I have to admit, I'm pleasantly surprised at Illinois' strong start this basketball season. When I last wrote, they were still finding their way through pre-season, and though there were a lot of positive signs, no one could be sure about how'd they play the first couple weeks of the season. Man, they're off to a great start! And this is in spite of key injuries and McBride's suspension. Honestly, a lot of credit has to go to Bruce Weber and his coaching staff-- he is once again doing a sensational job teaching and coaching this team. TEAM. That's really the key word to describe the Illini this year. There's not really a superstar on the team. There are some pretty good athletes, who are also fierce competitors. These guys are just used to winning, and don't really know how to lose. 7 and 0. Admittedly, the first five games were against weak teams, but then again, much of the top 25 has been feasting on the weak sister programs in I-A. Games six and seven really showed me something about this team, though. By winning against a solid Miami (OH) team, and against a very good Bradley squad, the Illini are doing just what they need to do to posture themselves for a spot, and maybe even a stronger seed than expected, in the NCAA tournament. Here's how I see the team so far this year:
Chester Frazier -- Good: He's really playing some solid basketball, overall. He has shown that he can quarterback the team and play steady at the point. His defense has been sensational. He's come through in the clutch several times-- the biggest being with that late game lay-up drive against Miami (OH) to win the game. Bad: He's a streaky shooter from the outside. When he's hot, he's hot, but when he's cold-- well, let's just say ....CLLAAAANNNGGGG! And that includes the free throw line. He does seem to shoot better when he's under pressure, though, especially in late game situations. He was 6/6 from the charity stripe against Bradley, and he hit a couple of second half three pointers that pretty much were nothing but net. The other thing with Chester is that he tends to get rattled by quick, ballhawk defenders. Yeah, he just needs to catch his breath sometimes, and maybe turn back the speed dial a little bit. Overall, though, we're lucky to have this guy. If he keeps improving at the same rate over the next 2 and a half years, he might have an NBA contract in his future.
Jamar Smith-- Positive: After a couple of rough pre-season games, he looked great during game 1. Of course, he had that high ankle sprain in the second half, and missed games 2 thru 6. But he came back and pretty much led Illinois to victory in game 7 over Bradley. He is really hitting some big shots from 3 point land. Also, he was very vocal during the game while on the court, and showed that he's ready to step up as the team leader-- despite only being a true sophomore. More to follow on Jamar-- the sky seems to be the limit for him this season. Will the Maryland game be his nationally televised coming out party?
Brian Randle-- Bruce Weber was unwise to play him in Game 1. He re-injured the groin pull, so badly that he needed surgery to fix it. He's probably not going to be back and 100% till January. Let's wish him a speedy recovery. Get well Brian, cause the team needs you for that March road to Atlanta.
Sean Pruitt -- He's been playing solid at the center position for the Illini. Nothing spectacular through the first six games, but generally solid defense and rebounding, and reliable scoring when they get him the ball in the low post. In game 7 though, he really stepped his game up. Apparently, he wasn't happy with the team's low energy level in game 6 against Miami (OH), and he took it upon his shoulders to play with sustained intensity in the Bradley game. (This was according to Doug Altenberger, who did the color commentary for the game) And step it up he did! He played like a man possessed at times down in the paint. Even more awesome, he was super aggressive in going to the hoop-- with two power two-handed dunks to prove it. Pruitt just keeps getting better and better, and he seems to be maturing as a leader as well. Negatives: He definitely needs to work on his free throws. It's brick city when he goes to the line. His shots from the foul line have about as much touch as do Shaq's. He just needs to keep working on that part of his game, because he's going to go to the stripe a lot if he keeps making strong moves to the hoop.
Warren Carter-- Warren is playing some solid ball, there's no doubt about that. It's just that even when he's playing great, it just seems like he's doing things at "lacksadaisical speed" sometimes. You hear fans time and time again say things like "he's just not living up to his potential." Well, he's not going to be all-Big Ten or anything, but I think he's playing good ball right now. He has shown a good mid range game, and even some low post moves at times. Also, even though he's not the most fleet footed guy on the team, he's guarding this year. Yep, that's right, he's playing pretty good defense. I was definitely impressed that he volunteered to guard Peavy in the closing seconds against Miami (OH), telling Bruce Weber in the huddle that he thought he was long enough to shut him down on that last desperate possession by the Red Hawks. And he did just that, disrupting Miami's set play and preserving the win for the Illini. His rebounding has been solid-- I think he had 16 rebounds in one of the earlier games. Overall, if Warren can keep his head in the game, and play with intensity, he is going to help the Illini win many more games this season. He does need to watch his shot-- please, no more wild three pointers Warren! And keep working on your free throws.
Trent Meacham-- He has been great so far for the Illini. Heck, he tied the Illinois single game record by hitting 7 threes in one of the early games. He plays a steady point guard when Frazier is in foul trouble or just needs a break from those duties to catch his breath and regain his composure. He is almost automatic from the free throw line. Sometimes he's a little slow on defense, but has shown he's getting better and better at that. Overall, we're lucky he transferred, cause we'd be in big trouble without him. He's going to be a solid role player for the Illini this year.
Rich McBride-- Good to have him back. I'm willing to forgive, and give second chances. McBride has been back for three games, and has proved to be a steadying influence on the team. He hasn't found his three point shot yet, and hasn't hit a mid-range drive-in jumper yet either. But that will come as he plays himself back in to game shape. What he has provided is a calming influence on the team, and also some outstanding perimeter defense. Rich has been through all the wars over the last three years, and nothing is going to phase him. He should have a real solid senior season.
Calvin Brock-- Wow! He has really played awesome so far this season. He's developed a good mid-range jumper, and has the ability and size to really rise up and shoot that over his defenders. He's also, surprisingly, been hitting from 3-point land with regularity as well. Bruce Weber said that he spent a lot of time shooting with the "weighted" skill ball over the summer, which forced him to shoot with proper form. He seems to have grooved a pretty good shot. He's even been strong on assists and rebounding. He had several critical offensive rebound/putbacks against Bradley. He's really matured, both mentally and game skill wise. He is still weak from the free throw line, and sometimes he misses his assignments on defense. But, overall, he's becoming a factor in the rotation, and I think he's going to be a fixture on the court for the foreseeable future. Still has tons of potential and upside.
Brian Carlwell-- He's just big, wide, and tall. Plus, he's athletic, and looks pretty coordinated out there. He's a true competitor, and gives it 100% when he's on the floor. It remains to be seen how many minutes he's going to get this season, but he'll definitely be a force to be reckoned with next year and beyond.
Richard Semrau-- He seems to get a case of the freshman jitters when he's out there on the court. He kind of reminds me of Pruitt when he was a freshman, and he looks a little lost out there. I think some guys just have to get used to playing in big arenas and in front of big crowds. Remains to be seen, but I'm thinking he probably should have redshirted this year. He has a lot of upside, though.
CJ Jackson -- He's gotten very little playing time. Still an unknown quantity. I'm really rooting for him to do well, cause he's big and athletic, and he'd be another horse down low for us. We'll have to wait and see on him.
Well, that about does it. I'm really looking forward to the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Maryland, at home! That's going to be a great game. I think Illinois will win the game, due to our strong defense and our home court advantage. Gary Williams is a great coach though, and he'll have his team ready to play. They looked good in the Coaches vs. Cancer classic, when they beat Tom Izzo's MSU team in the title game at Madison Square Garden. The Orange Krush is going to have to be in top form for this one!