Illinois assistant basketball coach Wayne McClain discussed a variety of topics on WDWS radio Saturday, including the recent Illini shooting streak. Poor shooting contributed greatly to losses against UIC and Missouri, and the Illini are looking to prevent a repeat of those performances.
"I think we're a great shooting team. We've always felt that we could score. One of our assets is to think that we can shoot the ball. The shots we shot at UIC, some of those shots were hurried shots, some were out of rhythm. When you do that, you're not ever gonna (shoot) the same.
"At one point in the UIC game, we took Demetri (McCamey) out and brought him over to the bench to try to calm him down with his shot selection. He said he's confident and should be shooting all the time. We just felt he was hurrying shots.
"I thought D.J. Richardson in the Missouri game came off some screens and shot some hurried shots. I think it's a matter of getting good shots. To them it might be the same. To us, we've got to help them understand that maybe they might be shooting it a little too quick."
From McClain's perspective, poor shot selection wasn't the only culprit against Missouri. Sometimes things don't work out like you expect.
"You look at the Missouri game. I think that could be a misleading game. I think late with one or two shots, we shot really bad. But early on we had some good inside shots that we just didn't make. I don't think they had the defense in that situation.
"We shot quite a few shots in that game, you can dang near call them layups. We look back and say we should have had a much bigger lead early in that game. But we just flat-out missed some shots.
"(Mike) Tisdale and the guys did a great job offensively on the boards that game. We had situations where we had some shots and just didn't convert."
Illini coaches are constantly evaluating situations to figure out what goes wrong and how to prevent shooting woes. Sometimes, there is no logical explanation.
"We think this is a good scoring team. But we went through a period where guys could not score. I don't think this team is inept. We've got some guys that, when they get their feet set and are in rhythm, (can shoot). We practice that every day in our shooting drills, and our guys have done a good job of it."'
Perhaps some of the Illini players took UIC for granted.
"I think our mindset going into the UIC game was probably not the best. I'm not saying that is what it was; we're still trying to figure out what was going on with that game. But sometimes guys think they can turn it on whenever they want to.
"We did a lot of things wrong in that game. One of the things that we definitely did wrong was, we spread out too far against their zone, and we never stepped in. We made a couple passes, but then you've got to step in the gaps in order to make shots.
"Our guards stayed basically at the same line. We passed it East to West, and our guards stayed in that same spot. After every pass, you've got to creep in, and our guards have to penetrate the gaps in order to get shots.
"Time after time we would tell the guards to move in and move in, but for some strange reason they stood out front and passed the ball around the perimeter. We never moved in to put ourselves in 2-on-1 situations at the top of the zone. We just never did it."
Tisdale has not always shown the strength and aggressiveness to battle on the inside defensively and for rebounds. But he is the best the Illini have at his position. Since he is graduating, McClain was asked about the center job next year. Will current freshman Meyers Leonard and signee Nnanna Egwu take up the slack?
"I think we've got a great situation. We've got a guy in Leonard that's in training right now, and I think he's getting better and better every day. He can score. What we need with Egwu is to come in and occupy space, to block some shots, rebound and run the floor.
"We've got so much perimeter and forward scoring that these guys have the luxury of coming in and not having a lot of pressure on them offensively. Which is a good thing, especially when you're young.
"We just need them to come in and take away some of the offensive pressure from the other team by being big in the post, take up a lot of space and play defensively. Obviously, we need an inside-outside game.
As those guys, especially Leonard, learn how to get post position, they will score in the post. I think that's a great position for (Egwu) to come in and not worry about scoring in the beginning and just take what he gets."
Leonard has the size (7'-0"), strength and athleticism to be a dominant post player eventually, but he still has much to learn. Egwu is even more raw. The 6'-10" St. Ignatius product hasn't played basketball very long. He is an excellent shot blocker, but his offense is a work in progress. McClain says fans shouldn't expect too much too soon.
"It's very rare that a guy on the freshman level can come in and dominate. You just don't have that many. (Jared) Sullinger (Ohio State) is obviously an exception to that rule, but a lot of his game is not back-to-the basket. He's just so big and strong he can drop-step and dunk on people.
"He's got a great cast around him. That creates a lot of situations where you create help. Guys are running after those guys when they get in the lane, and he can just stay around the basket and get dunks. Occasionally I see him put his butt on people and score because he's so big.
"A lot of those baskets are uphill points as we like to call them. The bigs have got to help guards and forwards getting in the lane, they come uphill to help with screens, and then you just drop it down to the bigs who have the luxury of scoring. That's a great situation for a big."
McClain and the other Illinois coaches must figure a way of stopping Sullinger and the Buckeyes this season, but they will have to wait until next year to figure out the center position in Tisdale's absence. In the meantime, McClain feels good about the status of the Illini team with 15 Big 10 games yet to play.
"I think overall our team has played much better than most people probably had thought. Obviously, we had a disappointing loss against UIC, and Missouri was right there to be won. Texas we go into overtime. But there's not many teams that are perfect.
"I'm glad with our attitudes; I think our guys are trying to get better. Hopefully we have concentrated on some of our shortcomings. What's really been great about this team is we guard. We always talk about, if you want to have a chance to win, you have to guard. Those guys have taken that to heart. I think if we guard the way we score, we always give ourselves a chance."
There will undoubtedly be other games where the ball doesn't fall for the Illini. And there will be games where a lack of physicality hurts them near the basket. But if they keep improving and battling, McClain is optimistic the Illini will win more than their fair share.