Big Ten Non-Conference Schedule Analysis: Illinois Fighting Illini

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on October 23rd, 2012

The Big Ten microsite will be analyzing the non-conference schedules for all of the Big Ten teams in the coming weeks. Today, we continue with the Northwestern Wildcats. Check out their full schedule here.

Where we left off: Bruce Weber’s Illini set the expectations very high after winning the first 10 games of the non-conference schedule during the 2011-12 campaign. Illinois handled Maryland comfortably on the road (71-62) and beat a ranked Gonzaga team (#18 at the time), 82-75 in Champaign. But the confidence from those wins quickly deteriorated after the Illini got run over by UNLV in Chicago (64 – 48) and lost to Missouri in the annual Braggin’ Rights game, 78-74. Overall, their 11-2 record during the non-conference season indicated to Illini fans that they might enjoy a successful season before the wheels fell off during the final 14 games of the season where the team sputtered to a miserable 2-12 record. The schedule appears to be tougher this season especially for a team that needs to adjust to a new offensive system under head coach John Groce and deal with the departure of their big man Meyers Leonard to the NBA.

Can Brandon Paul and the Illini win more than eight games in the non-conference season?

Major Tournaments: The timing couldn’t be worse for the Illini to play in arguably the most prestigious preseason tournament, the Maui Invitational. Illini fans envisioned a completely different team for this event when the field was announced over a year ago. First off, Bruce Weber was still expected to be coaching in Champaign. Few expected Meyers Leonard to stick around for a senior season, but he wasn’t viewed as a sure lock for the NBA after just two seasons either. Guard Crandall Head was supposed to play an integral role in his junior year rather than transferring out of the program after just one season. Regardless of the personnel changes on the team, the fans expected Illinois to fly to Maui as one of the top contenders. But the reality is that they might not even be the fourth-best team in the field this year. North Carolina, Marquette, Texas and Butler are most certainly better equipped than the Illini to win the title and the first matchup against USC is not a guaranteed win. If the Illini manage to muscle their way past the Trojans, they will then face the Longhorns as a heavy underdog. This tournament will test Groce’s ability to keep his team together under adversity. If Brandon Paul and company can compete against USC and/or even Texas, it should be considered a very positive early season sign for the Orange Krush and the Illini faithful.

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Big Ten Team Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on October 22nd, 2012

Throughout the preseason, the Big Ten microsite will be rolling out these featured breakdowns of each of the 12 league schools. Today’s release is the Illinois Fighting Illini. 

Where we left off: The last two months of the 2011-12 season were just an absolute mess for the Illini. After beating Ohio State at home on January 10, Bruce Weber’s team ended the season in a major slump (2-12) to finish with a record of 17-15. Weber clearly had lost complete control of his team and was fired after the Big Ten Tournament. The Illini did not even get invited to play in the NIT amidst the chaos and the coaching search created even more negative press coverage for the program. VCU’s Shaka Smart reportedly rejected the job offer and rumors about Brad Stevens’ interest in the opportunity were squashed immediately. Nonetheless, the Illini hired an excellent young candidate, former Thad Matta assistant John Groce from Ohio University. Groce brings a much-needed positive attitude to the program and hopes to instill some new energy, and more importantly, toughness into the program.

Will the Illini buy into John Groce’s direction in Champaign?

Positives: Bruce Weber recruited quality talent to Champaign over the past three seasons. Guards Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams were all top 100 recruits in their class coming out of high school. Weber did not fully utilize Paul’s athleticism but the junior exhibited his offensive versatility as he averaged a team-leading 14.7 PPG last season. John Groce’s success at Ohio has been driven by an up-tempo, guard-oriented offense and requires a backcourt who can not only shoot the ball but also consistently attack the basket. Paul and Richardson’s experience will be helpful if they can buy into Groce’s system which is not as stringent as Weber’s motion offense that revolved around several set plays. Abrams only averaged 4.3 PPG last season but showed his maturity during the season of turmoil. Illini fans have been waiting for an offense that will let the guards facilitate drives to the hoop and make plays rather than adherence to drawn plays that revolve around the perimeter.

