Illini Offense Needs Some Refurbishing

The Fighting Illini basketball team is still challenging for the Big 10 Championship with half the conference schedule completed. But a recent offensive slump has raised concerns. Shooting percentages have tailed off, especially at Minnesota, and Coach Bruce Weber spent much of his most recent teleconference discussing the offense.

Some Illinois players have lost confidence in their shot. Bruce Weber realizes his team's strength is its overall shooting ability.

"I think there's a little bit of hesitation on offense, not cutting to get the ball, not being aggressive. We were really effective offensively when Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale, and those guys made shots. If Trent (Meacham) is making shots and Alex (Legion) can get on a roll, it would make us very tough to defend."

The Big 10 is filled with talented coaches, and they learn ways of neutralizing opponents' tendencies. Teams that win learn to adapt and offer new looks to improve their effectiveness and confuse opposing defenses. Illinois needs to take advantage of its practice opportunities to evolve its game.

"We have to get better in practice. We've cut practice back timewise now, it's the gutcheck part of the season, the dog days. But they've still got to come and make improvement and take steps forward. Part of that on offense is the screening angles, cutting harder, the passer's got to see the guy when he's open, and attacking more."

Teams must shoot well to win, but the real key is their ability to get uncontested open shots. Illinois stood around too much in the Minnesota game and the first half of the Iowa game, and open shots were few and far between.

"In the Minnesota game and Iowa in the first half, I didn't think we attacked them offensively. We got very stagnant whether we ran quick hitters, when we ran our motion offense or tried to break."

Trent Meacham and Alex Legion are perhaps the Illini's best three point shooters, but their percentages of success are way down in Big 10 play. They need to regain their confidence.

"Both Trent and Alex have to find ways to get some easy looks. Get some layups, get some short jumpshots. Now if you make a couple of those, the hoop looks bigger. Now you work your way out to three.

"By nature, those guys are shooting threes early. When they don't make them, they get a little hesitant and lose confidence. We're on them a little bit. So they've gotten themselves into a little bit of a rut. It would be nice if we could get them out of that. It would relieve the pressure."

Guard Demetri McCamey is also important in Illinois' shooting success.

"We haven't shot as many threes as last year overall. But individually, Demetri almost every game starts out with a 3, and if he misses it you know a couple more are coming. That was something I talked to him about at halftime. We have to have him in the paint.

"The game he had the most points, against Wisconsin, he only shoots five 3's but he has 13 free throws and is 6 of 10 from the field. That's an effective game.

"He has a tendency by nature to give into the easier thing, and that's to put up a quick three. If we can get him to realize that...he did a better job the second half against Iowa. I think he's got to learn to play without the ball so he can get in the paint off a curl or a flair."

Illinois' motion offense relies on players screening for each other to get open looks at the basket. Some of the bigs were ignoring their screening responsibilities and trying to get openings for their own shots. When reminded they could get more shots secondarily to setting a quality screen, some of them began to leave their screens too early in anticipation of a pass. That isn't what Weber wanted either.

"If you flip the screen too early, then nothing really happens. The whole point of a screen, whether it's in a play or in your motion or out of transition, you want to create space for your teammate and put your opponent in a bind. When you put your opponent in a bind, somebody on the defensive team's got to help or correct the mistake. That's when you make the next play.

"I think our guys have got to realize you have to screen, screen and then slip maybe the third one or fourth one. You can't be so predictable.

"That's another thing. I think we're very predictable on our cuts. If somebody takes them away or cheats on it, we don't make the next read. Some guys screen and then slip it every time. That doesn't do any good. We always use the phrase, 'be hard to guard.' When you're hard to guard, you're unpredictable."

Meacham was hot in Tuesday's practice, so hopefully he can take that into the next few games. The Illini hope to work out the kinks in the two practices leading up to their trip to Wisconsin.

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