Smile Politely

Looking down the barrel of the NIT

A couple of weeks ago, I agreed with the team’s assessment of its anomalous loss to Ohio State: Just forget about it, and move on. The problem with losing to Minnesota at home is that this loss may very well prevent Illinois from moving on.

On the bright side, the Illini could get another home game out of the deal. And that’s good for those newspapers who can just afford to send their beat reporters to Champaign.

Point #1
Illinois crawled its way back from a 19 point deficit.

Point #2
Illinois played its way into a 19 point deficit.

Point #3
With a minute left, Demetri McCamey passed the go-ahead assist to four Golden Gophers, and that was the ballgame.

This was a “must win” and Illinois lost.

Looking at this game from a neutral perspective (it’s hard, I know) the remarkable aspect was Minnesota’s intense defensive effort. Some people think zone breeds lazy. But each of those Gophers guarded his area with a ferocity matched this season only by Bill Cole during that period when he fought his way from not-in-rotation to starter.

It helped the Gophers that Illinois has no particularized scheme for attacking zones. When Minnesota played 3–2 Bruce Weber yelled to his team to look at the short corner. In his minute of floor time, Dominique Keller repeatedly crisscrossed the lane-from one short corner to the other- mugging frantically for the ball. Then he shrugged his shoulders, realizing he’d become invisible.

And so the team settled for contested shots from deep, and missed them all.

Illinois barely escaped tying its own, and the Assembly Hall’s, record for fewest points in a half (12 vs. Purdue on Feb. 18, 1982).

In the second half, the shots started dropping. Illinois launched half of its 72 attempts from three-point range. A quarter of them dropped.

Once again, Illinois bizarrely scrapped its way out of an enormous hole. Once again, Illinois failed to get off a meaningful shot as time expired.


Until Saturday, I thought there was no way Demetri would return for his senior season. I think it’s still possible that Meechi will determine his draft prospects good enough to hire an agent and go pro.

Saturday, he literally threw the game away.

Last week in West LaFayette, Mike Davis made two throbbing boners in the last minute. Maybe they cost Illinois the game. DMac’s two mid-lane jump-passes hit Gophers both times. The first hit a Gopher in the leg, and fell into friendly hands. The second came when Illinois could have taken the lead with time running out.

I’d like to compare and contrast Demetri’s two errors with his two mid-lane passing turnovers at Purdue. Last weekend, he threw a ball over his shoulder, to no one as it turned out. But that was a relatively good play. (See … well, hear below.) DMac tried it again. This time JaJuan Johnson read the play, and intercepted the ball.

Earlier this week, I asked Demetri and his intended recipients about those two plays:

DMac’s pick n’ pop is now well known to opposing teams. Those who saw what it did to Wisconsin are not likely to allow it. Whatever Demetri thought he was doing against Minnesota, no Illini was anywhere close to being in position to receive either pass.


Bruce Weber burned his last time out after DJ Richardson hit a three with 1:24 to go. (This on the lucky broken play from DMac’s first errant pass.)

I immediately turned to beat writer Jack Lyman and said “that was the last timeout, right?” It seemed remarkable to me. With seven seconds to go, and DMac on the bench with five fouls, it seemed even more remarkable.

Earlier in the season, Weber pooh-poohed the utility of drawing up inbounds and game-ending plays. He said half the time the guys do something else anyway. He added that when players do follow instructions, it works about half the time.

From what DJ Richardson said after the game, there was a play designed, and it was designed for him.

I don’t know whether Jeff Jordan had the option of reading the defense and reacting. I wish Jeff felt as if he had the green light. It would have been nice to see him elevate in the lane for a tying lay-up.

But Jeff followed his coach’s direction, which was to find DJ Richardson at the top of the key. DJ had no shot. Jeff might have created one. But he did what he was told.


So, six years after the abysmal loss to Providence at the Jimmy V Classic, Illinois still hasn’t figured out what to do against a zone. Sure, the basic theory is to shoot over it. Illinois started the game 0 for 11 from long distance.

So, any other options?

Well, yes. The 3–2 leaves a lot of undetermined responsibilities behind its front wall.

But the team couldn’t get the ball to weak spots within the zone. Sans ball, Illinois could not exploit its size and leaping advantages in the mid-range game.

Mike Tisdale finally got a couple of open looks from the short corner, and he made one. But then the Gophers shifted to a 2–3, and the Frightened Illini were dumbfounded. I asked Weber what the plan was against the 2–3.

I didn’t really understand his answer. Evidently the team didn’t either.


It now appears quite possible, if not likely, that Illinois will play on the opening Thursday of the Big Ten Tournament. If Minnesota wins its final two games, and Illinois loses at Ohio State and against Wisconsin, Minnesota ties for 5th place with the Illini. The Gophers get the tie-breaker for having beaten the Illini head to head.

If Wisconsin beats Iowa but loses to Illinois, Illinois is the 5th seed.

If Wisconsin beats Iowa and Illinois, and Illinois loses at Ohio State, and Minnesota wins at Michigan and beats Iowa in Minneapolis — Illinois drops to 6th in the Big Ten. That means they play in Thursday’s opening round.

From that spot they’d face Iowa or Penn State. Hope it’s not the Nittany Lions. Illinois barely beat them before, and they’re now (finally) on a winning streak.

If Illinois wins a couple of games in the BTT, an NCAA invite becomes possible again. If Illinois loses on Thursday or Friday of the BTT, they’ll have a National Invitation.


At lower left: Peoria Woodruff’s Jerrold Byrd and Eric Turner (gray hoody). Chicago Orr’s 6’6″ junior wing Mycheal Henry sits behind them (in black) with sophomore teammate PG Curtis Jones (in red). In green is Ben McLemore, sitting in front of Joseph Bertrand’s mom (looking good in orange, hand-knit full-length wrap). At top right is Cliff Paul Jr.

Jeff’s dad chats with DJ’s dad after the game.

Ben McLemore is a 6’5″combo guard, currently a junior at Eskridge High School in the Wellston neighborhood of Saint Louis. He ate the Assembly Hall nachos. I got the feeling that he prefers the snacks at Phog Allen Fieldhouse.

Joliet freshman phenom Morris Dunnigan came with his coach Luke Yaklich. Dunnigan, a combo guard, is already 6’2″ and swoll.

Jeff Helgesen‘s parents sat with the Gopher families. No soup for them!


The stats sheet tells almost nothing about this game. You’d never know Illinois missed its first eleven three-pointers. You’d never know they turned on an impressive pressure defense with about five minutes to go.

SP staffer Mysterious McDade captured some interesting images. They don’t necessarily tell a story either. But you can see Minnesota’s defensive wall, Illinois’ inability to find Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale in the short corner, and Minnesota’s athleticism.

Plus, it saves me writing another thousand words.

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