Through the Trifocals

This Saturday begins another Illini basketball season, and optimism reigns supreme. With high national rankings and a deep, talented team, expectations are at an all-time high. Illinisports is also excited, but he adds a word of caution in this column. After all, there are still questions that need answers.

Excitement is mounting as the new Illini basketball season is upon us. This Saturday is the first day of practice, beginning what everyone hopes will be a special, championship season. And with the continuing frustrations of the football program, Illini fans are hoping desperately that basketball can give them the happiness and inner security they desire.

The Illini appear to have it all: quality upperclassmen, some future pros, tons of depth, and some bright newcomers. There is depth at all positions, quality depth. Our second team could give a good accounting of itself if established as a separate team within the Big 10. And our coaching staff proved last year that it has the ability to mold our team into a winner. Preseason magazines all appear to predict the Illini anywhere from fifth to first in the nation. And with good reason.

I am as excited as anyone for the season to begin, and I truly believe our 100th year of basketball at Illinois can be our best ever. However, I find it necessary to signal a cautionary tone at this point. As much as I want us to win, I have several concerns. I don't wish to throw water on others' optimism, and I certainly am not a pessimist by nature. But many things need to fall into place, things that are beyone anyone's control. So please allow me to take a contrary position, just to represent some balance and help neutralize runaway expectations.

Historically, the Illini have not fared well, either in basketball or football, when they were expected to win. For instance, the famous "Whiz Kids", who won Big 10 championships in 1941-42 and 1942-43, only had a 14-6 record in their third year together. Granted, this was in 1946-47 after some years off for World War II. But the famous quartet of Andy Phillip, Gene Vance, Ken Menke, and Jack Smiley couldn't even meet let alone exceed the massive expectations of their final season together.

Much was expected of the great recruiting class of 1961, but the group that included Tal Brody, Skip Thoren, and Bogie Redmon couldn't continue the success they had in 1962-63, a Big 10 Championship season, even when they added Jim Dawson and the great Don Freeman to a lineup that lost Dave Downey, Bill Burwell and Bill Small. The Illini had some great teams during the years 1982-1986, years that top players Efrem Winters and Bruce Douglas were eligible, but they had their best year in 1983-84 before tailing off by their senior year despite adding Ken Norman to the group.

The Illini were within one game of the Final Four in the year 2000-2001, and we repeated as Big 10 Champs in 2002. However, despite almost matching both their win totals and NCAA advancement of the previous year, some fans expected much more. They were disheartened by a midseason down cycle they couldn't comprehend, and this was magnified nationally when TV commentator Billy Packer proclaimed that Frank Williams was "playing like a dog." Frank had a mini slump that reversed itself in time for him to score the winning basket against Minnesota to secure a Big 10 championship, but some people look back on that season as one that was less than satisfying due to their heightened expectations.

It is extremely difficult to play the front-runner. You have a big target on your back, and everyone you play desires to upset you. A win makes their whole season, and they become sky-high to accomplish this goal. It takes a tremendous amount of inner fortitude, talent and courage to face major challenges game in and game out, at home and on the road, and come out victorious. It takes even more of all that to do it two or three successive years. You can't let down your guard even a little. You can't take any opponent for granted. You can't "phone it in" even against the weakest foes.

Up to this time and in my limited memory, I cannot recall a time when Illinois has had a team, except in Tennis recently, that was so good that it could continue to win while tagged as the favorite. But that is what we are asking our basketball team to do this year. Do they have all the traits necessary to make it to the Final Four while favored to do so? We would like to think so, but it is certainly not guaranteed.

I think highly of all our players, but allow me to play devil's advocate for a minute, just for argument's sake. What if Deron Williams and Dee Brown get hurt at the same time? Our only two point guards both start and play major minutes. Who can possibly lead the team if both are unavailable? We would like to think Luther Head and Rich McBride can if necessary, but they have not done so up to now. Might we suffer like Michigan State the last two years without a top point guard? Without question, yes!

What if James Augustine continues to play for the fun of it instead of taking responsibility for his role in the offense? Will he be able to give us the inside scoring we need to balance our outside offense if he is reluctant to take his man one-on-one once in awhile? And what about Nick Smith? Will he stop thinking and start playing up to his potential? He can be both an inside and outside player, but he must stop getting down on himself and start doing what he is capable of doing. And he must stop taking himself out of games with his self-criticism.

Will Jack Ingram, Warren Carter and Shaun Pruitt get significant minutes this year? If we start our small lineup, there will be limited minutes for them. Jack will probably continue as a role player and help us on occasion, but he will probably not be a starter. Carter developed some confidence on the summer Big 10 traveling team, but is he ready to score and rebound against muscular foes? He is still mighty slender. Shaun Pruitt has more of an offensive game with his back to the basket than any of our big men. But will he be able to get his shot off against big opponents, given his limited jumping ability? And will he learn to run the floor at all times instead of taking some plays off like he did in high school? Will he be better off redshirting?

