Big Ten's best teams this year. We'll need to maximize our potential for "easy baskets" -- both in transition and at the foul line -- because I do believe we'll struggle (much as we did last year) through scoring droughts. The more we force the issue, on both ends of the court, and remain aggressive, the better our chances to return to the NCAA tourney.

I'm predicting a 12-3 pre-conference record, and a 9-7 mark in the Big Ten for an overall record of 21-10 heading into the Big Ten tourney. If we win a game in the tourney, I think we make the Big Dance.

1 comment:

jscrilla said...

That's a pretty good rundown of the new team. I haven't had the opportunity to see them play as of yet. What you're telling me worries me but also gets me excited for this season! I knew we would be in need of improvement. Thanks for your insight.

You should submit your site to www.cublogs.com! :D