As you might have noticed Thursday night, given you watched the #13 Illinois Fighting Illini in their 90-84 OT loss to #22 Texas in the 2K Challenge college basketball tournament benfitting Coaches vs. Cancer, Illinois has some problems stopping people.
Sure the Longhorns went seven minutes without a field goal down the stretch, but that was more due to leading scorer Jordan Hamilton being benched with four fouls than anything Illinois did right. Giving up 45 points in the first half, and letting the Horns hook ‘em in the first couple overtime minutes is not what a top 15 team does.
Head Coach Bruce Weber has said repeatedly this team will be as good as they defend, and as good as their seniors. So far the Mike and Mike Show (Tisdale and Davis) haven’t locked-down on the defensive side. Weber has said Davis must be a defensive stopper. He’s also said sophomore guard D.J. Richardson, the Big Ten Freshman of the year, is the team’s best defender.
But D.J. needs to be better. I don’t call him out because he needs the most improvement, I call ‘em out because I think the freshmen aren’t ready yet, and I think he has the most upside after Demetri McCamey. We know Meechi is this team’s star, it’s leader, but he needs help. D.J. is the team’s best defender and three-point shooter.
Brandon Paul is a star versus teams with hyphens in their name, but struggles putting together two good halves versus high-major opponents. Mike Davis is a great rebounder with a decent baseline jumper, but not much else. Tisdale plays really well versus Northwestern, but Illinois only gets them twice a year and Tis often fouls out of big games. Like he did last night.
So that leaves Richardson. At Media Day he spoke about how he’d like to improve his game:
“More ball-handling, and getting back to how I was in high school- slashing and getting to the lane. Getting more points there and at the free throw line.”
Sounds good to Illinois; they could use more points in the paint. Especially if they don’t make a greater effort to clamp down on their opponents down low. Richardson says he texts a lot with former Illini star Dee Brown and the Cousy Award Winner gave him this advice:
“I’m a role player, and I need to be a star in my role.”
Exactly. Brown defined himself that way, and he ended up becoming so much more than that.
If D.J. views himself the same way, he could have a similarly stellar college career. Somebody needs to first define their role as McCamey’s legitimate side kick. This team has no “second banana,” no “true second option.” (Although Thursday night Jereme Richmond showed flashes of one day soon becoming that).
Richardson talked at Media Day about handling an increased share of the ball-handling duties with McCamey.
“This year I’m going to do more, I’m going to help Demetri bring it up the court, and that will help me in my future career,” he said. Hopefully, the added responsibility will augment his game, and he sets a bigger precedent for his teammates.
Next up is Maryland, and although they are unranked, and Illinois is favored…you “Fear the Turtle” as an Illini fan. Because Illinois has had plenty of meetings with the Terps in my lifetime, and almost all of them have gone bad.
(On the bright side, Our local team may have lost, but at least philanthropy won. This event is expected to generate a lot of funding for a very worthy cause)
You can follow him on Twitter @thesportsbank