Saturday, January 10, 2009

Indiana 46; Illinois 75

There's really not a lot to write about.  This was the true definition of a slaughter.  The Illini led by 19 points less than seven minutes into the game.  They made shot after shot after shot, and....well, let's face it folks.  Indiana is about as godawful as any team in America.  And you know what?  They deserve it.  They sold their soul to the Devil for one year of Eric Gordon.  They hired the scummiest coach since the demise of Clem Haskins, and in exchange, they got a disappointing tournament run, and probation.  


Honestly, I feel kinda bad for some of the kids on the team.  It's not their fault.  But the only way that this game could have been better is if it had been played in the other Assembly Hall.  It's very nice watching Indiana totally suck this year.  

Anyway, this was never really a contest.  The Illini scored early and often.  Trent Meacham, who struggled against Michigan, lit up the Hoosiers from outside, converting seven of his nine three point attempts and finished with 21 points.  Dominique Keller, not noted as a long range gunner, made three of four three pointers and finished with 15 points of his own (which I assume is career best).  The Illini shot 51% from the field, 52% from long range, while holding Indiana below 40% shooting.

Four Illini finished the game in double figures, with Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis adding 12 point performances to the 21 and 15 poured in by Keller and Meacham.  The Illini knocked down 26 shots, and recorded assists on 17 of them.  For the season, Illinois is assisting on almost 75% of its field goals (301/415).  For reference, UCLA, with one of the country's best backcourst, is averaging an assist on just more than 50% of its field goals (220/403).  North Carolina is around 60% (308/513).  That's an impressive statistic for the Illini, and it tells me that after the last couple years of a stagnant offense, often due to the black whole that was Shawn Pruitt, the Illini are back to executing Bruce Weber's offense the way it's supposed to be executed.  Excellent ball movement.  Dribble penetration when available.  Kick it back out if you don't have a good look.  If there's a reason to be excited about Illinois basketball season this year, that's it.

The road gets tougher from here.  Michigan is in Champaign on Wednesday night.  Michigan State is up after that, followed by Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.  That's a tough stretch.  If they can win three of those games, it will be a VERY successful stretch, and will give the Illini some good early buzz, which goes a long way toward making the tournament.  

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Kings Get Interesting

It's taken a couple of years, but the Los Angeles Kings are finally putting a team on the ice that can compete every night.  What's even better is that you can see the flashes of excellence that should make them a playoff contender next year, and with luck, a cup contender in two or three years.  

The Kings largest problem since their inception as a franchise has been the inability to develop a first class goaltender.  They've had good goalies in the past, but not too many game stealers, and none of them came from the Kings' scouting and development.  Kelly Hrudey led them to a Cup final.  Rogie Vachon has his jersey retired.  Felix Potvin played arguably better than any other Kings goalie had ever played, but it was for a short period of time, and his star faded rather quickly.  They thought they had a franchise goalie in Jamie Storr, but he never fulfilled his potential.  They let future hall of famer Billy Smith get away in the expansion draft in 1972.  All he did was win four Stanley Cups on Long Island.  

And it wasn't for lack of trying.  The regime that let Smith get away was long gone, but determined to keep it from happening again, the Kings traded away future all-star defenseman Kimmo Timonen to Nashville.  In exchange, Nashville agreed to refrain from selecting Gary Galley, which allowed the Kings to protect such luminaries as Stephane Fiset, the aforementioned Jamie Storr, and Freddi Chabot.  Guess who won that deal?

But finally, it appears that the Kings have some direction in net.  A sign of competent management, they actually traded their worst goaltender to Vancouver when they dealt Jason Labarbera, who suffered through some bad luck, but never really put it together in L.A.  By the end of his run at Staples, he was average on a good night, and before he was dealt, he looked like he'd never stop another shoot-out attempt.  That has left the Kings with Erik Ersberg and rookie Jonathan Quick, who has been a revelation.  Quick's only played seven games this season, but his 1.59 goals against and .943 save percentage would easily lead the league if he qualified.  It's something to be excited about, even if that enthusiam has to be tempered by the small sample size.  He's given up ten goals in those seven games (six starts), and five came in one game against arguably the league's best team, the Detroit Red Wings.  Ersberg has been solid as well.  Through 18 games he sports a 2.38 GAA and .903 save percentage.  He plays a quiet style that instills confidence in his teammates, and he's excellent at controlling rebounds.  

The best news is that is that neither may be the Kings' real goaltender of the future.  First round draft pick Jonathan Bernier has been on fire in Manchester, where he's being backed up one of last year's top college keepers, Jeff Zatkoff, who also happens to be an ECHL all-star selection.  He put up 2.31 GAA and .931 save percentage in Ontario (the one in California).  

After this year's draft, I talked about how Dean Lombardi wants to build from the net out.  Well, there are eight defensemen in the mix for the foreseeable future (Jack Johnson, Drew Doughty, Matt Green, Kyle Quincey, Alec Martinez, Colton Tuebert, Thomas Hickey, and Slava Voinov), and four goalies (Quick, Ersberg, Bernier, and Zatkoff).  That kind of depth gives them the opportunity to trade for scoring, and to draft offense going forward.  They may only be hovering around .500 this year, but this team is building a true foundation, and it's nice to be able to watch it happen.

