Illinois Still Has Plenty To Fix, And Little Time To Fix It
Is it me? Am I expecting too much? Do I have the wrong idea of where Illinois should be, what games are winnable, and what games are a reasonable loss to take? I don't know. I might lack perspective, I might be putting too much stock in individual games and losing sight in the big picture. I suppose I can't help that.
What I learned from the last two Illinois losses is that despite all of the nay saying that this team isn't that young, it certainly plays that way pretty often. I also learned that even though some players can come along as the season progresses, other players can hit walls, get worse, and have injuries that just make them not quite the same.
I know that this team will not threaten for a Big Ten title this year, not unless it can steal road wins in the three most difficult gyms in the Big Ten to do it. I am prepared that Illinois will be playing on Thursday in the Big Ten Tournament. The two most important things about this team, for me, is that the Fighting Illini be safely into the field of 68 or whatever, preferably in a seed that they can actually make some noise with, and that they are playing well by then.
As I told someone today, I don't care what it looks like on the way, I just care how it looks at the end. So with that said, there are some real problems that both Penn State and Wisconsin reintroduced Illini fans to this past week, problems that would be their undoing if they are not fixed by the time March rolls around.
1. The hard truth is, Tracy Abrams has surpassed Sam Maniscalco at point guard in everything except experience. I am rooting for Sam to get healthy and succeed as hard as anyone, because his three point shooting has been particularly missed of late, but right now, he just doesn't look right. His ankles are clearly slowing him down, and by extension, the offense has as well. Sam got 27 minutes against Penn State, and 13 against Wisconsin, he totaled zero points and three assists. Tracy Abrams scored 9 points, 1 assist, and four rebounds, just against Wisconsin.
Inexperienced or not Tracy needs to be getting the lion's share of minutes from here on out.
2. Defense. Brandon Paul has turned into an excellent defender, DJ has been reliable since he was a freshman, but the perimeter defense has been roughed up lately, heck so has the interior defense. A lot of that has to do with the aforementioned inexperience. Joe Bertrand and Meyers Leonard are only seeing significant playing time for the first time this year. Sam has been hampered by his ankles, and guys like Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu are making plenty of freshman mistakes, mostly on the defensive end. The defense may or may not get better, but if it doesn't, the Illini are just going to have to outscore their opponents.
3.The offense, in its totality. The team cannot get the ball inside to Meyers nearly as much as it should, we know that. Three point shooting, aside from Brandon Paul's out of this world performance against Ohio State, has not been a reliable weapon. Brandon might be the Illini's most explosive and talented offensive weapon, but I think Joe Bertrand is the most reliable, and the guy I want getting the most touches in a close game. Joe Bertrand is shooting around 60% for the season, and it is because he is someone who can create his own shot, get within range for a high percentage shot, and make the right decision on when to do it. If the Illini are going to be giving up the percentages from range that they are, then they might as well make up the difference in volume of high percentage shots.
The totality of the season is what matters. And I still think that a Sweet Sixteen, in this year or next, is not too much to ask of this program, heck its not even too much to ask of this team. But putting yourself in position to get there is just as important.
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