Illini banking on McCamey being money in postseason
Illinois hasn't won back-to-back games since opening the Big Ten regular season with wins over Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern two months ago. The Illini enter this week's Big Ten tournament with a 2-3 record since edging quarterfinal opponent Michigan 54-52 on Feb. 16.
While these statistical facts suggest Illinois isn't due for a big run in either the Big Ten tournament or the NCAA Tournament, the team's players and coaches believe they've improved over the last few weeks. And, really, isn't it crucial to be self-confident when March Madness arrives?
"This is our last run and we want to win something," senior center Mike Tisdale said in the Daily Herald. "That's our goal. I think everyone's been more coachable. We haven't had the arguments. Even Coach was saying, 'We don't have to coach attitudes or personalities in the huddle anymore. We just coach basketball.' I think that's been a real big key for us and I think it will continue."
Not so coincidentally, Illinois' improvement mirrors senior point guard Demetri McCamey's return among the Big Ten's elite. After a painful six-game stretch where last year's first-team all-Big Ten guard averaged just 8.7 points and posted 25 assists versus 21 turnovers, McCamey has averaged 17.7 points and posted 27 assists versus 14 turnovers in Illinois' final six games heading into the Big Ten tournament.
"Slowly but surely, we're putting the puzzle back together," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "When Demetri plays -- and he's played pretty well the last 2-3 weeks -- it helps us. There's no doubt."
"I've been playing better," McCamey told Gatehouse Media. "I wouldn't call it my best. I've been getting better each and every game. It's not the best, but it's getting there."
--Illinois has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Big Ten tournament format since the league adopted the concept in 1998. The Illini have failed to reach the semifinals just once in the first 13 years. To maintain that standard, they need to defeat Michigan in Friday's quarterfinal the No. 4 (Michigan) and No. 5 seeds.
-- Though Illinois and Michigan have identical records (19-12 overall and 9-9 in Big Ten play), the Illini are better in every possible power-ranking metric. That suggests the Wolverines need this win more than the Illini for NCAA Tournament purposes. Illinois edged Michigan 54-52 when they met Feb. 16 in Champaign.
--Senior point guard Demetri McCamey leads all active Division I players with 714 assists. UTEP's Julyan Stone (698 assists) is the only active player within 50 assists of him. If McCamey produces at least 18 assists the rest of the season, he'll pass former Michigan all-American Gary Grant for third place on the Big Ten's all-time assists list. Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves (816) and Illinois' Bruce Douglas (765) likely are out of reach.
--Illinois coach Bruce Weber has utilized seven different lineups this season, including six in the last eight games. In Saturday's regular-season finale against Indiana, Weber put his four seniors (McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Bill Cole) together with sophomore guard Brandon Paul for the first time as a way to motivate usual starting guard D.J. Richardson.
Look for the four seniors to start the rest of the way, while Weber will select between Paul, Richardson and freshman Jereme Richmond as the fifth starter depending on the matchup and the most recent practice efforts. Richmond has been coming along quite a bit in recent practices.
BY THE NUMBERS: .401 -- Illinois finished the year shooting 50.6 percent during the team's 16 games at Assembly Hall, which is considerably better than their showing on neutral courts. The Illini head to Conseco Fieldhouse at Indianapolis shooting .401 in their neutral-court games against Texas, Maryland, Gonzaga, UIC and Missouri. Note, of course, there are four NCAA Tournament-level teams on that list.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think we all just realized that we can do it. We've just got to do it. We've got to stop talking about it. After every loss, we'd be in the locker room: 'What do we gotta do? What do we gotta change?' I think we just got tired of that and tried to go out and prove it." -- Senior center Mike Tisdale in the Daily
Herald after Illinois wrapped up its regular season with a 72-48 win over Indiana.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--vs. Michigan, March 11, Big Ten tournament quarterfinal
KEY MATCHUPS: When Michigan traveled to Illinois on Feb. 16 for the teams' lone regular-season meeting, the Illini sneaked away with a 54-52 win as Michigan missed two 3-point tries on the game's final possession. Each team disrupted the other's offense (Michigan shot 37 percent; Illinois 44 percent) and they combined to hit 6 of 36 on 3-pointers. Considering Illinois ranks second among Big Ten teams in 3-point shooting (.389) and Michigan ranks sixth (.351), expect more offensive exploits in Friday's second Big Ten tournament quarterfinal. The winner of the Illinois-Michigan quarterfinal likely will face Big Ten champ Ohio State in Saturday's semifinals. The Buckeyes get the winner of the Northwestern-Minnesota first-round game in their quarterfinal game.
FUTURES MARKET: Freshman 7-footer Meyers Leonard enjoyed a nice 9-minute stint against Indiana on March 5. He provided 5 points (his second-highest Big Ten total) and a career-high-tying 2 blocks with 2 rebounds. One of his baskets came on a jump hook while getting fouled, which is a good sign going forward as most of his baskets this year have been dunks. Leonard also didn't commit a foul for just the third time in Big Ten play.
--Freshman F Jereme Richmond re-injured his right shoulder midway through the second half of Illinois' regular-season finale against Indiana. Richmond did not return to the game, though coach Bruce Weber claimed he could have. Richmond has been dealing with the shoulder since the original injury Feb. 19 at Michigan State.
--Sophomore G D.J. Richardson lost his starting job to Brandon Paul for the regular-season finale against Indiana. While Richardson has been in a funk offensively (15 points on 6 of 27 shooting over the last 6 games), Weber only cares about his defensive effort. That will determine his playing time during the postseason.
--Freshman C Meyers Leonard tweaked his left ankle injury during the Indiana game on March 5, but didn't leave the game because of it. The Illini won't need him much against undersized Michigan, but they need him to be ready to go if the Illini advance to face top-seeded Ohio State in the semifinals.
The TSX Files: Illinois
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