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Illinois Fighting Illini

by Chris Mackinder | February 27th, 2007

Team personality: Picture a pit bull, salivating as he stares down his prey. Move left, the pit bull moves left. Move right, the pit bull moves right. You’re trapped. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. So is the life of an opposing team’s offense against Illinois. Like a pit bull, the Fighting Illini team has no mercy. They’ll hound you until your will is lost.

If there is one thing the world has learned about coach Bruce Weber over the past few years, it is that he can coach multiple styles on offense – see the 2005 national runner-up Illinois team called “Flyin’ Illini II” – of check out this version of the Bruisin’ Illini that struggles to score 60 points. Don’t forget the constant of both teams, however. Illinois has, and under Weber almost certainly always will have, one of the nation’s best
defensive teams. Whether they’re wearing the blind-you orange jerseys or their white unis, scoring against Illinois will be an adventure each possession down the floor.

Biggest Games: With only a week remaining in the Big Ten season, Illinois has one game remaining – at Iowa. We’ll deem it a “big” game because the Fighting Illini will need every victory they can muster to make the NCAA Tournament. While Illinois likely will finish with 10-6 record in the Big Ten, the nonconference schedule is so diluted that a 10-win conference record doesn’t mean as much as it has in the past for the Orange and Blue. Illinois did split with fellow bubble team Michigan State, but lost its only game against Purdue – a 17-point drubbing – and its conference opener at likely NIT-bound Michigan.

By not defeating either Ohio State or Wisconsin, the conference’s two heavyweights, Illinois’ best wins are vs. Indiana and Michigan State – both at home.

Has to be on the floor: Shaun Pruitt. Unlike many of the successful Illini teams of the past, Illinois doesn’t have that one player that needs – or has the ability to – take over a game at any moment.Senior Rich McBride should have provided leadership for the Illini, but his arrest for drunk driving in the offseason precluded that. He’s Illinois’ best outside shooter, and even despite a recent stretch of hot performances, at times he tries to stretch his range to 30 feet.

The Fighting Illini are at their best when they are dumping the ball inside to Shaun Pruitt on every possession. Pruitt is a 6-10, home-grown boy from Aurora, Ill., that has a unique connection with Illini faithful. The massive 6’11” left-hander has developed a great touch around the rim and can overpower anyone in the country with his brute force. Though he tends to play out-of-control at times, Pruitt can take over a game if the Illinois guards can succeed at getting him the basketball.
Crunchtime crutch: Illinois relies far too much on jump shooting (a true shame when you look at their two studs in the post). With Jamar Smith – one of Illinois’ best players – out for the rest of the season, the jump shooting likely will get worse. Illinois has great ball handlers as they have for years, and they have their weapons in the post.

Unfortunately for all Illini faithful, too much of the offense ends up coming from beyond the arc or in the 12- to 18-foot range. If an opposing team doesn’t allow dribble penetration and protects the post, Illinois will have no problem jacking up shots from outside. Chances are, the shots will not fall.

Last shot: Three weeks ago, many Fighting Illini fans would have liked the ball in the hands of sophomore guard Jamar Smith. But with Smith suspended indefinitely after a drunk driving charge that has severely injured teammate Brian Carlwell, that isn’t an option anymore. The second option, ironically, is actually a better one for Illinois.

Warren Carter, the 6-foot-9 senior has developed into a nice post presence. Get Carter the ball on the wing or on the baseline and good things will happen. In the waning seconds of an important contest, Carter (13.4 ppg, 48.8 field goal percentage, 71.7 free throw percentage) will get it done. Even if Carter can’t get the ball down low, he’s still one of the team’s best 3-point shooters, making 36.8 percent of his triples. That’s a tough matchup at the “4” position.

Straw that stirs the drink: Calvin Brock. The Orange Krush has been waiting for Brian Randle to develop into this player for Illinois, but Randle seems to lack any heart, and has been hampered by injuries and foul trouble his entire career at Illinois.

So we’ll hand this moniker to Brock, a prototypical “3,” with an athletic 6’5” frame. Calvin is at his best when he rises for 12- to 15-foot jumpers, and can get out in transition off a defensive steal. He’s improved his three-point shooting in recent games as well, making him a tough matchup for teams without a true swingman, such as Indiana.

Impact newcomer: Now that Carlwell is likely out for the season, there isn’t a single freshman in Illinois’ lineup. So, despite being a sophomore, the most impactful newcomer is sophomore guard Chester Frazier.

Frazier is so quick and so skilled with the ball he has the ability to take over a game at any point. His heart is unquestioned. All he lacks is experience and maturity, which he seems to be gaining with every performance. While he doesn’t take that many shots – he’s a combined 2-for-14 from the field with a total of 11 points in the three games without Smith – he is great at distributing the ball, averaging 4.3 assists per game. He’s also one of the Big Ten’s best on-the-ball perimeter defenders.

Potential pitfall: Off the floor, Playing a weak nonconference schedule eventually will catch up to a team looking for a NCAA Tournament bid. Looking at the nonconference slate for Illinois this year, it isn’t as weak as some people seem to believe (Illinois took on then-No. 19 Maryland in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, played at then-No. 16 Arizona, at Bradley and at Xavier. It’s clear the first two teams are NCAA Tournament bound and Xavier has made a great case for itself. The problem is that Illinois lost all three of those
games and its biggest win is a four-point win at Bradley.

In conference, Illinois “lucked out” only having to face Wisconsin and Ohio State once (two losses) while having two games each against Minnesota and Northwestern (four wins). Eventually, Illinois will have to face another quality opponent. And eventually Illinois will have to learn how to beat a good team.

On the floor, Illinois’ pitfall is clearly its free-throw shooting. There isn’t a single player Illinois can count on to make those clutch shots from the charity stripe in the clutch. Closing out games has been a problem for Illinois all season long.

How to reach Sweet 16: We’re going to go on a limb here and say that if Illinois finishes 10 wins in a major conference and no bad losses, the NCAA Tournament will come calling. If they’re invited, the Illini will not shy away from making the Sweet 16 its goal. Barring a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament, Illinois likely won’t sniff higher than an 8-seed, and that is only because of the strong finish down the stretch. Still, anywhere in the 8- to 12-seed range, Illinois can win a first-round game. They’re young, but a team that can’t handle pressure will fall to the pit bulls, err, Illini.

However, a strong foe, seeded No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 likely will await in round two. A gambler even half passed out from a bottle of vodka would be hard pressed to wager on the Illini in any of those matchups. The only hope would be to run into a team like Texas A&M, Washington State or Pitt. All of those teams play a similar style to Illinois. A watch-moss-grow-on-the-bottom-of-their-shoes game will be ugly on even the blindest of eyes, but it’ll be Illinois’ best chance of reaching the Sweet 16.

–Chris Mackinder

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