Prior to Thursday’s game at Vanderbilt, I drew up a list of questions about this year’s team. I figured it might make for interesting reading among the faithful. It hadn’t occurred to me that Illinois might win, impressively, in Nashville. The final was 69–63.
Demetri McCamey took over, scoring 23 on torrid outside shooting. Trent Meacham played rugby underneath, and needlepoint outside. Chester Frazier distributed eight assists to only one turnover. And perhaps most significantly, Illinois made 11 of 11 free throws. Yes. Illinois. Free throws. They did not miss.
So now I expect that the faithless, bandwagoneers, tag-alongs and latecomers to the party may also be reading. I’ll just continue, as planned, with my Q&A. Because the questions may be even more important now that people are watching. The success of the season hinges on how they’re answered.
Who will be our Doug Altenberger?
Trent displays a couple of Altenbergeresque characteristics. He hits from outside. He took two charges and one galumphing against TAMU-CC. But before Thursday, Trent didn’t show Altenberger’s nose for the ball. Altenberger was a rebounder.
Billy Cole seems a likely heir. Like Altenberger, he graduated from Richwoods in Peoria. Like Altenberger, he throws his body into a scrum. (As seen here versus Eastern Washington.)
Like Altenberger, he sometimes gets hurt throwing his body into the scrum.
One entry found.
Etymology: Latin tenac-, tenax tending to hold fast, from tenēre to hold
1 a: not easily pulled apart: cohesive b: tending to adhere or cling especially to another substance
2 a: persistent in maintaining, adhering to, or seeking something valued or desired b: retentive
3 n: Doug Altenberger
But Cole never removed his warm-ups on Thursday. We’ll have to wait for his big breakout. Meacham also spent a lot of minutes on the bench in the middle part of the game. Maybe Bruce Weber felt, like I did, that Trent hadn’t demonstrated the necessary toughness for a game needing a hero.
And then it happened.
In the middle of the second half, Meacham scrapped with Vandy center Festus Ezeli under the basket for a held ball. The result: a turnover to Illinois. This was the crucial turning point in the game. A Vandy lead evaporated. Momentum shifted. Gritty play did it.
It happened again.
With three minutes to go, Meacham crawled in among the tress for a crucial offensive rebound, this time knocking Ezeli out for good. Kneecapped by Meacham. Who knew? The kid has balls.
It happened again.
With 20 seconds to go, Vandy shot for the tie. Who wrestled the rebound? Altenberger. I mean Meacham. And then he sealed the deal with two free throws.
I’m tempted to pat myself on the back for being on this particular outlook. The Altenberger Watch, I’ll call it. Of course, I might just be making it up. Nevertheless, what a game from Meacham. If he can continue to do this against top conferences …
Can Semrau finish?
James Augustine didn’t figure this one out until his senior year, and still had trouble then. It’s not hard to put the ball in the hoop, even when other people are beating you. But Augustine was a softy. A nice guy.
Semrau, like Augustine, shows unusually good rebounding tendencies. Semrau, like Augustine, can’t lay the ball in from six inches out, given any amount of defensive pressure.
Augustine usually made one of two free throws. Dust off your VHS tapes of the 2005 season. You’ll see that Augustine generally got out of a lay-up situation with one point.
Semrau? Not many chances on Thursday, but he missed a tip with just two minutes to go, when a rebound might have been better than a basket.
Dominique Keller showed the significant combination of inside strength and soft hands, but his scoring came at the line. This should in no way be discouraging. Big guys that can shoot free throws? We’ll take it. But we want someone who can finish inside, too. On that front, the entire Illini team got embarrased by Commodore AJ Ogilvy, who’ll be playing on Sundays within a year or two.
Who will excute underneath, this year, for our team? So far, we don’t know.
Answer: Not yet.
Penetration. Who’s willing?
Jeff Jordan shows the propensity. Calvin Brock has the skill set. But who’ll do it regularly? Who will break down the D?
Frazier tried it. The first time, he got his shit stuffed. The next time, he got the ball within mere feet of the basket. Not so good.
Late in the game, Meacham went inside for a kick to Frazier for three — and it went in — but mostly Trent stayed on the perimeter when not channeling Altenberger on the boards.
Thursday, it was Demetri McCamey who took the ball to the hole. He used his big body, soft hands and verticality to dust Vandy double-teams. Because he was on fire from outside (at one point hitting five of seven from downtown, and in the case of one basket, downtown Chattanooga), Vandy was unable to sag, or pack the middle, when McCamey had the ball.
It was his first start of the season, and although that suggests his effort has met Weber’s expectations, he still looks cool under fire. That’s good.
Motion or Stagnation?
The improvement over last year is about 600%. Illinois moved the ball easily, and not just around the perimeter. Tough man-to-man forced some turnovers, but the Vandy zone defense lasted for about half of a possession. Unlike in years past, the Illini were thoroughly unfazed by it.
In his press conference Tuesday, Weber joked about his team’s offensive problems and, historically speaking, lack of ability to make adjustments. He’s obviously aware of the criticism. And he obviously agrees with some of it. Whether he made his own adjustments this year, or whether it’s simply improved execution by the players, we saw actual motion offense Thursday. It was pretty.
Also on the topic of adjusted strategy: Bravo to Weber for leaving Mike Davis in the game after his fourth foul. This would not have happened a couple years ago. But if a guy’s going to be out of the game anyway, why not just let him foul out? Davis did, but not before securing his second consecutive double-double (11 points and 12 boards). Weber evolves.
When Frazier feeds from the key for a Mike Davis shot, there’s no one left to rebound. Tisdale’s certainly not going to do it.
The above rare footage shows Tisdale grabbing a rebound over a five foot opponent. Photos of Sasquatch are more common.
It’s not that Tisdale is weak. It’s not that he’s unwilling. It’s just that he’s AWOL. When the ball hits the rim, it’s as if Tisdale gets sucked into a black hole. He reappears shortly after the opponent grabs the carom.
Tisdale’s rebound stats Thursday largely relied on his consecutive missed tips early in the second half. He finished with seven boards, but only two of them were competitive. The good news: All of his rebounds came in the second half. So maybe he’s beginning to understand.
The first half was icky watching, from a defensive positioning standpoint. When the Illini found themselves in rebound position, it’s because Vandy had the ball and was enjoying a glass of lemonade, alone, at the arc, while contemplating draining a three.
Answer: Too soon to say.
Tisdale picked up a horseshit offensive foul, shortly after a dead ball. It was horseshit. Weber had spent that dead ball trying to climb into Ted Valentine’s ear. You’ll recall Valentine from the 1998 Indiana game, when he gave Bobby Knight six or seven technical fouls and threw him out of an Illini win at Bloomington.
Moments after the return to live action, Tisdale made an unremarkable post move, and was penalized for stiff-arming. That’ll teach Bruce Weber to try reasoning with Ted Valentine.
Underrated Jackson State, at the Hall, Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. Perhaps, now that Illinois has shown you something, you’ll grace them with your presence.