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Archive for February, 2011

Illini take out frustrations on last-place Hawkeyes

February 26, 2011 Leave a comment

CHAMPAIGN – There’s only so many slaps a man can take before he fights back – even if he’s one of the four embattled, message-board berated Illinois seniors.

“Everybody’s been hammering us the whole season,” Illini forward Mike Davis said after Saturday’s 81-68 win over Iowa. “(Fans) talking about , ‘The seniors this, seniors that; seniors not stepping up.’ Us four (Davis, Bill Cole, Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale) took it as a challenge to come out and play well.

“We wanted to take it out tonight and step up and just shut people up.”

Tisdale (season-high 25 points), Davis (20 points, nine rebounds) and McCamey (18 points, seven assists) accounted for 78 percent of the Illini offense – just five points less than the Hawkeyes – on a combined 67.6 percent shooting. Cole, who shot 1-for-8 from the field, contributed with six rebounds, three steals, two blocks and two assists.

“I was very proud of our seniors,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said.

The Illini showed more joy than relief in this win, which couldn’t be said after the other three wins during a 4-4 February. Weber’s attempt to calm the team’s nerves – a night of wiffle ball at Ubben Basketball Complex, scrapping the scouting report on the Hawkeyes in the process – seemed to pay off.

“What the heck? Try anything,” Weber said. “Wiffle ball, we played a game. Found out most of the guys don’t know anything about baseball.”

The Illinois bench bellowed a collective laugh when Bill Cole missed a dunk late in the second half.

“We gave Bill a lot of trash because he’s had maybe about one or two dunks in his career,” Tisdale said.

Of course, it’s easier to feel relaxed or take pent-up frustration on the last-place Hawkeyes – which trailed by double digits the final 14:30 – than against one of the Big Ten’s best. That’s on the menu for Illinois on Tuesday when it travels to No. 8 Purdue, a team trying to keep pace with first-place Ohio State.

The game isn’t a must-win for the Illini’s NCAA Tournament chances, but it could be the road win Illinois needs to feel secure on Selection Sunday.

“Our seniors are going to have to play like this for us to have any chance (Tuesday),” Weber said.

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Categories: Illinois basketball

Gilhammer officially joins Illini football staff

February 25, 2011 Leave a comment

With three former players expected to be selected in the first or second round of the NFL Draft, Illinois needed an infusion of NFL-caliber talent.

While his roster still has questions, Illini coach Ron Zook added an NFL-tested coach to his staff.

Zook officially announced the hiring of Mike Gillhamer, who has spent 11 years in the NFL including the last seven with the Carolina Panthers,  as the defensive backs coach. Gillhamer fills the position vacated by Dan Disch, who earlier this month took the job as the Southern Mississippi defensive coordinator.

“Mike is very detail-oriented, a great teacher, an excellent recruiter and understands defenses and the techniques required to be successful in the secondary,” Zook said in a statement. “Being able to find a coach with Mike’s NFL and collegiate background is a tremendous statement about how the Illinois football program is perceived by other coaching professionals.”

Gillhamer, who has 21 years of collegiate coaching experience, was defensive coordinator and safeties coach at Louisville in 2003, coaching on the same staff as Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. Gillhamer also coached the secondary at Oregon from 2001-02 and spent the four years prior with the New York Giants.

Categories: Illinois football

Bruce Weber “shocked” by Deron Williams trade

February 24, 2011 Leave a comment

The Utah Jazz trade of Deron Williams to the New Jersey Nets sent shockwaves through the NBA and reached the Illinois basketball offices. Illini basketball coach Bruce Weber, who coached Williams for two years at Illinois before the star entered the NBA Draft, said Thursday that he heard the news before he left the office to go recruiting.

He checked the Internet to confirm the rumor.

“We were shocked,” Weber said Wednesday. “I think he (Williams) was shocked, to be honest. That’s the only feedback I got.”

The two-time All-Star came under fire two weeks ago when veteran coach Jerry Sloan resigned after 23 years with the Jazz. Williams refuted reports that arguments with Sloan about the direction of the team pushed the coach into retirement.

Now, Williams heads from a perennial playoff team to an Eastern Conference bottom dweller.

