Monday, March 24, 2014

The broad side of a barn

For those of us who believe in the jinx (I'm one of those) the News-Gazette sports section had a very odd column yesterday morning, which featured quotes from the players about whether they'd prefer to be on vacation (it's spring break here) or practicing basketball because the season wasn't over yet.  While they said vacation is nice, all of them wanted to be still playing basketball.  Joseph Bertrand said he came to Illinois to play basketball.  That line surely was a gaffe.

"A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth" [Michael Kinsley]

Bertrand's line is innocent enough, but the politically correct answer would have included something about getting his education too.  Apparently, Bertrand was not on guard while speaking with the friendly sports reporter, Marcus Jackson

Now Bertrand and Jon Ekey, the two seniors on the team, and the rest of the Illini too can take a holiday.  They lost to Clemson in the second round of the NIT in a close game that was excruciating to watch.  The Illini outside shooting was terrible.  They were something like 0 for 12 from outside the 3-point line before they finally hit one.  That explains the loss and the title of my post as well.

Clemson is a good defensive team and they packed the lane to make it difficult to get layups.  We're a good defensive team too.  The upshot was not a lot of scoring, particularly in the first half.  On offense, we seem to shoot better from the outside and click more as team after some player has made a couple of layups.  In the last couple of games, that player has been Rayvonte Rice.  He finally figured out how to penetrate and avoid getting his shot blocked.  After that, Ekey started to make some 3's and we took a slight lead, but we couldn't hold it.

There is an issue in all of sports about how reproducible an action is - a free throw in basketball even more than a three pointer, a golf swing, the roll of a bowling ball, etc. - especially when there is a lot of pressure on.  Practice helps make the action autonomous and therefore reproducible.  Pressure makes it conscious again and then subject to momentary idiosyncrasy.  Malcolm Hill, who seemed to make 1 or 2 threes each game since he was inserted in the starting lineup, succumbed to the pressure.  Our other starting freshman, Kendrick Nunn, did the same in the previous game against Boston University.  One and done can do those sorts of things to a player, even a very good player. 

After they've had their well deserved break, I hope the players practice their outside shooting - a lot.  It will be hard to be a fan next year unless the shooting picks up.  Toughness is a good feature for a team to have and the Illini showed that.  But making outside shots on a regular basis would really help.  Grit with little offense is a formula for close but no cigar.

There are very few days where I watch more than one basketball game, but the first weekend of the NCAA tournament provides the exception.  I caught the tail end of Kansas against Stanford and then watched most of Kentucky against Wichita State, which had to be the best game yesterday.  It was played at a very high level, with both teams demonstrating intensity and proficiency.  One of my Facebook friends, Mike, posted something during to the effect that the refs were handing the game to Kentucky.  That may have been true.  Wichita State got no calls, including on a 3-pointer that went in off the bank, where the player claimed his shooting elbow had been bumped.  Of course, players always claim they are in the right and the replay showed very little if any contact.  But if there was contact and it had been a four-point play, the outcome probably would have gone the other way.

Perhaps more to the point, the Wichita point guard, the catalyst for the team, got into foul trouble.  So he was in and out of the game in the second half.   It meant that other players had to pick up the slack, and they did.  It's what made it such a great game.  For the most part, when the teams had open looks they made their shots.  And sometimes they made their shots even when the action seemed a bit forced. 

In the Big Ten Michigan has that shooting capability but possibly lacks some toughness.  It would be good to see teams with both.  Perhaps Michigan State is in that category.  They are my pick to win it all.  But for the league as a whole, if it is to be the top basketball conference, there needs to be two or three teams like that, in which case I'd like to see the Illini in the mix.

Except for Kentucky, the Tournament has not been kind to teams that feature a freshman who has been touted as a lottery pick in the NBA draft.  Since John Calipari has taken to feature playing freshman at Kentucky, it seems that other big name schools, Duke and Kansas in particular, have embraced the same approach, simply as a way to compete for talent in recruiting.  It seems to me to be unhealthy for the game. 

The last really good player to come out of Illinois was Deron Williams, drafted #3 after his junior year.  But coming out of high school, he was the second best player on his team.  Bracey Wright the bigger name at the time and then a much better outside shooter.  Players do develop in college, some more than others.  The big name ones out of high school have a lot of pressure on them up front.  Conceivably, that can impede their development.

I have no problem with a junior who is clearly very good and who likely will be a lottery pick declaring for the NBA draft.  By that point the player should have quite a good idea of how well he can compete against other college players.  But with freshmen, the hype and the reality can conflict and there needs to be patience to sort this out and let the player blossom against better competition.  There is also the matter of gaining physical strength and possibly adding weight (muscle) in the process.  That itself takes time.

So I'm happy that none of our current freshman are leaving and they have a chance to mature as players.  Here's to next year's team. 

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