Well, it's been 4 days since the huge disappointment in Cincinnatti that was the Xavier game. I had to let that one sink in before I felt like I could comment on it. Let's start with the "good news" first. The good news is that Illinois is 13-3 heading in to the Big Ten season. That's not a bad record at all, at least at first glance. Illinois earned some of those wins (especially against Bradley and Miami (OH)), and showed flashes of having the potential of being a pretty solid team during parts of the pre-season. The bad news is that the Illini really only have one truly "tournament boosting" victory, and that was against Missouri in the Braggin' Rights game. Now for the "bad news". I'm going to limit myself to three "bad news" items, because I'm still feeling kind of down about the Xavier game. Here are the three bad news items:
1. Illinois has revealed itself to be EXTREMELY weak at the guard position. Frazier is a good dribbler and can get the ball up the court, but his shooting, driving, passing, and free throws are streaky at best. McBride has just been non-existent so far this season. He's played decent defense at times, but he's been passive in all other aspects of his game. I wonder about his desire at times, now that he's a senior and the reality that he won't be an NBA player has hit him square in the face. Jamar Smith has revealed himself to be a work in progress. He's no star, and I'm not sure why some in the media have tried to pin that label on him. I have no doubt that he can shoot the lights out in practice. During games, however, he is very streaky from 3-point land. Additionally, his dribbling, defense, and ability to drive to the basket aren't that great. He appears to be a step slow at times, compared to some of his competitors. True, he's still recovering from an injury, but he's supposedly fully recovered and the problems still remain. Meacham has proven himself to be a good utility subsitute; he has no glaring weaknesses, but is not spectacular in any area, either. His playing time has gone down significantly recently, so I don't have much more to say on him for now. Perhaps he deserves more playing time? I'm not going to lump Brock in with the guards, I consider him more of a "wing" player. All in all, though, the guards have been pretty weak against strong competition. They are the primary reason for Illinois' three losses. Solutions? I'm not sure on this one. I think Weber's going to have to make some tough decisions on playing time. Probably Frazier and Meacham deserve the most playing time. Smith and McBride should only see limited minutes subject to Frazier and Meacham's foul status, until they can bring up their level of play. Maybe a little bench time will wake them up.
2. The Illini lack leadership from their veteran personnel. Enough said on this one, Bruce Weber has made this page 1 sports news here in central Illinois.
3. Brian Randle is not the player everyone thought he was going to be. Whether because of injury, mental obstacles, or he was just over-hyped from the get go, Randle is not yet the player that the experts forecasted he would be. He still has all the potential to be that player, but it remains to be seen if he will ever fulfill the high expectations set for him.
Well, there's a sober assessment of the Illini up to this point in the season. Tomorrow night, we play Michigan at Ann Arbor. It's as close to a "must-win" as an away game in the Big Ten can be, but the schedule does not get any easier from here on out. With only one truly "strong" non-conference win, Illinois is really going to have to get off to a strong start in the Big Ten. I don't think a 10-7 conference record is going to cut it this year, at least not at this point. That being said, I'm still real hopeful. I have a feeling Xavier was a big wake-up call for the Illini team as a whole.
Here's who I think should be in the starting line-up heading in to the Big Ten season:
PG- Chester Frazier
SG- Trent Meacham
SF- Brian Randle
PF- Warren Carter
C- Sean Pruitt
Bench: Guards/Wing- Brock, McBride, Smith (in that order)
Big Men- Marcus Arnold, Brian Carlwell, CJ Jackson