Lucky me! Both teams play tonight at the exact goddamn time, which means I'll be watching the Illini on television, and the Bruins on the computer. But the similarities don't end there. They also happened to be the only two teams (that I noticed, anyway) that were called out as immediate first round upsets by first rate douchebag, Seth Davis. That immediately calmed my nerves, safe in the knowledge that Seth Davis picking against a team in the first round is a virtual ticket for that team to the second round. I don't know, I checked his wikipedia page (which is pretty funny) and apparently his basketball expertise is limited to "graduating from Duke". Not playing for Duke, mind you, but simply graduating from Duke. Anyway, I'm totally discounting matchups here, because I've been a little overwhelmed with coverage and other stuff, and I honestly don't care about the matchups. Both the Illini and the Bruins are teams that should enforce their will on weaker opponents, but we shall see.
Honestly I'm surprised they got a fifth seed, considering Chester Frazier's injury and their spotty play down the stretch. I'm of two minds about the loss of Frazier. On the one hand, they'll miss his defense, his hustle, and his leadership. But the intangibles are his key contribution, and if I have to loss one guy, well, I'd rather keep all the guys with the tangibles. As a mediocre offensive team, if you're going to lose one guy, it may as well be your worst offensive player.
The main problem I see with the Illini is the inability to get an almost guaranteed basket when they really need one. When your opponent goes on a run, occasionally you need to slow things down, go back to basics, and run a play that has a good chance of either getting a basket, or getting to the line. Illinois simply doesn't have the personnel to do that. You can break a run with jump shots, but you don't want to rely on jump shooting to break a run. We saw it last weekend in both games. A gainst Michigan, after going on a run that turned a one point halftime lead into a 20 point lead, the Illini let Michigan go on a run of their own to cut the lead back to seven. Mike Davis finally made a 15 foot turn around hook shot to stop the bleeding, and that seemed to carry the Illini to the victory. You do not want to rely on 15 foot turn around hook shots when you desperately need a basket, because when those don't fall, you end up missing 16 straight shots like they did against Purdue.
I think their tendency to go into long periods where they fail to execute has kept me from completely buying into this team. I think they're going to win tonight, but admittedly, that's based on nothing but faith and hope. They'll start four guys who can really shoot it if you include Davis and his conscience (i.e., he's not a long range gunner, but he doesn't try to be). I think Mark Tupper is dead right that Demetri McCamey, a.k.a. the Little Sleep, is the key man for Illinois. I really thought he was step up against Purdue and have the type of game that he had against them in the tournament last year (and against Indiana in the regular season), making big shot after big shot. I don't know if he's nursing an injury or recovering from an illness, but he's been quiet, and he needs to play like he's shown he can if the Illini are going to advance past tonight and hopefully into next week.
Contra my thoughts on Illinois, I'm surprised they dropped to a six seed. This team has confounded all year, going through stretches where they looked like a top 5 team, and stretches where they looked like a team that wouldn't garner an NIT invite. My hope is that the six seed, and the outpouring of negative feelings about their chances, will serve as a wake up call. I'll be honest, picking with my head, I have them in the final four. I based that on just looking at the brackets game by game. If they get past tonight, they'll have a tough match up with Villanova in Philly, but if they win that game, I think they can beat Duke and Pitt. I think they have the easiest bracket if they get past this weekend, but that's a tall order.
Unlike the Illini, this team is loaded with offensive talent, which makes games like they played against ASU a couple months ago, and U$C in the conference tournament particularly strange. They start four players who won't just make and take the occasional three pointer, but are legitimate three point threats every time down the floor. And Alfred Aboya has matured into a decent offensive post player, while Nikola Dragovic has recently shown a proclivity for going to the basket. This is a team that should be able to score with anyone in the country.
The defensive side has been even more confounding. A hallmark of Ben Howland's UCLA teams, the '08-'09 Bruins have not covered their end of the floor very well. Maybe it's the lack of multiple big men to cover the middle. Maybe they're a little slow on their hedges. They've been burned on slipped screens numerous times this year. This seems like the worst defensive team they've had over the past few years.
Probably what concerns me most about this team is what I perceive as a lack of heart, for lack of a better word. I hate to criticize 18-22 year old kids with label, but they just don't seem to dig in and find that little something extra when they needed the same way the Bruins have over the past few years. This team would not have erased that deficit against Gonzaga. This team would not have beat Berkeley and Stanford down the stretch the way they did last year. They showed some glimmers in their PTT game against U$C, but there just seems to be a spark missing from this team. A guy who can give them that spark is Drew Gordon, who always seems to be fired up. An unexpected performance from on of their freshman guards, or maybe a big night from James Keefe, could also ignite them.
Still, they start three seniors. They have four players in the rotation who have been a part of three straight final four teams. They are LOADED with experience. That's something you can't put a price on at this time of year. And regardless of the way they've looked at times, they still have a boatload of talent, and they have a world class coach. I'm hoping that their poor seed is a wake up call. They've kind of dicked around all season, and they've had this week to get serious. We'll see what kind of stuff they're made of. I think they have the talent, the bodies, and the coaching to put together another long tournament run. The question is whether they believe that.