Mike Tisdale is averaging 11.1 points a game for Illinois this season. He is within 1.2 points a game of scoring leader Trent Meacham. And he is by far the leader in blocked shots, totaling 4 in the Indiana game alone. But he is grabbing only 4.5 rebounds a game, and his defense needs improvement, especially against smaller players.
Illinois' upcoming return matchup with Michigan at the Assembly Hall Wednesday evening is a reminder for what Tisdale needs to improve. Michigan's undersized pivot man DeShawn Simms took Mike outside and buried three three-point shots in the first half of their first meeting in Ann Arbor. Once Tisdale began defending the perimeter, Wolverine postmen drove past him for layups.
Tisdale doesn't get as much playing time against smaller teams for this reason, but he believes he is learning on the job. He admits it is easier for him to guard larger, bulkier oppponents.
"For me, a little bit in terms of one-on-one matchups. Smaller guys are a little quicker. I've been working on it. I've had quite a bit of time to focus on that. I had some workout with the Clemson guys and other guys like DeShawn Sims. I keep improving going against those guys."
Big Mike may not be ready for Simms Wednesday, but coach Bruce Weber reminds how far he has come up to now and how much more he needs to improve.
"I think he needs to gain another 20 pounds and put on more strength. The NBA test is a 185 max bench press. When he got here, he couldn't do any. Now I think he's doing three, so he's tripled his strength.
"But he had to work at it. He literally ate 5, 6, 7 times a day. In between classes he'd come and get the shakes, the energy bars, any protein he could get in him. It was a commitment by him. We figured when the season started he would start losing it, but he kept it on.
"This year, he's much further along. I think a year from now he'll be even better. His endurance is better too. One of the games, we played him 37 minutes. So I think he's made progress with that. My only fear is, we don't want to wear him out. He's still young, he just turned 19, and he's still got a long way to go with his body maturation."
Weber and Tisdale both admit a redshirt year would have been preferable. However, there were some benefits to playing as a freshman.
"It would have really helped Mike Tisdale three years from now. Obviously, look at all the strides he's made if he had another year. But he got a taste of it. Tisdale at the end of last season said he should have redshirted, that it was tougher than he thought, it was more grinding and physical than he thought.
"But I told him he did it, he got to play in some big games, he got to start, he got some game winning shots. Use those experiences. You got a taste of it. There's no doubt it helped him be a little more ready. It probably brought him along 5-8 games more than if he had redshirted."
Mike played only 18 minutes against Indiana last Saturday. He got two quick fouls in the first half, Weber chose smaller lineups to match the Hoosiers' size, and he wasn't needed late during the blowout. He scored only 2 points and grabbed just two rebounds. But he was an intimidator with 4 blocked shots. For Mike, just getting to play in the Assembly Hall again was good after a long absence.
"It feels like forever since we've played at home."
Tisdale is a team leader and helps his teammates out on the court. He will take on an even more important leadership role in the future. He is beginning to understand the nature of the rugged Big 10 conference and is helping his teammates take every game seriously.
"We watched the Indiana-Michigan game (UM won in overtime). There's no teams that are just bad. Any given night, anything can happen. Boston College beat North Carolina. In the Big 10 this year, everybody's surprising everybody."
The Illini had a bye week after the Michigan loss, and they took advantage of it. Tisdale and his teammates were worked hard, but they knew improvement was a necessity.
"Practice has been pretty tough. We've really been focusing on improving, playing hard. Obviously, the Michigan game was kind of disappointing. Coach wanted to get us back focusing on what we need to work on. It's been good, but it's been pretty difficult."
We will find out Wednesday whether the Illini learned from their mistakes at Michigan and reverse the result in Champaign.