As the buzzer sounded at the Assembly Hall, the orange faithful let out one big collective sigh of relief. Victory, 74-70 over the Iowa Hawkeyes. It wasn't the prettiest of games, but the Illini showed some signs of life after a 3 game losing streak since December 29th that seemed much longer than 12 days to fans that have grown accustomed to nothing but W after W the past couple of seasons. After the Saturday loss to the Buckeyes, short-tempered and fickle Illini fans throughout the midwest began beating the "drums of doom". Embodied by naysayers like Chicago sportswriter Mike Nadel, many fans whined and whined and cried endlessly about recruiting and Bruce Weber and recruiting and Thad Matta and recruiting and Bill Self and recruiting and Wha! Wha! Wha! Cry! Cry! Cry! And what did Bruce Weber do? What he has done since he came to Illinois 4 years ago-- he simply coached and coached and coached some more. You really have to respect his ability as a coach. I mean, after the Ohio St. game, he did a brutally honest self-assessment of the team, and he recognized that they just had no confidence at all. So what did he do? He focused on their confidence and attitudes in practice. He talked to them individually, and he didn't just hammer away on them for their mistakes. He reminded them of what they can do well, and he told them to "have fun and just play basketball." Then, he threw the practice agenda out the window yesterday, and they decided to just have a "fun" day at practice. Don't be fooled, there was hard work galore being done by both the coaches and the players Sunday through Tuesday. But he reminded them that when all is said and done, this is just a ballgame in the end, with 5 men on each side. And so the team relaxed. Especially the upperclassmen. Specifically, McBride and Randle. You know, this is how seasons truly unfold. "Gradual, steady improvement" can happen, but most athletic seasons are marked by "break-throughs" and "A-HA!" moments. I truly believe this Iowa game was one of those for the Illini. No, they didn't play perfect. There were lapses on defense, some poor ballhandling at times, and too many three-point shots that clanged off the rim in the fist half. But overall, they seemed like a team out there. And for that, I am encouraged. I really think they only got their footing tonight. The next step is to walk steadily against Michigan St. in East Lansing on Sunday. Then maybe we can talk about jogging or even running in future games. But, to Mike Nadel, and others like him-- y'all represent the "shallow" side of reporting and fandom. That's cool, I understand you can't change your personality. Y'all salivate over the Jerry Tarkanians, Thad Mattas, Bill Selfs, and Billy Donovans of the world for their "other-wordly" recruiting abilities. Meanwhile, great coaches like Bruce Weber take a group of talented, blue-chip (but maybe not McDonald's All-Americans) kids, and they teach them and turn them into a team. And that's what we're seeing unfold here in Champaign. And I know that the naysayers will quickly say "But Iowa is only 9-7, and you're jumping ahead to conclusions." But I say back to them-- I watch every game, and I see this team, from the pre-season agains SIU-Edwardsville to the Big Ten trench games against the Indianas and the Ohio St.'s and the Michigan St.'s. And I tell you this-- these guys care, and they have heart. And they're finding their way. And they stood up tonight, pulled themselves up by their shoelaces. McBride, Randle, WarCat, and Pruitt-- the upperclassmen. That is the key to this season-- I finally see it. And so does the team. Weber-- he's seen it all along.
Well, enough preaching. Here's a few blurbs from the game:
1. McBride woke up from his season long slumber. He had a real break-through tonight. He played hard, he yelled at the guys, he huddled them up on the court. He led the team out there tonight. And his positive attitude translated to his shot. He hit some key threes. And he let them come to him, through the flow of the offense. The best thing about his game, though, was his leadership, and the energy level he brought to the team. He has to sustain this now. Even if he has a bad shooting night, he needs to keep his head up, and keep leading this team.
2. Randle had a break-through as well. He seemed to finally just let go of the injury baggage that has been hindering him. The mental side of injuries is a big part of sports. And his was a particularly sensitive area (the groin/abdomen). Again, you don't "gradually" make a mental recovery from an injury. It takes a breakthrough. Throw your body after a couple loose balls, make a few big dunks. Still fine? Yep. And that's all it takes. Now he has confidence. I think that when he really picked up steam in the second half was when he started getting the ball as he rotated to the top of the key, and he would suddenly make a dribble/slash penetration to the basket, and he would either dunk, shoot, or pass it to Pruitt or WarCat. And when they got it down there (especially Pruitt), they weren't messing around. It was a dunkfest, and that will bring your shooting percentage up REAL fast. Keep it up Brian!
3. Our most effective line-up tonight was:
McBride (PG), Smith (SG), WarCat (PF), Randle (SF), Pruitt (C)
That might be our "go to" line-up until Frazier gets healthy.
Well, that's all for today. Anyways, I know I might sound a little too upbeat, given that we did have some defensive lapses and still need to keep working on our shooting and ball-handling. But this team is going to be fine.