“It’s been a tough couple weeks for him, no doubt,” Weber said. “He was the face of the Utah franchise, an All Star, an Olympian. Coach Sloan and the whole thing, it’s not been a very good three weeks. But life is not always beautiful and rosy. He’s got to deal with it and be a professional. He loves to play, he loves to compete and that’s what he’s got to do there.”

Categories: Illinois basketball

Bracket expert: Illini still a No. 9 seed

February 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Most years, the Illinois resume (17-11, 7-8 Big Ten) would land Bruce Weber’s squad on the wrong side of the bubble but this college basketball season isn’t like most years.

Yahoo! Sports bracket expert Brad Evans said the Illini would be a No. 9 seed if the tounament started tomorrow.

“Illinois, surprisingly, is still in for now,” Evans said. “Remember the backside of the bubble is awful. Teams don’t have comparable resumes.”

The Illini can improve their seeding with home games remaining against Iowa and Indiana,  a road trip to No. 8 Purdue and at least one game in the Big Ten Tournament.

“Win at home and win one game in the (Big Ten Tournament), and the Illini have nothing to worry about,” Evans said.

Categories: Illinois basketball

Quick reaction: Bruce Weber takes your suggestions in loss to Ohio State

February 22, 2011 Leave a comment

A month ago, the couch-potato coaches grew louder.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber must’ve heard them.

Second-guessed for most of the season, he answered fans’ calls to play highly touted freshman Jereme Richmond more minutes. He benched his fickle seniors. He put bench sparkplug Brandon Paul into the starting lineup for immediate energy on the floor.

Weber now is in desperation mode, answering two more outcries from the Illini fanbase during Tuesday’s 89-70 loss to Ohio State.

He trotted out his sixth straight different starting lineup on Tuesday, starting freshman Crandall Head, who had just nine minutes of Big Ten experience before tipoff but intrigues spectators with his athleticism, over senior Demetri McCamey against the No. 2 Buckeyes. Weber also budged on his insistence on playing man-to-man defense for a stretch in the second half, using a triangle-and-two zone defense.

Result: the Illini (17-11, 7-8 Big Ten) found a one-game cure for their shooting woes, converting on 52.8 percent from the field including eight of their first nine three-point attempts. But the story of the season continued: one step forward in one area means one, two or five steps back in other areas.

The Illini committed most of its 16 turnovers – five from McCamey – in the game’s first 25 minutes. On defense, the goal was to let Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger get his and slow down the rest of the Buckeyes (26-2, 13-2). Illinois achieved the opposite, limiting Sullinger to 12 points but the Ohio State guards let loose on an overwhelmed Illini perimeter defense.

William Buford dominated the first half, when he scored all of his 17 points, while David Lighty took over in the second half with 16 of his 21 points after the break. And Jon Diebler continued his Illini-killing ways with 13 points, going 3-for-3 from beyond the arc to improve to 23-for-42 from three in his last five games against the Illini, as the Buckeyes (53 percent shooting) became the first team this season to shoot higher than 50 percent against the Illini.

Crandall Head had his moments – both promising (solid defense and a reverse layup) and sloppy (a turnover and a poor foul on a David Lighty layup) – in 15 minutes. McCamey had 15 points and six assists off the bench, but had five turnovers. Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis and Jereme Richmond were effective in the post, combining for 43 points on 62 percent shooting and 21 rebounds.

But the Illini still couldn’t handle a Buckeyes team seemingly bound for a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed and possibly the top seed overall. Illinois isn’t on Ohio State’s level, so the road loss in Columbus wasn’t surprising but nonetheless frustrating

Weber told reporters after the game that McCamey asked to come off the bench. Sure, why not?

At this point, Weber may take suggestions from anyone. But does anyone really have answers for this team.

Categories: Illinois basketball

Illini need Mario-world star power to top No. 2 Buckeyes

February 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Illinois (17-10, 7-7 Big Ten) at No. 2 Ohio State (25-2, 12-2 Big Ten)

6 p.m. // ESPN – Brent Musberger (play-by-play), Dan Dakich (analyst) and Jill Montgomert (sideline)

Star Power gives Super Mario an extra burst in the popular Nintendo video game series – often in desperate circumstances.

