They say that good teams do "routine things routinely." Well, the Illini showed glimpses of this in the first half tonight against Minnesota, and were able to pull out the closest thing to a "routine" road win as there is in the Big Ten. The team looked good in the first half. In particular, they looked good early when they were crashing the offensive boards, and actively trying to move the ball around in order to get it to the big men down low. Once this started working, the outside opened up. Meacham and McBride had a fairly good shooting night from out there, which gave the Illini a balanced attack in the first half. Additionally, the transition game worked well for the Illini. Add all that together, and you get a big halftime lead.
Then the second half came, and after a decent start to it, the Illini seemed to go to sleep. Minnesota actually closed the gap to ten at one point, but that was as close as they came. Still, the Illini did not put the Gophers away like they should have. Of course, this is nothing new, as weak second half play has plagued the Illini in the Big Ten so far this season. It's almost like the team has a collective case of Attention Deficit Disorder or something. They do seem to be aware of this problem, as Warren Carter adressed it in the postgame interview. He is well aware that he needs to take a leadership role by forcing himself to step up his intensity so that he can help the team maintain an attacking style of play. For this game, at least, he assumed what has become a rotating leadership role amongst the Illini this season. I thought McBride had snatched that role permanently during the Iowa game, but since that time his play has been steady, but his active and vocal leadership has been lacking on the court. I just don't think it's in his personality. As long as Rich keeps playing a steady game of basketball, I'll be happy, though. If he can step up and be the active team leader, so much the better. For the time being, however, it seems that Warren Carter is going to have to assume that role. He can do it. He's a talented player, and so far has really stepped up the level of his game play this season.
Well, Saturday brings the Wisonsin Badgers and the number 2 team in the nation into town. It should be one heck of a game. The students are back, and the Illini will surely be playing like a team with its figurative back to the wall as it strives to stay in contention for an NCAA tournament birth. Don't look now, but if the Illini can somehow win against Wisconsin and Indiana at home, they'll be 4-3 in the Big Ten, with a rather favorable Home and Away schedule the rest of the way. I really think we're going to need to have a 10-6 Big Ten record to ensure a tourney birth. Definitely anything less than 9-7 would mean the NIT. I really think the team can do it, but they still need to take several big steps during the next two games.
Here's how I see the starting line-up now:
PG- Trent Meacham
SG- Rich McBride
SF- Brian Randle
PF- Warren Carter
C - Sean Pruitt
First off bench: Brock, Frazier, Arnold Deep on bench: Hicks, Jackson, Smith