What role will Roger Powell play on this team? Will he continue to play as an undersized power forward, limiting our rebounding and defense at the four, or will he improve his ball handling, passing and defensive quickness to play the three on occasion? In my opinion, he would help us more at the three, where he would have to play if his pro aspirations are to be met, but only if he makes definite improvement in the above areas. If not, he takes playing time away from Ingram, Carter, and Pruitt and impacts our rebounding potential and inside defense.

What if Head gets hurt again or encounters one of his slumps? Will Powell help out there? If not, has Brian Randle learned to shoot yet? If not, he will be a liability for us offensively, allowing opponents to double others or play a tight zone. Brian still can become a great player, but did offseason shoulder surgery set back his development? And if not Brian, can Carter handle the ball and play defense well enough to play the three? He may ultimately be best suited there, but is he ready for that role? Or, is Calvin Brock mature enough and confident enough to get significant playing time at the three? He has the athleticism and smarts to do it, but he is still awfully young and inexperienced. Would he be better off redshirting? I think he can help us this year, but I believe he will be much greater in the years to come.

Is Rich McBride ready to step up, not only as a consistent outside threat but also as a penetrating all-around player and not just a set shooter? Does he have the athleticism to play a more complete role? Is he willing to play a more complete role? Opponents can stop a three-point shooter if that is all he does. If Rich can't prove worthy of the role, who else on the team can be that special three-point threat to take the pressure off Deron and Dee? They can't do it alone, but outside shooting is one potential achilles heel of this team, especially if Deron or Dee are slumping.

How is the chemistry on this team? Up to now, all reports are favorable. The players seem to like each other, and they tend to do things together. But how together will they remain when adversity hits? They don't have Jerrance Howard to pull them together like last year. Will they start supporting each other or start pointing blame? Will those getting limited minutes begin to let their personal hurt negatively affect team morale? Or, will they be eager role players, ready to step in at a moment's notice to help out as needed?

And how will they respond after a few heartbreaking losses? Will they keep their confidence up and keep their eye on the long-term? Or, will they begin to set their personal goals ahead of team needs? After all, it is the last chance for four seniors to demonstrate pro potential, and juniors Williams, Brown and Augustine may feel they must go pro this year to save face and get the best draft position. Will they continue to play team ball, or will they become selfish and damage team chemistry? We won't know until we see how they respond to adversity.

Yes, many questions remain to be answered. And the schedule is not necessarily conducive to an unbeaten season. I can envision several losses, and there could be as many as double figure losses if we get into a down cycle. For instance, Missouri is extremely frustrated at the way we have handled them recently. They always have athleticism, and they can beat us on a given day. They might not, but it wouldn't surprise me if Nature balanced sometime in their favor. After all, Nature doesn't always favor the righteous.

Wake Forest is a great foe, and we will be hard pressed to beat them. Their guards may be our equal, and they have good inside players as well. It will be a major accomplishment to beat them. Gonzaga is good, and Ronny Turiaf can beat some teams single handedly. Stan Heath is building a power at Arkansas, and playing them in their home state will be no picnic. Playing at Georgetown is always a difficult assignment, and Oregon has players, neutral court or not. I am truly suspicious of Cincinnati in the Las Vegas Holiday Classic. Bob Huggins will have them spitting blood in their desire to reverse the embarrassment of our massacre of them in last year's NCAA tournament. Huggins may go ballistic if his team allows Deron Williams even one basket, considering the way he destroyed the Bearcats last spring.

Some say the Big 10 is down, and there are a couple teams that are suffering right now. But I am not at all comfortable playing several Big 10 foes this year. We play Michigan State and Michigan only once each this year, and both are on the road. MSU is still loaded, and they may finally have the point guard they need in Drew Neitzel. And Michigan's athletes are plain scary. If it wasn't for coaching I consider too permissive, I would give us no hope at all at Michigan.

We just barely beat Ohio State at their home last year to guarantee our undisputed Big 10 Championship, and they should be even better this year since they have most of their players returning for a new coach and renewed optimism. Iowa has beefed up with some transfers, and they will be an experienced foe, especially at home.

Wisconsin is loaded, and I would grant them the favorite's role except for the loss of Devin Harris. Harris was much more than an MVP. He was the one the others trusted when a big play was needed, allowing them to play their own roles with confidence. The Badgers will be good again, but they may struggle at times unless they uncover a superstar who can handle the pressure.

I would never underestimate Gene Keady. And this being his last year, he will have his players at an emotional peak the whole season, to send him out on a flying carpet. He has always been able to take average talent and mold them into a fighting machine, and this year may be no exception. And we cannot discount Indiana despite coaching concerns, as they have athleticism comparable to Michigan and a history of being down for only short periods.

I cannot discuss the Big 10 without giving special mention to Northwestern. They will be almost impossible to beat in Evanston this year. Like it or not, they have a good coach, and they have players who are willing to execute his system. They have experienced players who don't fear us, and they added a big man in Michael Thompson who would like nothing better than to beat Illinois. I believe our home game with them will be a barn-burner, let alone the road trip. If we split with them, I will consider it understandable.