A few stars in the Big Ten have had the same impact for their respective teams as of late.

E’Twaun Moore collected enough coin (38 points) to lead Purdue to a 76-63 win over No. 2 Ohio State. Kalin Lucas was the single bob-omb Illinois couldn’t defuse on Saturday, leading Michigan State to a 61-57 win. The weekend prior, Jordan Taylor went for a near-perfect level in the second half of his 27-point effort to beat then-unbeaten Ohio State, while Moore and JaJuan Johnson combined for 28 points in a multi-player comeback win at Illinois.

Purdue and Wisconsin are the hottest players in the Big Ten – a combined 9-2 this month with the only losses against each other – while the once sinking ship Michigan State appears to have plugged a few leaks after winning two of three.

Meanwhile, Illinois – losers of seven of the last 11 – continues to flounder in close games. That doesn’t bode well for the Illini’s odds of upsetting No. 2 Ohio State, which has Wooden Award candidate and likely national freshman of the year Jarred Sullinger,  tonight in Columbus.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber could use a Mario-world mushroom to power up his starless squad.

“If we’re going to have any chance, I think we’re going to have to shoot the ball well and maybe have someone be special like an E’Twaun Moore was yesterday,” Weber said.

But who is that hero?

“I don’t know anyone that’s going to get 38, but we need a Mike Tisdale to go five for five and make a couple threes or something like that,” Weber said. “I’m just using that as an example. Billy Cole (could) come in like he did against Iowa and jump up and make a couple threes, and he hasn’t made them. Somebody (must) make a shot-clock play.”

What he’s saying without exactly saying it is that Illinois lacks that one special player.

You can point to Demetri McCamey – who had his moments earlier in the season, including 30 points in a Dec. 8 win over Oakland but has had just one 20-plus point performance during the last 12 games – but Illinois is at its best when the senior point guard is the distributor. The Illini are 13-0 when McCamey has seven-plus assists, which hasn’t happened in eight straight games.

Like Weber said, Illinois needs solid scoring nights from multiple players to be more than mediocre in the Big Ten. The Illini are 10-1 – including some of its best resume builders (overtime loss to Texas and wins against Gonzaga, North Carolina, Northwestern, Michigan State and Minnesota) – when four players score in double digits.

But the Illini’s one consistency this season has been inconsistency. The team hasn’t clicked collectively since shooting 70.5 percent – a school record – in a 88-63 win against Northwestern on Jan. 6. Illinois has shot under 50 percent in eight straight games and is 29.5 percent from three during the same stretch.

“Somewhere here we got to shoot the ball well,” Weber said. “That’s the one thing I was just so disappointed in at Michigan State.”

Stars have OSU, PUR and WIS with a stronghold on the top three seeds in the Big Ten tournament, while a lack of Star Power will keep the initials ILL far from the game’s high scores.

Buckeyes fighting at the top

When Ohio State entered Assembly Hall a month ago to the day, talk centered around the Buckeyes’ chances to finish the season undefeated. But after losing two of three, Ohio State now must worry about staying atop the Big Ten standings. Purdue, which beat Ohio State 76-63 on Sunday, is just one game behind the Buckeyes in the Big Ten standings with four conference games remaining for both teams.

So much for the Illini sneaking up on a content, laidback Buckeyes squad, Weber said.

“I’m sure they will be hooked up, ready to play,” Weber said. “ The race obviously for them has gotten a little bit tighter. Every game down the stretch is important for us, for them, for everybody as you progress toward the late stretch of the season.”

Still, Weber hopes his panicky team – still too close to the NCAA Tournament bubble for comfort – plays like it has nothing to lose at Value City Arena.

“I told them yesterday, I don’t know if anyone in the country is saying, ‘Hey, Illinois’ going to Ohio State to win and especially after (the Buckeyes) lost to Purdue a day earlier with the race getting tighter,’” Weber said. “We have to go and just go play basketball and just put a little pressure on them.”

