I have a bit of insight into tonight's Illini game against the Michigan Wolverines. You see, I have already witnessed a head-to-head match-up between these two teams.

While Smile Politely was in the shop, I ventured to West Lafayette, Indiana, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, to see if our team is for real. The answer: yes and no. Against Purdue, Illinois didn't do enough wrong to undercome a weakened Bolier's pathetic effort from the charity stripe (15 for 27). Against Michigan, the Illini didn't do enough right to overcome a scorching Michigan shooting performance.


The Illini shot lights out in the first half. In the last six minutes, they couldn't hit anything. Michigan has a good line-up for exploiting Illinois' major defensive weakness: Mike Tisdale. Michigan is not well-suited to counter Illinois' major interior strength: Mike Tisdale.

At Michigan, Tisdale was abused by the Wolverines stronger, quicker front line. They employed the long ball to force Tisdale away from the rim, and then exploited his lack of speed to get back to the basket before him. Thus, a streptococcal Mike Davis was left to fend for any rebounds, and cough on opposing players. This plan can be used against the Illini by any team featuring bigs capable of shooting from the arc.

Michigan chose to play a lot of man-to-man defense against the Illini, even though Trent Meacham had an off-day from distance. In previous years, zone defenses gave the Illini fits. But this team has a complete set of offensive weapons. They have a low-post presence in Tisdale. Davis and Tisdale provide a mid-range game. Meacham and Demetri McCamey can shoot from outside, and they and Jeff Jordan are capable of attacking the basket.

THE NEW EMPHASIS ON OFFENSE

Detractors of the Illini coaching staff spent a lot of time (2006 to 2008) calling for the removal of certain defense-minded players (Chester Frazier, Brian Randle) in favor of more offense-oriented players. This year, no one can blame Bruce Weber for forsaking offense. The 2008–09 starters are, generally speaking, weak on D.

Meacham's new ankle gives him a quicker first step, and he's held his own. Frazier's defense is unquestioned. But McCamey, Davis and Tisdale are regarded (even by their own coaching staff) as porous defenders.

Against Purdue, Tisdale frequently appeared to be the 1 of a reverse box-and-1. That is to say, Tisdale stayed in one place on the floor while all the other Illini moved. The result is that Tisdale changed a lot of shots. Purdue repeatedly got within a few feet of the hoop, then forced shots over Tisdale. Frazier or Meacham was usually on the weak side of the hoop, ready to collect the falling masonry. Tisdale can be effective defensively in this way. That's encouraging, because he embodies a glaring defensive liability against slashing leapers. Eastern Michigan's Yinka Dare clone, Brandon Bowdry, and teammate Justin Dobbins portrayed Tisdale as The Scarecrow, an ostensibly intimidating visage fixed to an earthbound pole.

It's hard to say which was worse, EMU's 19 lay-ups, or Michigan's drawing & quartering. But who's going to help Tisdale defend the interior?

After the Michigan game, I asked coach Weber, "Why not Richard Semrau?"

"Who's he going to guard?" the coach retaliated. But I don't understand how that answer's my question. "Anybody?" might be a safe reply to his question. Because Mike Tisdale is best at guarding merely everybody (who strays into his web), and few individuals in particular.

A COMMENT ABOUT PURDUE WHICH I SIMPLY CANNOT RESIST MAKING

The officiating was not merely bad, it was unbalanced. Muggings, assaults and batteries went unpunished at some points. Other times, looking at a guy funny drew a call. Of the three officials working the game, I did not notice any mistakes from Steve Olson. Jim Burr was more or less on top of things, despite being 96 years old and only half human. (Burr's birth-mother was homo sapien, and his biological father was a bowling ball.)

Ed Corbett did not do anything right. He didn't seem to be trying either.

 

Ed Corbett contemplates a shopping list while, to the left, a basketball game occurs.


Here are a few blatant errors and inconsistencies, all from the first half. If you TIVOed the game, or have ESPN360.com, you can see them for yourself:

17:55 Davis blocks a shot. It looks clean. Corbett whistles for fouling.
10:50 Nemanja Calasan push-out leads to Tisdale body foul. This is the correct call. (See below)
8:46 Under the Illinois basket, Robbie Hummel cracks Davis across both arms. The ball goes out of bounds. I'm sitting about eight feet away, with Corbett in the middle. You can actually hear the contact. Davis yelps. Corbett swallows the whistle.
5:30 Alex Legion hacks Keaton Grant on a lay-up. Grant tumbles into the cheerleaders. Corbett yawns.
0:37 Legion breathes on little Bobby Riddle, following a rebound. Corbett awards Riddell two free throws.