There are certain characteristics of championship teams that are consistent throughout time. It is practically impossible to win an NCAA championship without them. I doubt the Illini players read this column, but I will offer them the following recommendations to help them play like champions, just in case:
1. Keep your eyes on the long-term prize. Do everything you can to gain a favorable seeding for the NCAA tournament, with the idea of continuing to improve so you can make that special 6-0 run to end the season on a magical note.
2. Get fired up for every game you play. Allow your pride in demonstrating your special individual and team skills to overrule your alter ego's tendencies to take it easy in the face of a so-called easy opponent. You don't get these opportunities often in life, so let each day be your best effort. You can rest when you get older.
3. Respect all your opponents, but don't fear them. Winners are not afraid of losing. Give it your best shot, and accept the consequences. If you lose, show sportsmanship by complimenting the victors. After all, you just helped them have a life-long memory they will always treasure. Give them that, and then go on and play better next game. Never let memories from the previous game interfere with your present one.
4. Never get so full of yourselves that you believe you can win without your best effort. Believe me, as much as we all love you, none of you are THAT good. You will all have up and down cycles. Don't brag about the up cycles or mourn the down ones. Both will pass.
5. Accept your roles on the team. If that means personal sacrifice to help us win, then the long-term goal gets that much closer. Believe me, in the long run you will appreciate a ring on your finger much more than personal glory. Don't splinter team chemistry with personal bitterness or frustrations. If you want to be the star of the team, then transfer somewhere where there are no other top players with which to compete.
6. Trust your coaches. A coach is only as good as his players' willingness to do what he asks. Every coach has a system that can win, if only his players will buy into it 100%. And we know Bruce Weber and his assistants are good coaches and have a system that works. Even if you have differences of opinion with the coaches, don't let those differences fester into an open wound. Talk it out, work it out, but always keep your eyes on the prize at the end of the year.
7. Don't read your own press clippings, and don't let criticism from media or fans interfere with your belief in yourselves. You know whether you are playing your best or whether more improvement is needed. You know when you are lacking energy or feeling ill. You know when you are getting luckier than normal. Don't let others' compliments make you more arrogant than you have earned, and don't let criticisms beat you up beyond what you truly need to make necessary improvements.
8. Keep up your school work, and keep your life apart from basketball in balance with the season. Don't let the season become so important that you neglect your other responsibilities. If you create problems for yourself away from basketball, it will eventually hurt the basketball as well.
9. Trust your destiny. Play your best, but always remember it is a GAME. Don't worry. Worry only makes you tighten up, preventing you from playing your best. Allow for serendipity.

I would also like to add some similar thoughts for fellow fans. I don't expect to change anyone's behavior, and I am not trying to define the nature of a true Illini fan. However, I have seen it happen numerous times before that extreme expectations can lead to an emotional downfall. I read the fan forums and newspapers daily, and I can already predict some of the complaints that will surface during the season. But these can be minimized to some degree if we prepare ourselves for any eventuality. That is my only wish.

These are the recommendations I am making for myself, and I encourage others to consider them as well:
1. It is a long season. Try your best to remain balanced. Take a few deep breaths if you find yourself starting to hyperventilate.
2. Don't let a couple ugly losses destroy your faith in the team, its coaches or players.
3. Like the players, keep your eye on the long-term prize and try to not let the temporary details derail your hope for the future.
4. Try not to seek blame for our failures or gloat at our successes. Sometimes, bad things happen to good people, and sometimes we just get lucky.
5. Back the team no matter what happens. Attend the games. Wear orange whenever possible.
6. Let off steam on the fan forums if your frustrations reach a boiling point, but don't direct that negative energy directly toward the players. After all, it can only drag them down at a time they may need even more encouragement and support to get their confidence back.
7. Try to accept this ahead of time. We WILL lose a game once in awhile. It is not the end of the world.
8. Stay in the moment. The problem with expectations is that we are not necessarily happy with a victory because we expected it, and we are especially upset with a loss because we didn't expect it. We may lose to an underdog, but we also might pull an upset or two. Try to find pleasure in every good thing that happens. After all, you never know when it might be our last.
9. The Universe owes us nothing. Champions are not annointed, as if they are naturally more deserving than others. Rather, championships are earned through tons of effort, perseverence, and courage. Put in as much energy into your role as a fan as the players do on the court, and you can feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. Give the team extra positive energy to help them win that big game, and you can take partial credit for the victory.
10. When we make it to the Final Four and/or win a National Championship, don't start any riots, burn any buildings or turn over any cars. Show that Illini have class and maturity as well as a great basketball team.

This time of year, most fans prefer to read about how wonderful we are. Frankly, so do I. But we are only as good as our next game determines. What good is it to win a short-term goal if we lose sight of the bigger prize at the end of the season? Personally, I won't mind writing more cautionary columns later in the season for it will mean that we are continuing to win and fan expectations will then be through the roof.

Until then, I hope everyone enjoys the upcoming season. Any setbacks will be just temporary glitches in what promises to be a special experience for us all. That is, if everything falls into place like we hope. Of course, we will only know that once the season is over. Do we have the patience to see it through to the end? In my opinion, it will be worth the wait.

Go Illini!
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