Monday, January 30, 2006

Thought for an off day

My favorite commenter, Anonymous, asks "Do you think the Illini can make a legitimate run in the tourney this year?" I might as well cover UCLA here, too.

For the Illini, the answer, I think, depends on what you mean by legitimate. Do I think they have a shot at the title? Sure, insofar as any team that's probably a four seed or better has a shot, albeit an outside one. In the tournament, the teams that usually win are the teams that really have a lot of talent, and I'm not sure that across the board, the Illini have enough talent to take it all the way this year. I do think that they can get to the elite 8, and maybe even the final four, but they're going to have to have some guys make big improvements (Pruitt, Randle offensively, Chet Frazier), or they're going to need a couple of guys get really hot during the tourney, and that pretty much means Dee. He's been hot and cold this season, and if he can stay hot over a couple of weeks (not necessarily Michigan State hot, but 45% from three hot), he and Augustine can carry the offense. The defense is going to remain extremely solid, I think, and assuming they don't run into the foul trouble that has doomed them in the past (like against Arizona, Duke, and UNC), I think the defense might be enough to get them through a bad shooting game. The deeper you get into the tourney, though, the more likely you are to run into teams that are too talented to be completely shut down by good defense. Eventually, the great players are going to get theirs, no matter how good the defense is.

I think anything short of sweet 16 will be a disappointment, an elite 8 would be a good accomplishment, and final four would be fantastic. From there, anything more would be gravy. I put them at about 70% to reach the sweet 16, 30% to reach the elite 8, and 10% to reach the final four.

As for the Bruins, I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but their window is next year. They remind me a great deal (in terms of talent if not style) of the 2003-2004 Illini, who reached the sweet sixteen before losing to Chris Duhon's magic rib. The Bruins are young, talented, and maybe a little untested, and probably still need those few rounds of tournament experience before they're ready to go really deep into the tournament.

UCLA also needs an inside presence, and while they're getting production from a resurgent Ryan Hollins, he's not someone who will be the focus of an opposing defense. Hollins' problem is that he doesn't play strong. He doesn't hold the ball tight, and he can't catch well. The latter problem leads to obvious results, but the former is just as damaging in that he gets stripped, A LOT, when taking the ball to the basket. That's something he needs to work on, but they're running out of time. Ryan Wright, Alfred Aboya, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute can all be effective inside, but not for long stretches. They lack the post moves and confidence right now to really draw more than one defender, and that means that teams can focus their efforts on Farmar and Afflalo. It's taking its toll on Afflalo, who has struggled a bit at the offensive end during conference season. Some of that is due to the tremendous defense he's played at the other end of the floor. A real key for them will probably be the health and effectiveness of Ced Bozeman. If he can give them big minutes and be a force around the basket at the small forward spot, that could free up some room for the guards. But to do that, he needs to produce offensively, and for the next couple of weeks, that means he'll have to step up and take advantage of the extra room created by the attention being paid to the guards. I think they're sweet sixteen team this year, but they'll struggle to get any farther, which wouldn't be inconsistent with the path that Ben Howland teams have taken under his watch.

What both of these teams have in their favor is depth. The Illini go five deep at the first two spots (Augie, Pruitt, Arnold, Carter, and Randle), and Randle's versatility allows him to play the small forward, while Jamar Smith and Rich Mcbride can operate at the two, or go small at the three, leaving Dee Brown and Chet Frazier to handle the point (Dee can also slide to the off-guard spot when Frazier is in the game). Randle also possesses the athletic ability to play shut down defense on either a power forward, small forward, or shooting guard as the situation dictates. That's nine guys who can give them significant minutes, with five of those at the big man spots in case of foul trouble.

UCLA on the other hand, has found something of a silver lining to their dark cloud of injuries, as coach Howland has had ample opportunity to give playing time to his five impressive freshmen. Farmar and Afflalo are entrenched at the guard spots, but Afflalo has the size and strength to play small forward, while Farmar has the scoring ability to contribute at the two guard when Darren Collison is in the game. Mike roll can play the three in a three guard scheme, or play the off guard when giving Afflalo a breather. Aboya, Wright, and Hollins will all spend time at center, with Aboya sliding to power forward when LRMAM is on the bench. LRMAM will spend most of his time at the four, but some time at the three in a big lineup. Ced Bozeman also provides some versatility, with the ability to play anywhere from point guard to power forward if called upon. So like the Illini, they can go nine deep, and they can mix and match as the matchup dictates. And if they're able to get Michael Fey back to any semblance of himself, that makes 10. They could also have Lorenzo Mata back for a tournament run depending on how quickly he heals.

So I see both teams acquitting themselves pretty well in March. The Illini have a little more experience, and that could make the difference in a longer run. But there's still a month and a half to go before tournament time, and both clubs still have room for improvement. I'd be content with both teams in the sweet 16, and I'd be thrilled if they each made the elite 8, but that's asking for a lot.


The Chronicler said...

Afflalo has been off with the basketball in his hand since he took that hard fall near the end of the ASU game. He has to be hiding an injury, though thankfully his defense seems unaffected.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the well thought out analysis. I just needed some reason for hope after the disappointment of suppossedly having all the pieces in place last year, but not sealing the deal. Friggin Carolina.

Frank the Tank said...

Great analysis of the tourney chances of the Illini and UCLA. I think the Achilles' heel of the Illini is their free throw shooting. It didn't bite us last night against Wisconsin, but we're due for an early exit in March if we aren't making at least 7 out of 10 free throws each game. It's ironic that we've got such great 3-point shooters yet struggle so much from the charity stripe.

Seitz said...

The problem is that it's not the guys shooting threes that are getting to the line, aside from Dee, who is a fine FT shooter. The only guy who gets to the line AND makes free throws regularly is Augie. They need big improvements out of Randle and Pruitt, because both of those guys can and should get to the line with some regularity.

And thanks for the compliment.