Know Thy Opponent: Illinois Fighting Illini

  • 01/08/2010 7:55 pm in

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.

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