Loren Tate: They might be small, but they can play
Nearly a decade has elapsed, but no Illini basketball memories are stronger than the sight of Dee Brown blistering the court or launching a three-pointer.
He was the “one-man fast break.”
But playmakers of Brown’s size — fractionally under 6 feet — are often overlooked at the major college level.
That’s one significant difference between members of the power-five conferences and the midmajors. As recruiting efforts indicate, big schools prefer their guards in the 6-foot-3 range. But look around. Stars at or below 6 feet abound. Defending champion Louisville is energized by 6-0 Russ Smith, and unbeaten Wichita State is driven by 5-11 Fred VanVleet.
When offering examples of good guard play, UI coach John Groce still speaks longingly of his prize package, D.J. Cooper at Ohio University.
From Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell to Minnesota’s DeAndre Mathieu, these undersized fellows are usually the playmakers. Of the 10 top assist men in the country, five are 6-0 or smaller, including spindly (6-0, 155) Jason Brickman, who led the nation with 10 per game for LIU Brooklyn.
The issue is pertinent because some Illini fans visualized the UI as a strong favorite upon learning that the Boston University backcourt was small: 5-10 Mo Watson and 6-0 D.J. Irving.
Both were described as point guards, the sophomore Watson having set Wilt Chamberlain-like records in the Philadelphia Public League and matriculating to Boston even though Irving, now a senior, was already established.
Two point guards. That’s exactly what caused me concern. Two starting point guards is the exact number my ideal team would possess ... you know, like Dee Brown and Deron Williams. Would I take Bogan’s 5-10 Luwane Pipkins, who in full disclosure I’ve seen just once, and the brilliant Jalen Brunson? Yes ... in a nanosecond. Call me flawed.
Good passers are hard to find, and the offensive machinations of Watson and Irving drove Illinois nutty for 32 minutes Wednesday in Boston. If the game had been high school length, the Illini would have lost by 10. As it turned out, muscular Rayvonte Rice used his size advantage on the other end, and Illinois hauled it out, 66-62, in one of the biggest comebacks in UI history.
And the point of this repetition: If they’re good enough, they’re big enough.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.
We asked our columnist for an update on the Illini in the NIT. His thoughts:
Clemson presents a different problem Sunday. Whereas Boston U. had no shot blockers to thwart Rayvonte Rice — he barged in for nine layups — 6-foot-6 Clemson junior K.J. McDaniels stepped up to record five of the Tigers’ nine rejections against Georgia State.
Clemson has three 6-10 members named Nnoko, Djambo and Djitte, and they hail from Cameroon, Mali and Senegal, respectively. The Tigers’ defense of the rim will be more like what Rice saw in the Big Ten.
Most overlooked factor
For the third consecutive year, Illinois is barely over 30 percent in three-point accuracy (32.3) but has shot a better percentage (41.4) from beyond the arc than opponents in all of the last seven victories. That’s right, all seven. Boston U. bombed Illinois early with a 10-for-20 streak, but in the last 14 minutes Illinois made five to the Terriers’ one and finished an impressive 8 of 17 from behind the arc.
The UI’s 5-for-6 road spurt is exceptional, but all away-from-home records in UI history fade in comparison to late 2004 and the magical 2004-05 season, when Bruce Weber’s first two teams fashioned 32 wins out of 36 away games. Imagine, counting the start of 2005-06, it stretched to 38 wins in 42 trips. Top that!