“If we get an eight-point lead again, then take good shots and find DeShaun Thomas and not let him get two threes in a row. I kind of laugh (when) I look at the stats from yesterday he’s 0-for-6 and 0-for-3 from three.”

Quotable

“Toughness, just amazing toughness for a freshman that doesn’t back down to anyone, that doesn’t care if he scores a point. …He just runs the team, guards the best people, gets them into their stuff. (He’s) just been a very posed, unselfish freshman.”

–          Illinois coach Bruce Weber on what OSU freshman Aaron Craft brings to the Buckeyes

Lessoned learned?

Illinois might be an NCAA Tournament shoe-in if it had defeated Ohio State at the Assembly Hall last month. Asked what his team needs to do to top Ohio State after blowing a 50-42 second-half lead to the Buckeyes on Jan.22, Weber said:

“If we get an eight-point lead again, then take good shots and find DeShaun Thomas (who scored eight points in 12 minutes off the bench) and not let him get two threes in a row,” Weber said. “I kind of laugh (when) I look at the stats from yesterday he’s 0-for-6 and 0-for-3 from three.

“We’re going to have to a great job on the defensive end, not give them easy baskets.”

Ohio State 68, Illinois 61

Can Illinois hang with the No. 2 team in the country? Sure. We saw that last month. But can Illini make the smart decisions and hit the big shots down the stretch to pull off a win on the road against one of the nation’s top teams? We haven’t seen that yet this season. Put down a 20-10 night for Sullinger. The kid’s good. But how Illinois defends William Buford, Jon Diebler and David Lighty will determine the Illini’s defensive success. And to borrow the old cliche, at the end of the day, Illinois has to shoot really well to win this game. Too many players are slumping to think that will happen in Columbus tonight.

Jeremy Werner is co-host of the “Tay and J Show,” which airs on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM and on www.myconnectfm.com. Post your comments below or e-mail Jeremy atjeremy@myconnectfm.com.

Categories: Illinois basketball

Red-hot Michigan looks to overtake Illini in Big Ten, on the bubble

February 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Hard to fathom that Michigan could take a half-game lead on Illinois in the Big Ten standings tonight.

But if the Wolverines (16-10, 6-7 Big Ten) , winners in five of six games, can pull off the upset of the Illini (16-9, 6-6) at Assembly Hall – upset may not be a strong enough term given Michigan’s 15-year losing streak in Champaign – they’ll be in the top half of the Big Ten standings and immediately on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

The long-term arrow for once is pointed up for fourth-year Michigan coach John Beilein’s program.

Beilein has ridden his underclassmen because he’s had no other choice. Starters Zack Novak and Stu Douglass – both juniors – are the only upperclassmen. Along with sophomore Darius Morris, they’re the only players to come into the season with significant experience.

But Beilein’s babes weathered the early Big Ten growing pains before hitting a huge growth spurt.

“My concern was how do they handle all the bumps along the way when you’re trying to play in one of the better years in the Big Ten,” Beilein said. “I’m encouraged by it. I know that we still have a lot more work to do to just continue to improve this last month of the season. But I love going to practice everyday.”

Morris – whose scoring average (15.4) is up to 11 points from last year – can make an argument as the second best point guard in the Big Ten, behind Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor. His 6.8 assists per game tops the Big Ten and spark Beilein’s perimeter-oriented five-out motion offense.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber said Morris is one of the Big Ten’s most improved players, along with Penn State’s Jeff Brooks and Purdue’s Ryne Smith.

 “He’s a little bit like (Phoenix Suns point guard Steve) Nash, I guess. He’s getting in there. He’s wheeling and dealing.”

Reigning Big Ten freshman of the week Tim Hardaway Jr. has taken over Manny Harris’ scoring role as of late, averaging 17.1 points in his last seven games including a career-high 26 points in a win over Indiana on Sunday. Redshirt freshman Jordan Morgan, a project big man, also is gaining consistency.

Beilein said a summer tour of Europe has helped his squad develop quicker than expected.

“They have worked hard since August 1,” Beilein said. “I do make a comparison with them. You studied all year, you attended every class, you went to every study hall and now  the exam is two weeks away. Are you going to let down now after all that? They really keep their eye on the prize right now.

