Smile Politely

Here We Go: Illini Men’s Basketball Opens Season Tonight

The Eastern Washington University Eagles have landed. They’ve come to crap in the nest of our favorite local college basketball team. Can they?

Maybe. Probably not.

The 2008–09 Illinois Fightling Illini Men’s Basketball team begins its season tonight with an advantage over the last two Illini squads: They’ve been practicing offense.

You may have noticed, the last two Illini teams had no offense. That’s not to say they scored no points — although that’s true, too. In fact, the offense has been stagnant for three years now. You’ll remember Dee Brown’s senior season, when he won the Bob Cousy award by dribbling at the top of the key until the shot-clock got to three seconds. Then he launched a 27-footer. Once in a while, it went in.

For the last two years, it’s been Chester Frazier dribbling at the top of the key. Late last season, Demetri McCamey tried his hand at it. And in fact, McCamey’s hand was much hotter than the other two: his shots went in, frequently.

Those of us watching at home began to wonder what “motion” means. Dribbling? Standing around? Rich McBride suddenly running the length of the baseline, under the basket?

Well, I’m beginning to have some ideas. I think the motion offense is like set-plays — except that it evolves geometrically, rather than arithmetically.

Here’s what I mean. Set-plays generally involve a sequence.

Each step in the unfolding play begins when previous step finishes. Some player movements occur simultaneously, but the ball only moves when each step of the unfolding play has happened.

In the motion, players move from point to point irrespective of ball movement. If they’re no good at moving, the ball might seem to stay in the hands of the point guard. (In fact, it does.)

Stagnation sets in when players run to the wrong spot, or set a half-assed screen. When they get out of sync, you see much running around beneath the basket, and no screens at all because the arriving (would be) screener finds his beneficiary already on the move again. The defensive player who would have been screened is no longer there, either.

Bad motion is super, duper easy to defend.

Two developing players to watch, as the season begins, are center Mike Tisdale and shooting guard Billy Cole. Yes, I said “shooting guard.”

During Wednesday’s press conference Bruce Weber spoke of Cole playing at “the three or four spot.” Specifically, Weber cited poor outside shooting as the reason for trying Cole on the wing. So when he says “the three or the four,” know that he’s talking about the two or the three spot. And really, he’s talking about the two.

At some points during practice, the team breaks into Bigs and Smalls. As Weber said after the Lewis exhibition, the Bigs practice interior movements while team managers beat them with padded bags like this one.

The Smalls dribble between cones. They practice dribbling through their legs. They practice passing off the dribble.

Cole’s likelihood of playing professionally got a big shot in the arm when he started working out with the Smalls. Cole was considered a contender for the four spot, even as a freshman. But because he’s agile, can shoot from 25 feet, and weighs about 94 pounds, he’s much more dangerous from the outside. He’d look stupid trying to bang with human battering rams like Jim Rowinski, Steve Scheffler or Aloysius Anagonye.* He’ll look hard to defend, at 6’8”, when he’s raining threes over Talor Battle, Trevon Hughes and Kalin Lucas.

Mike Tisdale continues to look good versus the blocking dummies. His problem is not his ability to move in the interior. It’s the hands of opposing players, not their bodies, that give him fits.

Disappointing performances in the two exhibitions caused familiar Hara-Kiri sentiments on the interweb. In some cases, though, the talk was murderous rather than suicidal. It’s true that Tisdale is behind his overblown projections. But he’s ahead of where you’d expect a small town seven-footer to be at the beginning of a non-redshirt sophomore campaign.

Tisdale’s problems are merely serious, not hopeless. Basically, he has to adjust to the college game. There are people his size now, wherever he goes. Conversely, he was the only 7-footer in Riverton, Illinois.

Adjustment #1 involves holding the ball over his head. Lots of big men have learned this lesson the hard way — by losing the ball a lot to pesky, shorter defenders. It’s something he’ll have to think about, to remember to do.

Adjustment #2 may be learned only by experience. Basically, Tisdale must learn how to shoot the ball against equally tall defenders. He has a great hook shot, and hook shots are impossible to block. It’s his jumper that gets stuffed. He’ll need to be more selective about his jump shots. His release is fairly quick. But college players can block it, whereas the Future Farmers of America could not. So he must, like everyone else, shoot only when he’s open.

The season begins at 8:30 p.m. That gives you the opportunity to enjoy a couple of brews after work (class?) and still get to the game.

Four highly touted recruits signed on the dotted line this Wednesday. This is the best and biggest news in a while. Here’s a really long recording of Bruce Weber, speaking about Joseph Bertrand, Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey and DJ Richardson. There are some interesting moments, not the least of which is the technical difficulty involved in getting one reporter hooked-up via telephone.

*For you youngsters, these were very large basketball players with lots of muscles.

More Articles