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Big Ten M5: 10.16.12 Edition

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on October 16th, 2012

  1. Indiana legend and college hoops icon, Bobby Knight, is getting rid of some of his jewelery. Knight is auctioning off his three national championship rings and the Olympic gold medal he received from the LA Olympic Committee for coaching the 1984 men’s national team. Knight won titles at Indiana in 1976, 1981 and 1987. One of the best coaches in the history of the game will have his memorabilia auctioned off by Steiner Sports Memorabilia, with the proceeds of the auction going to support his grandchildren’s education and charities.
  2. How will the Illinois’ senior class be remembered by Illini fans? Per Paul Klee, that question will be answered in March. Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey came to Champaign in 2009 as one of the top 30 recruiting classes in the nation. They were supposed to help Bruce Weber take the Fighting Illini back to the Sweet Sixteen or beyond. But the Illini missed the NCAA Tournament twice since then and got only one win in the other year. Paul averaged 14.7 PPG and 4.7 RPG last season but has the potential to become one of the best players in the conference this season. Even though the trio have the talent, they’ve never been able to put a consistent season together. Most Illini fans would agree with Klee that an NCAA Tournament appearance this season would help cement the senior class’ legacy as a solid foundation for the future.
  3. Mackey Arena hosted a Midnight Madness event for the first time since 2008 this past weekend. Head coach Matt Painter talked about his team’s summer trip to Italy and its benefits before the scrimmage began. Forward Jacob Lawson wowed the crowd by winning the dunk competition, and even though Lawson only averaged 2.9 PPG last season, he will play a pivotal role in Purdue’s frontcourt this year. The Boilers sported a 27.3% offensive rebounding rate and will need Lawson to hold his own in the paint in an offense that will feature guards Terone Johnson (9.2 PPG) and D.J. Byrd (8.9 PPG).
  4. How will Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan fill Mike Bruesewitz’s slot in the rotation during the first few games? According to ESPN‘s Eamonn Brennan, Ryan may try to use a combination of sophomore forward Frank Kaminsky, sophomore guard Traevon Jackson, and freshman wing Sam Dekker. Bruesewitz hurt his leg while diving for a loose ball during a scrimmage last week. Kaminsky is a 6’11” forward who came off the bench last season and could use some game action before the Big Ten season begins. The son of former Big Ten great Jim Jackson, Traevon Jackson is a 6’2″ combo guard who should earn some playing time after the departure of Jordan Taylor. Ryan has also praised guard Josh Gasser (7.6 PPG) for his improvement during the offseason and will most likely start at the point to begin the non-conference slate.
  5. During this time of the year, the “other” basketball league in the country (i.e. the NBA) is going through preseason practices as well. Former Ohio State big man Jared Sullinger was drafted in the first round by the Boston Celtics and has been prominent so far in preseason action. Even though he dropped to the 21st pick of the draft due to his history of back problems, he is happy to be learning from one of the all-time greats, Kevin Garnett. Garnett will not log heavy minutes until the end of the season due to his knee injuries and so younger players such as Sullinger will be expected to keep the momentum going during the gruelling 82-game season. The 6’8″ power forward averaged 16 points and eight rebounds during the preseason opener in Turkey and will certainly be a focal point of the Celtics’ bench during the upcoming NBA season.
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Big Ten Summer Check In: Illinois Fighting Illini

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on July 20th, 2012

Illini Nation awaits the 2012-13 season with mixed feelings. Even though most of the fans are relieved to see Bruce Weber leave after nine seasons, they are not overly excited about his replacement, John Groce. The Orange Krush and the majority of the fans expected (hoped?) Illinois to land a high-profile name such as VCU’s Shaka Smart but the coaching search was met with a couple of rejections before Groce was lured away from Ohio University. Nonetheless, everybody is eager to see how the former Ohio State assistant under Thad Matta will do in Big Ten country as a head coach.

Can John Groce bring Illinois back into the top half of the Big Ten?

Evaluating Last Year: Weber’s last season in Champaign can be described using one word – tiring. Even though top recruit Jereme Richmond left the program early for the NBA in spring 2011, there was still enough talent left on the Illini to finish in the top half of the conference last season. The emergence of Meyers Leonard as a formidable force in the paint (13.6 PPG) along with the return of versatile guard Brandon Paul (14.7 PPG) indicated that Illinois wouldn’t have any trouble on the offensive end. Despite their scoring talent, though, Illinois finished 11th in the conference in terms of offensive efficiency, at only 0.97 points per possession. Weber’s offense was not efficient, especially in the second half of the conference play, which led to 12 losses in the last 14 games. They shot only 29.5% from beyond the arc, but still took 35% of their total shots from deep. Weber lost complete control of the team down the stretch and the loss to Nebraska on the road by 23 points was definitely the lowest point of the season. Players looked dejected and there were numerous signs pointing towards Weber’s exit barring a surprising turnaround. Illinois ended with a 17-15 record after starting the season 15-3, which resulted in the coaching change.

