Know Thy Opponent: Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois Fighting Illini v Wisconsin Badgers

We’ve reached out to Paul Klee, the Illinois basketball beat writer for The Champaign News-Gazette, to answer five questions for the Illinois edition of Know Thy Opponent. You can follow Paul on Twitter here. The transcript of our Q & A, conducted via e-mail, is below:

It’s been an up-and-down start to this season for the Illini. They’re 10-5, including a solid come from behind win at Clemson in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and then a few disappointing losses: Utah, Bradley and Georgia. Preseason, Illinois was a top 25 team in the AP Poll. What’s been the reaction in Champaign of how this team has performed thus far?

The fans have been hugely supportive of this team. The crowd for the Gonzaga game was the biggest United Center crowd for an Illinois game since the Final Four season in ’04-05. It was loud, too, despite a
21-point deficit. The Big Ten opener was a sellout and played a big part in Illinois beating Northwestern. Illinois fans are a resilient group.

There is disappointment, and there should be. Illinois hasn’t played up to expectations and the preseason ranking you talked about. Expectations for the freshmen were way too high. But I think the fans see it’s their most talented team since Dee Brown and James Augustine, and they recognize this group has promise. Truth is, this team is going to be defined by what it does in the postseason – if it gets there.

One Illinois player that’s really come into his own this season is forward Mike Davis (no, not that Mike Davis, Hoosier fans). He’s leading the team in minutes (32.1), rebounding (10.0) and is second in scoring (12.4). What’s been the key to his emergence?

Mike Davis emerged last season, really. He was a second-team All-Big Ten guy, ranked second in the league in rebounding. Once in a while, in practice and in games, he’ll go on a run where you’re surprised if he
missed a shot. He has a natural scoring ability. It comes easy to him. He doesn’t play hard enough all the time. He knows that. As soon as he decides to box out, it’s not a stretch to say he could lead the nation in rebounding. He’s a laid back guy. That personality clashes with Bruce Weber, who’s high-energy 24/7, and they’ve had their share of run-ins in practice. But Weber really likes Mike, and he knows how good he can be.

In the latest issue of ESPN the Magazine, Jay Bilas said freshman guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson have yet to adapt to Bruce Weber’s complex motion offense. Do you agree with that assessment? Have you seen progress from them so far?

The best and the worst thing Brandon Paul could’ve done was score 42 points over his first two games. That has a way of raising expectations. He’s a gifted athlete. I think it took Paul and Richardson a while to learn that stuff they got away with in high school wouldn’t work at Illinois. They would get in the air with nowhere to go. Both had a tough time fighting through screens.

They’re freshmen. Too much is expected of freshmen. That’s a nationwide thing and a product of recruiting rankings and Internet hype. I wrote before the season these weren’t blue-chip program-changers, and that description bothered some fans. But it’s true. There are very few of those. I think if you told Weber in October that Richardson would shoot 46 percent from 3, Paul would lead the team in Matto (hustle) points, and they’d average 21 points together, he’d take it.

The relationship between Indiana and Illinois obviously hit a low point a few years ago during the whole Eric Gordon fiasco. Now that Indiana has gotten rid of Kelvin Sampson, cleaned house and hired Tom Crean, has the level of resentment from the Illini side towards IU tempered at all?

No, not really. Illinois fans really dislike Indiana. That started long before Sampson and EJ Gordon. If you break it down to the coaching staff, Illinois’ has decades of reasons to enjoy beating Indiana. Weber also spent 18 seasons at Purdue. Jay Price spent 10 years at Purdue. Wayne McClain’s in his ninth season at Illinois, and his son almost attended Indiana. One of Jerrance Howard’s closest friends is A.J. Guyton. Jerrance played against Indiana and believes it’s a more important game than, say, Missouri. So there’s a long history there. You’re talking about a coaching staff that has a combined 54-plus seasons playing and/or coaching against Indiana. It’s not just a Sampson thing or a Gordon thing.

Finish this sentence: Illinois wins Saturday’s game in Bloomington if …

… it doesn’t start flat. Your Assembly Hall wouldn’t be conducive to another Illinois comeback. The Illini started slowly in losses to Bradley, Georgia, Missouri and Gonzaga. And Demetri McCamey is the best player for either team. He’s the key for Illinois – Saturday and beyond. If Illinois has a good start and plays solid defense, it wins.

  • peaychris

    i dont think i would hate illinois as much if weber wasnt coaching.. god i hate him…

  • marsh21

    weber is a punk that needs a solid beat down today

  • IUDan

    Of all Big Ten teams, I hate Illinois the most. From my time living in Chicago, I have never seen such a delusional fan base relative to their place in college basketball. They consider themselves an elite program, yet have 0 NCAA championships, maybe 3 Final Fours . . .

