Fighting Illini NCAA Tournament: What can WKU tell us about UNLV?
I said last week, that when the Illini got their bid for the NCAA tournament, their chances would depend a lot on the first round match up. Not exactly a revelation, I know, but the Illini, despite the fact that they can play up tempo, are pretty reliably a more deliberate half court team, not as methodical as Wisconsin or Penn State, but slower than Missouri to be sure.
Looking at UNLV, our first round opponent this Friday in Tulsa many of us are immediately reminded of the last two teams that bounced the Illini from post season tournaments, Dayton in last year's NIT, and WKU the year prior. Yes, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, one of the first teams I had to cover for this blog, fresh off of my days on Blogspot. I wonder what it was that I said about the Illini and the Hilltoppers back then...
You don't find hubris that pure many places, and there are more cringe worthy statements in that paragraph than I would care to admit. Fact was, the 2009 Illini were caught on their heels with WKU. The perimeter defense, despite what thought at the time, took a huge hit without Chester Frazier on the court.The Hilltoppers were out and running in that game, forcing a very high possession game for the Illini (119 total shots taken) and nailing 50% of their three pointers.
If it weren't for Trent Meacham having an inhuman 24 points that game, the Illini could have lost by a much larger margin than 76-72. That pace is going to be a problem again this week, and while I will save a full preview of the Rebels for later this week, I think examining the intangible elements of that game, as a reminder for this year's tournament, is in order.
Now the Illini, like me, may have fallen into the trap of looking ahead in 2009. I suppose I didn't appreciate just how important Chester Frazier was to the offense, and just how jarring the pace of that game was for the then less experienced big men.
The floor leader for the 2009 Illini was Chester Frazier, the player who knew the offense best, was the shut down defender for the opponent's best player and even more than that was an absolute bull dog. That game probably would have been a much different one with Chet on the floor, someone with a significant amount of NCAA tournament experience.
If this is a question of experience and intangibles, at the very least we know that most of this team has been through absolute hell these last two years since Chester graduated. All the players that were raw and full of potential in 2009 have gone through two full seasons since, and for better or worse, are the most they will be as college players right now. I doubt there is much that will catch them off guard, and presented with the prospect of winning or ending their careers in college, I seriously doubt they are looking past anybody.
This team hasn't exactly been spoiled with success since that game against Western Kentucky, and after getting spurned by the NCAA committee last year, I cannot imagine that this game will be taken lightly by anyone.
Suffice to say this, if the Illini do get beat by UNLV this week, it will be because they played better and are the better team, it wont be because this team didn't want it or was looking past them. Winning basketball games isn't entirely about motivation, it takes talent and a lot of luck too, but if this team will ever be motivated by anything to give it their all, it will be this game. If not now, then it never will be, because there aren't any games left to play.
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