The 12th minute of the second half featured a clinic on call-missing. First, Calasan put Tisdale on his hip and backed Tisdale out of the lane. This is legal. It's old-school basketball. Calasan was called for an offensive foul.

Moments later, Legion fumbled the ball over the center line. Jim Burr whistled no back court violation. Burr then stopped the game to chew Matt Painter's ear. No technical foul, just ear-chewing. (Painter admittedly has large, shiny ears. So if you're into that sort of thing ...)

As the 12th minute wound down, McCamey dragged his pivot foot (to no reaction from Corbett) then air-mailed a three. As the ball bounced toward the baseline, Hummel grabbed Davis to prevent Davis from saving the ball in bounds. This might have been called an intentional foul. Instead, Corbett just watched.

Corbett missed one last big call, late in the game, and it may have decided the game: JuJuan Johnson threw the ball off McCamey's leg as they both tumbled out of bounds. Corbett gave possession to Illinois.

Corbett is no stranger to ignominy. The Illini are plenty familiar with his erratic style. It's almost hard to get irritated with Corbett, because his continued presence in the stripey shirt is comically bizarre.

 

Purdue's Marcus Green holds Illini Mike Davis while Lewis Jackson's interpretive dance mesmerizes referee Ed Corbett (in background).


A MISSED ASSIGNMENT PRESERVED THE VICTORY

Whatever criticism you or I might have of Bruce Weber, he must be creditied for his flexibility. He listens to suggestions, he reads the press, he hears the fans. He knows when something isn't working that he should try something else. The fact that he plays an offensively talented, defensively challenged line-up proves his understanding that butts in seats pays his salary, and no one wants to see a pitchers' duel in basketball.

The Purdue victory happened by accident. Prior to McCamey's third consecutive missed free throw, Weber called for his players to vacate the lane and forego any chance at a rebound. Weber prefers to set the defense at the other end of the floor. It's a typical Weber stratagem, and I've never understood it.

Luckily, on this occasion, the Purdue student section's hundred-decibel jeering backfired. Davis couldn't hear Weber screaming, fifteen feet behind him. Upon McCamey's miss, Davis speared the rebound.

I watched the replay of the game on ESPN360, and I saw (in a close-up shot) Weber holding up both hands, possibly at Davis, and possibly motioning him to stay put. So maybe I assessed this play incorrectly as it happened. But the impression I got from my seat on the floor, about 30 feet from Davis, is that Weber was trying to get everyone back on D. He's certainly done it before.

But maybe he's evolving on this strategem as well.

LOOKS GOOD IN ORANGE


ABOVE: Amy drove from Winchester, Illinois, to strangle her mother-in-law, Shirley, for being a Purdue fan.

BELOW: Illini fan Dan Flannel drove all the way from Sullivan, Illinois, without so much as a ticket.

He had to sit next to an insufferable prick. Seriously, the guy nearly blew a gasket when I suggested taking a picture. Later, the prick's wife or whatever, also dressed in orange, embraced him while the whole stadium watched on the KissCam. He pushed her away.

I'm not making this up.

On the bright side, it was a really good seat.

BELOW: Michigan fans wear orange, too. They call it "maize," as in "that Michigan sweatshirt is a-maize-ingly orange."

BIG TEN TOURISM — ANN ARBOR

I discovered the reason behind the Michigan Superiority Complex: They're better than we are.

Their Espresso Royales are cozier.

Their National City, rounder.

Their Za's (built by my neighbor, Dave Baker) more urban.

But it's not just the tangible qualities that make Ann Arbor a better college town than ours. It's also the quality of the intangibles.

Their Bed 'n' Breakfasts are bluer.

Their Free Tudors more ornate.

Their gelati, spookier.

Their stadium, Renaissancier.

And in the used bookstore, a first edition Paul Klee.

BIG TEN TOURISM — PURDUE

Why not make the short trip to West Lafayette? Where else will you find a Follett's Bookstore on the same block as a Brothers?

They also have at least one university building named Krannert, with its own parking deck.

Son-of-Barry Liquors sits among a handful of licensed premises, just a bottle's throw from campus and the sports complex. Here you can find Passover wines, as well as Passover kegs. Because tailgaters are more likely to celebrate Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, it's good to know that you can get your Yom Kippur kegs here, too.

Ross-Ade Stadium should be a fun place to visit over the next couple of years, now that Joe Tiller has retired.