Say what you will about Bruce Weber and his ability to motivate a team, these Illini are going to have to find something more in their game if they want to make a legitimate run at the Big Ten title. For the most part, their outing against Maryland was an exercise in futility. Watching them struggle from the perimeter (.333%, 24–72 from the floor) and even from the charity stripe (4–9), one has to wonder if a team that depends on a two-star guard from Champaign to rack up points from beyond the paint is even capable of competing at a national level. (That guard, junior Trent Meacham, graduated from Champaign’s Centennial High.)
What Weber needs now is to gain control of his best assets in Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt and really teach them something about how to crash the boards and create second chances. They also need discipline on how to guard properly without just slapping at the ball every time someone cuts or breaks free for a lay up. Both players had four fouls against Maryland.
The Illini handled a depleted Weber State on Saturday and showed some more signs of life, but again, why is Trent Meacham seen as this year’s version of Dee Brown? Despite Meacham’s team-leading 26 points Saturday against Weber State, he lacks the quickness, consistency and basketball IQ to grab a team by the scruff of its neck and drag it into a respectable post-season. Unless Meacham finds a way to contribute more than the occasional big game from the perimeter, the Illini will continue to have NIT written all over them and the future of Bruce Weber’s recruitment campaign will look dim.
This sense of bleakness is, in fact, pervasive in the Big Ten right now, as the conference dropped a ninth consecutive Big Ten/ACC Challenge 8–3. Penn State, oddly enough, provided some few rays of hope, taking down Virginia Tech while wrecking my perfect prediction of the series going 9–2. But it’s worth noting that the Hokies have returned to the realm of the bottom dwellers in the ACC.
Speaking of bottom dwellers, the fight for the Big Ten cellar just may have more contenders this year than any in recent history. Right now, Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern and Penn State all seem to be trying to under perform the next guy. Each team lost this week and did so in such a fashion that one starts to question just how damaging a change in coaching can be to a program. Conversely, it also appears that a change at the helm can be helpful in ways that can’t be attributed to one particular aspect of the game. Remember, intangibles play a massive role in college basketball, possibly more so than in any other sport.
Take Michigan and Minnesota, for example. The Wolverines got handled by Harvard, who are now coached by Tommy Amaker, a familiar face who was given the pink slip in Ann Arbor earlier this year. Last year’s squad jumped out to an impressive 16–4 start and were a Big Ten favorite early on with a 4–1 record in conference play. They lost four starters from last year and are now on the fast track to the cellar in the conference.
Minnesota picked up a future Hall of Fame coach in Tubby Smith this year after predecessor Dan Monson failed to achieve the type of competitiveness that Clem Haskins did before him. They are out to a solid 5–1 start with their only loss being on the road to Florida State. They return all five starters from last year. The same players, with a new coach, winning the games they should win, is a clear cut indicator of how important a good coach can be to a new program.
The surprise of the Challenge, however, came in the form of the Purdue Boilermakers. Despite their loss, they handled a highly touted Clemson team (albeit without the help of their star James Mays) with poise and tenacity. The Boilers set the tempo of the game and led most of the second half before giving up seven unanswered points in the final two minutes to let it slip away.
The coaches in the Big Ten better look carefully at who their competition is in this Purdue Boilermaker team now and to come. What could simply be the best freshman class in the nation is quickly starting to strut their talents across the court. They do not have a standout superstar like Eric Gordon, O.J. Mayo or Michael Beasley. But what they lack in a superstar, they make up for in team unity. Four players that could all very easily be four-year stayers at Mackey Arena are worth more these days than any blue chipper. The Old Gold and Black are looking at a true shot at the Final Four for the first time since Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson won the Naismith in 1994. Not this year. Not by any means. But assuming people stay healthy and this class continues to improve and perform as well as they are touted, Purdue just might be the team to beat in 2009–2011.
Let’s see what’s on tap for December 4–December 10 **(EDIT: Post delayed due to website launch)**
Last week’s record: 19–3
Season record: 37-7
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 4
Michigan State 74
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 5
Ball State 71
Northern Iowa 68
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 8
Iowa State 73
Western Michigan 66
Brigham Young 77
Michigan State 76
Colorado State 63
Seton Hall 87
Penn State 79