    Beyond that, the way Weber handled the recruitment of Gordon and especially the IU/UI game @ IL was really childish and low class.

    So I hope we beat them to a pulp.

    Go HOOSIERS!

  • allerton

    Dan… reality check. You're entitled to your own opinion but not to your own data.

    Illinois is ahead of IU on the NCAA Div-1 all-time wining pct list. As of the end of last season the Illini were at 65.4% v. IU's 64.4%. The Illini have essentially owned IU for many seasons now, despite falling off sharply after their 37-2 mark in '04-'05. Given IU's continuing troubles and lack of talent it's likely that Illinois will sweep the Hoosiers this season and even the all-time series with IU at 82-82. And, of course, that the all-time winning pct gap will widen this season even with a so-so Illini team.

    I know IU fans glory in their five titles. That's nice and all, though the most recent one occurred before any current undergrad at IU was born. Despite the fluke of getting to the title game in '02 (and embarrassing the program in the most sloppily played title game in memory) on a wave of emotion after Knight got canned, IU hasn't gotten within shouting distance of the final four since '92. That was nearly 20 years ago.

    Illinois, meanwhile had quite a nice run this past decade, despite falling off the past three seasons. It won outright or shared the title five times from '98 through '05. Since '93 IU has merely tied for the title once.

    The reason why IU has five national title and Illinois none, of course, is because Branch McCracken and Knight were incrementally better recruiters and coaches than Harry Coombes (in the '50s) and Lou Henson. Look back at the conference standings during the McCracken title years and you'll see how close it was. Knight was a great, if unstable, coach.

    So… Illinois fans are delusional? That's a rich bit of projection on your part. I wish IU well in clawing its way back to respectability. For now, the fan base is living in the past if it's puffing up its chest about its alleged elite status. I hope that within three seasons Crean can field a competitive team and we can begin to enjoy the sort of epic IU-Illinois hoops battles that characterized the Knight-Henson years, esp during the 80s.

    Good luck tonight.

  • IUMIKE1

    I am trying to think of just one good thing about them and the only thing I can come up with is them losing

  • IUDan

    Now come on – IL is a fine program, but all-time winning percentage list means nothing – wins in MARCH do. There is no doubt Illinois has been very good lately, particularly the NCAA runner up team. Sure, Illinois is much better than we are right now – most teams are.

    I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this, which is fine. You're actually making my argument for me – historically speaking, there is NO comparision between IU and IU. I mean seriously.

  • allerton

    Historically speaking, Dan, you apparently know little about Illinois basketball. I mean, seriously.

    IU, for example, made two Final Fours prior to 1973. They happened to win the title both times, in 1940 and 1953. Meanwhile, Illinois made the Final Four in '49, '51 and '52 but didn't win a title. Shall we say, then, that Illinois was far and away the more elite program during that period? No. The fact is that they both were very good programs.

    No doubt the '76 and '81 IU teams were outstanding and that Knight is one of the all-time great coaches despite his behavioral problems. And IU has 20 Big Ten titles to Illinois' 17. But Purdue has 21 Big Ten titles. And the '89 and '05 Illinois teams are considered by college basketball sages to have been far and away the best teams pole-to-pole in those seasons despite not winning the title. Only the '76 IU team within living memory enjoys that status at IU.

    During the past 25 years you can't make any sort of convincing argument that Indiana basketball has been better than Illinois. Nor can you looking at the history of the programs. And let's face it. Since the early '90s IU has resided largely in obscurity, surfacing a couple times competitively but existing largely as an embarrassing sideshow (Knight, Davis, Sampson.) From outside the IU program Indiana fans have a reputation as living on long-faded glory. You fancy yourselves in the league of Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and Carolina but the fact is that the program isn't of that caliber. Crean has a shot at building a competitive program; however, since reeling in D. Wade at Marquette what has he done?

    Look, ranking #16 in all-time winning pct out of 300-odd programs is great, even if it's inferior to Illinois figure. But the fact is that IU has done nothing for ages. It's like Louisville, pretending to be elite but having nothing to show for its pretensions for decades.

  • IUDan

    I admit I know less about IL basketball than you- because no one outside of the state of Illinois cares. Maybe my point is more this: Illinois measures very favorably in terms of wins, maybe even conference championships, but on the national level they just fall shot – the 1989 and 2005 teams were great teams, no doubt: 2005 got beat by a better team and 1989 underachieved. But history is written by the winners.
    I never compared IU to Duke, UNC, UK, Kansas or even UCLA – those are the absolutely elite programs, but I think anyone would argue given our history we're somewhere in that next tier – admittedly being surpassed by MSU. Illinois simply isn't there.

    But I'm not sure we're going to resolve this, so that's fine. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to a good game tonight.

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