It’s certainly nice that Illini basketball has started 2-0 in Big Ten play. It’s a lot better than 0-2.
Their win yesterday over Wisconsin was just the second time they’ve beaten a ranked opponent in ’10-’11. (Gonzaga, exactly like the Badgers, were ranked #24 in the coaches poll, receiving votes in the AP). It was a good win, and the Illini do have a couple decent wins this season, but their overall body of college basketball work has still revealed three red flags which could lead to big trouble.
One issue is internal, the other a natural part of the game and the third a strategy their opponents may choose to implement against them.
By Paul M. Banks
Highway to the Danger Zone
UIC Head Coach Howard Moore served as an assistant under Bo Ryan at Wisconsin, where he faced the Illini on numerous occasions in Big Ten play, and he had a “curve ball” waiting for the Illini last month, a 1-3-1 zone that led to a shocking upset at the United Center. A really poor UIC team pulled an unthinkable upset.
“Just remembering how Northwestern had some success versus Illinois in their 1-3-1, Minnesota gave them trouble with their 1-3-1. Obviously under Bo Ryan, he doesn’t believe in zone, but if you’re gonna play it, you gotta force everyone to the middle. Just keep those shooters identified and you’ll be fine. It’s a great zone because it has man principles in it. But if you’re not good at man, you can’t throw in a 1-3-1,” Moore said.
“It was pretty effective, it got them frustrated and put them in a position where they weren’t sure what to do and how to get shots,” Moore continued.
Of course, if every Illini opponent from here on out wants to play zone, Weber is ready.
“We have a zone offense, I wouldn’t say we’ve done extended time. Once we realized it (in the UIC game), we got into our scheme. We had shots but we didn’t make the plays. We had some easy little baskets, but you gotta finish,” he said.
Not Comfortable being Comfortable
Bruce Weber is great in press conferences because he tells it like it is. In a world of sanitized corporatespeak and coaching platitudes, he pulls no punches. I’ll let him describe this team’s struggle with complacency.
“I learned something myself, and it’s that I can’t let up on these guys,” Weber said. “I have to throw chairs, I have to yell at them, and do stupid stuff. I don’t hate that, but…I learned you can’t be nice to them. You guys can tell me that I’m not nice to Demetri, but you can’t be. He just doesn’t deal with it very well.
“I think our whole team, I think they think we arrived after Gonzaga, and they didn’t want to listen,” Weber continued. “I was just hoping that it would pass, but it didn’t pass — It got worse. Then I think, obviously, there was a disturbing loss and then a hard loss, and they just started listening better. And I learned something too on just how you have too deal with this team…you just learn about your guys.”
Lining up in the Neutral Zone
Last season, the Illini went 1-7 on neutral courts, 20-8 on all others. This year, they are 2-3 so far, 10-0 everywhere else. Yes, all three Illini losses this year have been at neutral sites. This is a bit troubling because all conference tournament games and NCAA Tournament games are played on neutral courts.
To be fair, the win at Seattle over the Zags was a de facto road game. But on the flip side, the United Center is their second home, and they’ve lost their last two there.
Weber discussed the last two UC defeats. “We talked last year about coming out versus Gonzaga very unmotivated. We thought we would have some energy today with the opportunity, but obviously we didn’t. I don’t know why. It’s disappointing cuz it’s a great opportunity no matter who you play here, in a great venue with tradition and history.”
Till the postseason, they can focus on holding court at home. “That’s how you win championships in the Big Ten, you got to win your home games. Michigan State has done it the last couple of years- they’ve dominated at home,” Illini senior forward Bill Cole said.
Again, March Madness plays itself out on neutral courts so they’ll have to get the neutral court swagger back in order to make this season a success.
You can follow him on Twitter @thesportsbank