I didn’t expect Illinois to win at Breslin Center against then-No. 10 Michigan State. But that didn’t make their loss any easier to swallow — not after the team folded mightily over the game’s final 10 minutes after leading for more than half the game. The 63–57 loss showcased the Illini bench at its best. But all that was for naught as the team lacked the knockout punch to fell the Spartans. Illinois played its worst down the stretch, when a re-invigorated Izzone fed off State’s aggressive play on both ends of the court.
The old clichés apply: you can’t win on the road without solid defense and spectacular free-throw shooting. State turned the ball over 14 times in the first half, but several of those errors were of the unforced kind. The Illini’s transition defense, as pointed out more than once by astute broadcaster Doris Burke, was fairly pathetic throughout the game. In the second half, the Illini defense fell flat. Over the game’s final ten minutes, Illinois could not put a lid on the opponent’s basket. Continuing the theme of the game, if the Spartans missed once, Illinois gave them the rebound as often as not. Seriously: Illinois collected 18 defensive rebounds; Michigan State tallied 17 offensive rebounds.
Finally, with just more than a minute to play, the Illini got two consecutive stops on defense, then witnessed Travis Walton throw knuckleballs at the rim from the charity stripe. Unfortunately, by this point in the game the team looked like a discombobulated mess on offense. Flash backward a tad: With two minutes left in the game and Illinois down by six, Burke’s broadcasting partner, Dave O’Brien, asked, “Who will be the man to bring the Fighting Illini back after leading most of the day?” On the court at that juncture were Calvin Brock, Alex Legion, Mike Tisdale, Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham. In that possession, Legion and Brock huddled motionless along the weakside baseline as Meacham ran around a Tisdale screen, caught the pass from Frazier and then fed the big fella. Tisdale dribbled once, gaining no ground on the wall that is Goran Suton, then attempted to hook Suton as he spun to his left into the lane. In the process of, well, “making his move,” Tisdale lost his balance and threw the ball at the backboard as his momentum carried him to the ground. It was, simply, an ugly possession. But then something odd happened: Illinois got a rebound! Specifically, Frazier did. So the possession was extended, luckily, so that we could watch Chet hoist a 25-foot airball as the shot clock expired.
But, the original intention — feed Tisdale the ball — was correct. Tisdale should have been the answer to O’Brien’s question in the subsequent trips down the court. Instead, on Illinois’ next possession, Frazier drove to the hoop, “attacking the rim,” as Burke put it, by lofting his layup attempt over the iron for the rare airballed layup. He then converted one of two free throws. On the Illini’s following possession, with the State lead at just five, Legion ran around a pair of screens, received the pass on the wing and proceeded to drive baseline directly into the neighboring Suton, who forced Legion to step on the baseline. On the Illini’s next possession with 30 seconds remaining and the lead still at five, Meacham drove the gut and kicked to Legion, who struck the back of the iron on a contested three-point try. One successful State free throw later, Demetri McCamey, in transition, dribbled directly into a Spartan double team at the arc and had the ball stripped by Walton as he raised up for a shot. And that was all she wrote.
I’d still like to take a lesson from this horrific offensive showing. Crunch time or not, when Mike Tisdale, who is about as bad as it gets as a one-on-one defender, is in the game, can we make up for his porous defense by feeding him the ball on offense? There’s no reason the offensive game shouldn’t go through him as often as the person he’s attempting to defend. A 7-foot-1 guy who can pass a little, hit an open 18-footer and has a nice baby hook needs to touch the ball consistently when he’s in the game.
It should not go without mention that Illinois shot ten fewer free throws than State — not a big shocker for a team that is one of the absolute worst in the country at getting to the line — and converted just 61.5% of its own freebies. If that number sounds familiar, it’s because 61.5% is just a tick over what the team averaged last season. You knew it was one of those nights from the line when Meacham, hitting better than 90% of his free-throws this season — entered the game to shoot the front-end of a one-and-one for the injured Frazier, and promptly missed it.
Legion’s offensive aggressiveness — possibly eagerness is a more apt word — worked to his benefit as he scored a much-needed 15 points off the bench. On a night when McCamey’s shots weren’t falling, and eventually the team’s leading scorer uncharacteristically stopped looking for his shot, Legion stepped up big time. Does he remind anyone else of the Bulls’ Ben Gordon, a guy who may not bring all that much to the table other than a welcome offensive burst? Legion might end up being as streaky of a shooter as Little Ben, but one has to admit that his offensive presence will likely come in handy down the Big Ten stretch, when legs tire, defenses tighten and jump shots get harder to make.
Factor in Brock’s 13 points, and he and Legion scored nearly half the team’s points while coming off the bench. Brock’s two best games this season have come in our two road losses. Against the Wolverines, he scored 13 and grabbed seven rebounds. Against the Sparties, he helped to ignite our offense in the first half with his shotmaking.
Illinois has had troubles rebounding the ball for most of the season. So it came as no surprise that the Spartans, a Top-20 team in rebounding on both sides of the court (according to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings), seemed to consistently limit the Illini to one shot while routinely getting second chances of their own. For all the to-do that’s made about the Illini’s Matto charts for hustle, this team shows little desire to rebound the ball. And there’s nothing more frustrating than watching this team play inspiring defense for 30 seconds only to allow the opponent to corral the rebound. It happens way too often, as evidenced by State’s slew of offensive boards. Bruce can teach ’em proper positioning and general court awareness all he wants, but until this team attacks the ball off the rim with the sort of passion they employ for the balance of the shot clock, they’re going to lose on the boards more often than not. Case in point: they’ve bested just one Big Ten opponent in rebounding thus far.
You can point to State’s supposed superior athleticism as the reason Illinois was outrebounded by 13, but I don’t hear anyone hailing Suton as the second coming of Shawn Kemp. No, the kid from Bosnia is just fundamentally sound … and he really wants that carom. The only Illini who displays that sort of tenacity in rebounding is Frazier, who led the team in rebounds with seven and is now averaging more rebounds per game than the team’s center.
Don’t look now, but the offseason’s sort-of joke — “Frazier may be our leading rebounder next year” — may yet come true. Frazier trails Mike Davis by a healthy margin of rebounds, 132 to 81. For him to surpass Davis by season’s end seems like too tall an order. But there are still a minimum of 15 games remaining, counting a Big Ten tourney game. Davis’ rebounding average has sunk some in conference play, and he could always injure himself and miss significant time, or continue to lose minutes as his role shifts.
For the sake of some fun trivia, let’s just pretend we’re not discussing a pipe dream here and Frazier finds a way to top this group in rebounds. The senior currently leads McCamey in assists by 18, which brings up an interesting question: Who is the last Illini player to lead his team in both assists and rebounds in the same season? Sergio in 1998–99? Larry Smith in 1990–91? Stephen Bardo the year prior? Otho Tucker in Henson’s debut? All of these players came close, but received no cigar. The guy I’m after was a senior when head coach Gene Bartow arrived on the scene for his one and only season en route to replacing a legend at UCLA.
The answer may surprise you: forward Rick Schmidt. For a team that finished a miserable 8–18, Schmidt averaged 20.2 points per game during his senior campaign. But more relevant to this trivia question, he also finished with a team-best 139 rebounds and 73 assists, one more than guard Otho Tucker and two more than guard Nate Williams.