Tuesday, January 6, 2009
New year, new possibilities.
What a difference a year makes. At this time last year, the Fighting Illini men's basketball team was slogging through one of their worst seasons in nearly a decade. Several factors attribute to the reversal of fortunes. First of all, the players on this team are all a year older and more experienced. Guys like Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis have all seen their individual games stepped up a notch, while the elder players on the team, Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock have stepped into leadership roles. It could also be addition by subtraction. There were times last season when Brian Randle and Shawn Pruitt both did more harm than good, and frankly, I'm not sure where either of them would fit on this year's team. Last year's team played more on an individual level, and it showed on the floor, as communication and team effort just was not there. The problem was so dire that Bruce Weber decided at the beginning of the season to remove the names of the players off the backs of the uniforms, citing that they play for the name on the front of the jersey, not on the back. The tactic must be working, because this season the Illini have come out and are playing more as a team, more together cohesively. They have raced off to a 13-2 mark through the first 15 games, compared to 8-7 at the same jucture one year ago. As a matter of fact, the Illini did not get win number 13 until game 31 last season, which happened on March 8. So here we are, into the Big Ten season and the calendar has turned over to 2009, and Illinois has a road win at Purdue, and a game that maybe they should have won at Michigan, but still no Top 25 ranking. Maybe this is a good thing, because the players won't lose focus over being ranked. On the other hand, this is a team that deserves to be ranked, so the recognition needs to be there. Going into the first full week of conference play, one would have thought that a split would have meant a national ranking once and for all, but after the win at Purdue, the Illini were thinking sweep, and not just splitting the two. One really cannot explain why some teams get ranked and others don't, but I have to believe that last year somehow plays a part in it. Pollsters have taken a look at what the Illini did in 2007-08 and have concluded that this may be a fluke and that they will come back down to earth once the Big Ten season gets rolling. The Illini will look to get back on the winning track once again and make another push toward cracking the Top 25 this weekend when they take on a new look Indiana Hoosiers squad at the Assembly Hall on Saturday (2:00 pm central time, Big Ten Network). Gone are Eric Gordon (NBA), Kelvin Sampson (coaching in the NBA), and a whole host of other players, leaving new mentor Tom Crean with a big mess and everything to play for, since expectations are very low for the Hoosiers this season. This will also be a good chance for the Illini to exact some revenge on Indiana for the past couple of seasons. And who knows, it might be the start of getting those names back on the jerseys.