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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. Read the rest of this entry »
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Four Game Recaps: Big Ten Tournament First Round

Posted by Ryan Terpstra on March 9th, 2012

Here’s a breakdown on how things went down in the Big Ten tournament’s first day of action:

Matt Gatens led Iowa to a big win over Illinois (Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

Iowa 64 – Illinois 61

The skinny: It’s been a tough season for Illini fans, and now (some would say thankfully) it is over. Myers Leonard was a force down low for Illinois, scoring 18 points and grabbing six boards, but Brandon Paul struggled his way to four points on 2-11 shooting. Meanwhile, Matt Gatens continued his solid senior season with 20 points to lead the Hawkeyes, but it was his defense on Paul that really was the difference in this contest for Iowa. Head coach Fran McCaffery complained earlier this week about Gatens not being included on the all-Big Ten defensive team, and the senior looked every bit an elite-level stopper in this match-up. All-Big Ten freshman Aaron White had 13 points and 9 rebounds including a key offensive board with about 40 seconds left after a missed free throw by Roy Devyn Marble that helped seal the game for Iowa.

Up next: The #8-seed Hawkeyes will face #1-seed Michigan State at noon today. Iowa only played the Spartans once this season, falling 95-61 in a game at East Lansing on January 10.

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Big Ten Tournament Preview & Season Wrap-Up

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 8th, 2012

Bill Hupp is the RTC correspondent for the Big Ten Conference.

Conference Tournament Preview

After a thrilling regular season, it’s on to Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Despite being a three-seed, Ohio State has to be considered the favorite given how well they ended the regular season. If either Michigan State or OSU wins the Big Ten Tournament, they will get strong consideration for a one-seed. Teams like Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue can all improve their NCAA Tournament seeds with strong showings this weekend.

Northwestern is the only clear bubble team in the conference, and as such is under the most pressure to string some wins together. If the Wilcats can beat Minnesota in the first round, they’ll face a Michigan team that they only lost to twice this season, though both losses came in overtime. Two wins in the Big Ten tournament should make them a virtual lock for their first-ever tournament birth, but it’s much easier said than done with this level of competition.

A Look Back

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Checking In On… the Big Ten Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 21st, 2012

Bill Hupp is the RTC correspondent for the Big Ten Conference. Follow him on Twitter (@Bill_Hupp) for his thoughts on hoops, food, box fans and life.

Reader’s Take


The Week That Was

  • Boiling Over: Give credit to Matt Painter for making a difficult decision in the stretch run of a season. Painter kicked Kelsey Barlow off the team and suspended D.J. Byrd for the Michigan State game for a “violation of team rules.” They’ll miss Barlow’s experience and slashing ability, but sometimes this kind of incident can galvanize a team.
  • Lincoln > Land of Lincoln: Any doubts about whether Illinois was still playing for embattled head coach Bruce Weber were answered when Nebraska used a 52-12 run to bury the Illini, 80-57, on Sunday. Brandon Paul and Meyers Leonard combined for 11 total points. You just can’t let the worst offensive team in the Big Ten put up 80 on you. Illinois has now lost eight of its last nine games and Weber seems resigned to his likely fate (see video below).
  • Shurna Can Score: Congrats to John Shurna, a nice kid and a fantastic (if unorthodox) scorer who is now the all-time leading scorer in Northwestern history. His deep three-pointer midway through the second half against Minnesota gave him 18 points to surpass Billy McKinney (1,900 points).  More importantly to Shurna, the Wildcats picked up a win to stay in the hunt for first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.

