Center Nick Smith's comment to Bruce Weber yesterday may be telling how bad the Illini need a big man that's tough mentally. "I hope Roger is able to play today, Coach. I don't think I can go too long today." Weber told Smith it's all about being tough and today we were not tough. Powell is a 6-6 forward trying to play against guys that are 6-9 and 6-10. That's not going to work in the Big Ten in most cases, and it may cost the Illini the NCAA Tournament if they run into a team with a big bruiser.
Wisconsin lined up with 6-11, 225 Dave Mader; 6-8, 235 Mike Wilkinson; 6-8, 225 Zach Morley; and 6-8, 205 sophomore Ray Nixon; with 6-11 McDonald's AA Brian Butch sitting in the wings lifting weights to get his turn next season.
So what does all this mean? Players like Aaron Spears, Jack Ingram and James Augustine have to learn how to become a low post presence defensively and offensively. Actually of the three, Spears may be just what the doctor ordered. Spears is big enough and strong enough to bang down low. Yesterday, every time Augustine tried to post up one of Wisconsin's "bigs", they just pushed him off the blocks with ease. Spears in mop-up time came in right away and got off a great shot down low and did so with ease. It wouldn't be a bad idea to have Spears attend a "Big Man" camp to work on his post moves and improve his ability to score down low.
Weber talked about the Illini "bigs" in his post-game press conference. "Wisconsin's post players out-toughed us and out-fought us tonight," said Weber. He added, "The same thing happened up at their place. They out played us; sometimes they would get two tips at the ball and we wouldn't get near it."
Another key to the game according to Weber was in the first 18 points the Badgers scored - they scored 8 of them off second chance points. When the Illini shot it was one and done. Sometimes the ball never hit the floor when the Badgers went to rebound.
Spears may be one remedy next year, but don't count out our incoming recruit, 6-9 center Shaun Pruitt, who is a big strong kid with a strong low post game and loves contact. Long term Illini fans, Spears and Pruitt will be key contributors to the program. I just hope next year Spears can get a chance to show he can provide that low post game and do if for an entire season.
Nick Smith has been key for the Illini this season no doubt, but yesterday really showed his lack of strength. In the second half during one particular play Smith tried to get an offensive rebound and was blocked out by a much smaller player in Boo Wade. It was no contest as the much taller Smith didn't put up a fight. The fact is that Smith is 7-2 but really a small forward. When was the last time you remember Smith dunking in a basketball in a game?
Illini fans, don't be disappointed with your season. You broke records that had been around so long I was surprised the school could find them. Winning that conference title was just the first step for Weber. Now he must show Illini Nation how good he is during March.