Big Ten Season Wrap-Up: Illinois

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on April 12th, 2012

It has been a long season for the Fighting Illini basketball fans around the Midwest. Most realistic fans knew that they would have a tough time with a younger team but few expected the talent to come out firing during the non-conference season. Wins against Gonzaga and Maryland showed that Bruce Weber’s team had the talent to compete in the Big Ten and beyond. But it was a red herring for the most part because Weber could not control the team and did not necessarily use the player’s skill-sets in an efficient fashion. Illinois lost ten out of 12 games to finish the season at 17-15 and were not even invited to the NIT. Most other Big Ten teams such as Iowa and Purdue improve towards later part of conference season but it was very obvious that Weber’s time was done in Champaign after road losses to lower tier programs such as Nebraska. The fans couldn’t fathom missing the NCAA Tournament for the third time in five years and Bruce Weber was let go. It is a new era in Champaign with John Groce taking charge but let’s look back at what can only be classified as a trying season for Illinois basketball.

Meyers Leonard and the Illini fell significantly short of expectations.

  • In a nutshell: Even during the first five games of the Big Ten season, Bruce Weber’s team did not always win efficiently. They needed overtime to beat Minnesota at home and needed a thunderous block by Meyers Leonard to beat Northwestern on the road. The whole nation turned their eyes onto Brandon Paul after his 43-point performance against Ohio State at home but it is easy to forget that the Buckeyes were still in the game during the final two minutes. When you win, everything is forgotten but Illinois’ offensive problems caught up after the win against Thad Matta’s group. Weber couldn’t figure out how to use consistently use Leonard in his offensive sets and relied too much on the three-point shooting of D.J. Richardson. Leonard did not have a smooth 15-footer so he couldn’t fit into Weber’s jump shot oriented offense most of the time. Weber played Sam Maniscalco during the early games but he couldn’t keep up defensively during the Big Ten due to lack of quickness and injuries. Because of Weber’s inability to make adjustments during the mid-season along with a losing slump led to the demise of Illini season.
  • Overachievement: It is tough to classify anything as an overachievement for a team that significantly fell short of expectations but if we had to choose, the emergence of Joe Bertrand and Tracy Abrams can be classified in this category. Bertrand averaged 6.5 PPG in just 20 minutes of game time and Abrams averaged 4.3 PPG in 21 minutes per game. The numbers are not really earth shattering but both of them showed a different style of play than the rest of the Weber’s guards such as Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. One of Illinois’ main weaknesses was their lack of free throw attempts. Most of the guards settled for deep jump-shots rather than attack the hoop. Bertrand showed great finesse in his moves towards the paint and great touch on a floater which was one of his consistent shots. Abrams displayed tremendous maturity for a freshman point guard and was able to control the tempo very well during the Big Ten season. Both of them are budding stars in Champaign, especially under John Groce’s offense next season.
  • Underachievement: Meyers Leonard could still end up in the lottery of the NBA draft, but he could have done more to improve his stock. Leonard was very aggressive on the boards averaging 8.2 rebounds per game and played great defense against better competition such as Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger. But his underachievement was more due to Weber’s inability to use him consistently. There were not enough offensive sets during the late possessions of a game when the Illini guards looked for Leonard. They settled for three-pointers and were not completely committed to Leonard’s post moves, even though few big men in the B1G could hold their ground against Leonard. His statistics dropped a little bit during the late games, but it was mainly due to the mass confusion that surrounded Weber’s offense due to the losing slump. The underachievement for the Illini team is a combination of Bruce Weber and Meyers Leonard, the latter being a result of the former.
  • Final Grade: The talent on this squad was better than 17-15. John Groce will prove that next season when he will run a little bit more and push the tempo. Illinois played a slow pace even though their guards would have preferred to push the pace. The Missouri game was an example when Bertrand essentially took over the game during the second half because the offense was loose and was not restricted to convoluted plays within the motion offense. Even without Leonard next season, they have enough talent to win 20 games and make the NCAA Tournament. Overall grade for the season – strong D.
Deepak Jayanti (270 Posts)

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