Let Tate know what you're thinking here
CHAMPAIGN – Today's point is that, when it comes to basketball, many college coaches and players are polar opposites.
Bruce Weber of Illinois, as is typical of the majority, spends much of his time nagging athletes to do what they really don't want to do: setting picks, blocking out, playing defense and, above all, lifting weights, attending class regularly and leading an orderly life. It is a chronic battle of wills.
Watch what 17-year-old prospects do in their free time. They shoot jump shots. They come to campus with a dream of draining the game-winning jumper or the decisive dunk. You don't see them practicing a defensive stance.
As a result of these leaping and shooting skills, their fans put them on a pedestal. And the coach spends endless hours, which the fans don't see (and would be aghast if they did), pulling them down from it and hammering on their weaknesses. That's how the game has evolved.
In the UI's case, Weber is no more or less demanding than Lou Henson or Bill Self, both of whom were fiery practice teachers and tacticians. Fans would have been astonished to hear how Henson and Self harangued their favorites in nightly drills. Weber is different only in the sense that he carries it more vociferously into the public arena ... into the games themselves. He'd receive less criticism within frustrated Illini Nation – not that he cares – if he cooled his sideline histrionics, treated our prima donnas with kid gloves (well, at least in the games), picked his spots to pester officials (do West Virginians fret about that with Bob Huggins?) or, for goodness' sake, employ a zone defense once in a while (are Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan criticized for that?).
These aspects are part of his style, not always welcomed by those with a fawning relationship with the athletes or who see no point in bench blasts that dissipate in the thunderous uproar of the packed house.
But it is an approach that will continue because, in Weber's view, these players need to be prodded even more than he has done this season. If you'd prefer to see more decorum on the bench, get ready to be disappointed.
Stakes still high
Some see the Illini's NIT date against Kent State on Monday as the conclusion to a frustrating season. Others see it as a beginning. Either way, it is a step toward the future and could carry the team to a worthy consolation prize of an NIT Final Four later this month at Madison Square Garden.
Reaching New York would provide a familiarity with the Garden before next November's important visit. I say important because, on an early trip (South Padre Island) last season, Illinois won exceedingly close games against Kent State (Mike Tisdale's free throws pushed it into overtime) and Tulsa. That ignited a run to the NCAA whereas, this season, narrow losses to Utah and Bradley in Las Vegas had the opposite effect.
That's why Weber calls this week "a jump- start into next season." He pointed out: "Failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament is a disappointment, but we get the extra practice time, and we can still accomplish something no other Illini team has done: win the NIT. This is another valuable gut-check time for this team."
And don't expect Weber to let up. Not any more. He and his assistants thought they had to back off at times earlier because the laid-back personality of this particular group "couldn't handle it." In terms of leadership and personality, this is one of the most difficult squads he has ever had to work with.
"I have to be tougher on them," he said. "We've had some rough stretches (three straight home losses), but I think they are finally ready to listen."
You get what you see
It has been written elsewhere that this 20-14 UI team has underachieved. It is more likely the opposite is true. When, during the last 30 years, has Illinois fielded a lineup with so many weak passers and physicality shortcomings? How can we viewers of the scene pretend that these inadequacies don't exist? Watching close-up as Ohio State set picks for Evan Turner last week brought a greater realization of the weakness of these slender Illini in that department.
"I knew the freshmen would need time, but I didn't expect the juniors to be so inconsistent," Weber said Friday. "Tisdale, (Mike) Davis and (Bill) Cole have to get stronger over the spring and summer. Demetri (McCamey) has made huge strides, but he needs to become more explosive. We shouldn't have to hide him on defense."
Biggest surprise for Weber is the team's lack of skill in a basic basketball fundamental: passing. Critics seldom give this much weight when analyzing the team. But, as Stony Brook demonstrated in forcing 17 turnovers, it is a major problem. This team not only lacks dribble penetrators, it has trouble just moving the ball from one to another. It's hard to run an offense that way.
Yes, Weber recruited them and is responsible for teaching them, but it wasn't until he lost seniors Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham that playmaking inadequacies became so glaring. McCamey, No. 2 in the nation in assists, makes everyone else better. That is not a trait of any other extended-minutes members until you get down to Jeff Jordan, who did not play at Stony Brook.
Guard D.J. Richardson, Big Ten Freshman of the Year, is the team's defensive stalwart and a 39 percent shooter from the arc, but had zero assists in two of the last three games after handing out 29 in 18 Big Ten Conference games. In those 18 games, McCamey had a near-record 139 assists while Cole had 20, Davis 16, Tisdale 13 and Paul 14. In other words, the regulars other than McCamey averaged about one assist each in the conference games.
It is these numbers that made Tisdale's gorgeous lob pass to Davis so special Wednesday (it put Illinois ahead 65-57). It was Tisdale's 17th assist in the last 21 games. He is primarily a shooter, not a facilitator.
"Passing is so critical," Weber said. "We can be better in that area next season. Brandon Paul can penetrate and make plays as he matures. D.J. should improve as he puts in the time and gains confidence. The No. 1 asset of Jereme Richmond (incoming freshman) is his ability to pass and create. And that was where (freshman) Joe Bertrand excelled before he was injured."
So Weber will continue to hammer at the weaknesses, perhaps taking his raspy, tired vocal cords over the edge in the view of some. In that regard, I heard someone say he should be more reserved, more sophisticated like, say ... John Wooden. But that critic didn't know what Wooden was saying as the officials got within earshot. And, besides, Weber didn't get his powder-keg training from Purdue product Wooden, he got it from Purdue's coat-throwing, ref-baiting Gene Keady. It comes naturally for Weber to carry that torch.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.