The Spartans And Buckeyes Have Company At The Top Of The Standings. (AP/Carlos Osorio)

Power Rankings

  1. Michigan State (22-5, 11-3) – Not since Tim Duncan in 1997-98 has a player averaged more than 15 points per game, 10 rebounds a game and three assists per game. But Draymond Green has done just that, and he continued to show his versatility on Sunday at Purdue with a 20-point, 10 rebound and seven-assist performance to lead the Spartans to a road win. He has to be the Big Ten POY if MSU wins the conference.
  2. Ohio State (22-5, 10-4) – William Buford has had big games for Ohio State this season, but his struggles late in the regular season may cost Ohio State a Big Ten crown. He shot a combined 5-for-24 in the Buckeyes’ losses to Michigan State and Michigan, and just hasn’t shown the big game leadership that you would expect out of a senior. Read the rest of this entry »
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Should Meyers Leonard Go Pro After This Season?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on February 16th, 2012

Uncertainty looms over Assembly Hall in Champaign nowadays as the Fighting Illini lost another game to Purdue on Wednesday night, their seventh loss out of eight games. Will the Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas get rid of Bruce Weber?  Will the Illini make the NCAA tournament?  These are legitimate questions on the minds of the Illini faithful but the biggest question is about their star center, Meyers Leonard’s future: will he come back for his junior season in Champaign? Let’s examine a few non-personal factors that might drive the sophomore’s decision regarding the NBA.

Leonard Has A Tough Decision To Make At The End Of The Season

Why should he leave for the NBA 

  1. You can’t teach 7’1″.” – NBA scouts love to use that cliché. Leonard has all the physical tools to play the center position at the next level. He has shown that he can add muscle over the off-season (added 30 lbs) and certainly has the intensity to hang with the big guys on a nightly basis in the NBA. Averaging eight boards per game isn’t too shabby in the Big Ten, which is known for the physical brand of play. Defensively, he has been a highlight reel during the season as he has swatted balls into the second row of the sidelines, including a game-winning block against Northwestern on the road. Most of the NBA draft boards, such as have him slated as a potential lottery pick. The scouts will waste no time trying to convince him about going pro after the college season because they might have seen enough for somebody with his physical build. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he has reached his ceiling in the college game, or maybe he did under the current coach.
  2. Bruce Weber will coach Illinois in 2013 – Bruce Weber is not a bad coach because he understands the talented sophomore and his significance to the Illini offense. Even though Leonard could improve on his scoring average from this season of 13.2 points per game, he might have hit the ceiling in Weber’s system. True centers that have the skills to play with the back to their basket don’t shine under Weber’s offensive philosophy. The motion offense under Weber has been designed around guards who can shoot the deep ball. Illinois has been at the bottom of the league for years in terms of free throws per game (only 32.5% in 2012) because most of the offensive plays revolve around screens for the shooters rather than an attacking brand of basketball.  During their recent losing skid, Weber tries to commit to the big man over the first few minutes of the game but during the late minutes, most of the shots end up being away from the paint. Historically, centers that prefer to play in the post such as Shaun Pruitt have been frustrated in Weber’s system. Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale rarely played with their backs to the basket or in the paint because they relied heavily upon the 15-footer from the baseline coming off the pick-and-roll plays. Leonard’s offensive game is more than a baseline jumper or a post move – he is a monster when he attacks the hoop off the picks but Weber has not and will not be able to utilize him better next season unless he adjusts his system. If Leonard comes back for a third year with an improved game, the skills need to be utilized efficiently by the coach otherwise his draft stock won’t improve after another year in college.
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Is Tonight a Must Win for Bruce Weber (And Illinois)?

Posted by EJacoby on February 15th, 2012

Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. 

The Fighting Illini may be playing for more than just their NCAA Tournament lives in the next three weeks. Multiple news outlets continue to speculate that Bruce Weber’s tenure as Illinois head coach may also be on shaky ground. Illinois was ranked in the Top 25 one month ago after knocking off Ohio State at home, and it looked like the team’s young talent was starting to come together. But since that game, the Illini are back in a familiar struggling position, having lost six of their last seven. Pressure continues to mount on Weber to turn this talented team around in a hurry, something he has been unable to do for several consecutive seasons. Tonight’s home game against Purdue is crucial for the coach to put the team in position to make a late-season run.

Bruce Weber is Firmly on the Hot Seat; How Will his Team Respond? (AP Photo/M. Conroy)

Illinois won consecutive Big Ten titles in Weber’s first two years at the helm in 2003-04 and 2004-05, and the ’05 team that advanced to the National Championship game before losing a close game to North Carolina was one of the decade’s best teams. But Weber has never been able to build on that initial success and the players that got him to the Final Four were Bill Self’s recruits from the previous regime. Self’s winning percentage from 2000-03 was .765 compared to Weber’s .688 in the nine years since, which includes the Final Four run with a 34-2 team. Since that title game appearance, Weber’s teams are 60-56 in the Big Ten and 2-4 in the NCAA Tournament.

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