“And the prize really is just be the best we can be. Just work hard every day in practice, work hard in every scouting report, every training table, eat right: all those things you need to do to to be in position to win some of these remaining games.”

Michigan still faces a tough road – games at Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota and home games against Wisconsin and Michigan State – to its second NCAA Tournament appearance of the century.

But Beilein sounds less fearful and more welcoming of the added pressure this late in the season.

“What I do like is that if we were not in a BCS league, we would not have this opportunity to play four of our last five games against top-50 teams,” Beilein said. “The opportunity will be there. They’re difficult opportunities. They’re very challenging. But we’ll just go play and maybe we can knock two or three teams off.”

Must-win for Illini

Illinois (16-9, 3-3 Big Ten) is fighting for its own tournament life. With road games against Michigan State, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 10 Purdue, Michigan is the first of three must-win home games remaining on the schedule.

Weber declined to offer a magic number of wins to clinch a tournament bid.

“We got to win games,” Weber said. “We got to win Wednesday night. I know our schedule rating is pretty good. I know our power rating is pretty good at this point, but you got to finish strong. … We were 9-3 (Big Ten) at this point last year and didn’t get in. So, there’s a lot of things that can happen.”

Senior salute

Weber has been criticized for publicly calling out his players. Characteristics, like honesty, are under a microscope when your team is on the NCAA bubble. But during Tuesday’s press conference, Weber supported his struggling seniors.

“They have a great opportunity in front of them,” Weber said. “Obviously, the seniors haven’t played as well as I think all of them have hoped but they still have something there in front of them that they can have a great finish. I believe in them. I think they’re going to make a push here and get going and make a nice legacy here for themselves and for our program.”

After a year and a half of disappointment, what makes him think the seniors will turn the corner?

“I think they want it,” Weber said. “ I think they care. That’s the most important thing. It’s not that they don’t care. …They care. They love the program. They’ve been dedicated to the program. They just haven’t played well and different ones at different times. (It’s) my hopes and wishes that they have a great finish here.”

Demetri Watch

“I think he’s played better in practice,” Weber said of senior Demetri McCamey, who totaled four points against Purdue after scoring 31 points the previous two games. “When he’s been there, he’s been focused and put a good effort. He’s been around us talking. …It definitely means something to him.”

Be like Mike … Davis?

Believe it or not, Weber has used Mike Davis as a reference of the effort he wants to see from McCamey and fellow senior Mike Tisdale. Often the posterboy of inconsistent energy, Davis has been the most consistent Illini during the recent rough patch, averaging 14.1 points and 7.7 rebounds during the last seven games.

“Mike has been one guy that has over the last three weeks, it’s been the one thing he’s made a commitment to is play hard,” Weber said. “Now, he hasn’t played perfect but he’s tried to play hard and focus on rebounds and running the court and guarding better. And I think it’s helped him.”

Paul clicking

With McCamey struggling, sophomore Brandon Paul has been the best initiator of the Illini offense. While he still forces some shots and passes, Paul’s basketball IQ is gradually rising.

He’s the team’s second best ballhandler and has realized that he’s at his best when attacking the basket. Of his 56 points over the last three games, 22 have come at the free-throw line.

“I think (for) Brandon, the light has gone on,” Weber said. “It happens with every kid at a different time. He comes in the office, he watches film, he’s been extra shooting. There’s a sense of, I don’t know if you want to use maturity or whatever, but he’s starting to really play better basketball.”

Prediction

Illinois 69, Michigan 64

Michigan is clicking and hitting its shots. The opposite is true for an Illini squad which has players questioning each other’s effort. But the Illini are the superior team physically and athletically. Illinois’ length – three of Sunday’s starters top 6-foot-9 – should bother a Wolverines starting lineup that features one player taller than 6-foot-5 and, theoretically, should help the home team control the boards. But even a gimme-win one month ago now is hard to predict this Illini season.

Jeremy Werner is co-host of the “Tay and J Show,” which airs on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM and on www.myconnectfm.com. Post your comments below or e-mail Jeremy atjeremy@myconnectfm.com.

Categories: Illinois basketball