Monday, January 05, 2009

A New Power is Rising in the West

Well, maybe that's a little presumptuous. Don't look now, but the UC Riverside Highlanders are 2-0 and atop the Big West conference (along with Long Beach State). Not only that, but they actually have the best record in the conference when you combine conference and non-conference play, so this may not be a total fluke.

Last night they beat UC Santa Barbara 71-69, overcoming a twelve point deficit in the second half. UCSB was picked second in the conference by the media before the season started. Better yet, they've won their two conference games with diverging styles. In the conference opener, they scored 91 points against Cal Poly SLO, while last night they held UCSB to only four second half baskets. A few two many fouls led to lots of Gauchos on the free throw line, and the Highlanders survived a last second would-be game winning three pointer that came a hair too late. But 2-0 is 2-0, and hopefully a good start (they're 9-4 overall) will create a buzz on campus that brings people out to the Student Rec Center.

When I was at UCR, we were Division II, and there was virtually no interest in athletics from the general student body. I knew a few guys on the baseball team, one of whom was all over the record books by the time we graduated, but otherwise, I would have barely known that we had a baseball team. In 1995, there was finally some excitement when the basketball team rolled through the D2 tournament to reach the nationally televised championship game. I actually remember bars around campus playing that game on the radio, and people actually going to bars to listen to it. The excitement died when the Highlanders couldn't hang onto a 20+ point lead, and lost to Satan (bruce pearl) and Southern Indiana. But the University is twice the size it was when I was a student, and a positive start could help fill the place up a bit.

It's nice to have my three favorite teams playing interesting basketball this season, as opposed to one for the last couple seasons.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

UCLA Wins, Illinois Loses

Illinois 64; Michigan 74

The Illini gave it a good effort, but they appeared to wear down a little bit in the end, failing to execute their offense, failing to keep Michigan from executing theirs. The overtime victory at Purdue may have taken a little too much out of them. But they got a split in their first two conference teams, both on the road against teams that will end up the Big Ten's top half. That's a tough row to hoe, but the road victory at Mackey gives them a nice leg up early.

Michigan is clearly much improved, but I thought the Illini attacked their 1-3-1 pretty well. Much better than UCLA did when they played Michigan earlier in the season. The problem came on the defensive end. Give Michigan credit for creating a lot of confusion on the Illini defensive end. That led to a lot of open looks, and Michigan knocked them down, connecting on over 40% of their three pointers. That's Beilein's offense. Michigan will win when they shoot 40% or better from three. They'll lose when they shoot 30% or worse. And they will have nights like that.

Calvin Brock was the Illini's best player, in my opinion. He's very active. He's their most athletic player. And if he shoots the ball like he did today, he can be real impact player. Tisdale and Davis were solid offensively, but Tisdale really needs to learn to defend. Despite being a perimeter oriented team, Michigan got too many easy baskets when they took the ball to the rim.

Four of their next six games are against ranked opponents, including a rematch with Michigan at the Assembly Hall in 10 days. The good news is that four of those six games are at home.

UCLA 83; Oregon 74

This one was closer than it should have been, but Oregon was fired up after a terrible performance against U$C on Friday. The crowd really gave Oregon a lift, and decent shooting kept the Bruins from pulling away and making it easy. The Bruins led the game wire to wire, but it was never comfortable.

The Bruins built their lead on impressive shooting, going 8-10 from long range in the first half. They finished a blazing 13-22, thanks mostly to Josh Shipp's unconcious 5-6. In fact, the only Bruin who shot less than 50% from the arc was Michael Roll, one of the nation's best long range gunners (he was 1-3). Nikola Dragovic took advantage of open looks to make four deep balls, and scored a career high 12 points. Darren Collison led the Bruins with 22, but did most of his damage from inside the arc and from the free throw line, where he was 9-9. He's shooting better than 97% from the line, and has made something like 40 in a row. But it was really Shipp who made the difference. He made four threes in the second half, all with under 15 to play. Two followed Oregon baskets, squelching their momentum. They all came with the game within six or fewer points. He was clutch tonight. He raised his three point percentage from 21.6% to just over 30%. If he's regained his touch, then this becomes an outstanding long range team, and that means fewer zone defenses, or more open shots.

The Bruins defense was not up to its usual standards. Part of that was due to the way the game was officiated. In the first half, the game was called very tight on the Bruins defensive end, and that may have contributed to some tentative play in the second half. The Ducks got too many good looks, and had too many easy baskets in the lane.

Still, the only player who really disappointed tonight for the Bruins was Jrue Holliday. Turnover numbers aren't on ESPN's box score yet, but he seemed to struggle for much of the game, and showed occasionaly happy feet that led to traveling calls.

We'll see what the future holds for Oregon, but something tells me they're closer to the team that played Friday than the team that played tonight. But UCLA has won the conference three straight years, and they can expect this kind of shot when they go on the road. The bottom line is that there are 16 Pac 10 games left, and more than half will be at Pauley Pavilion. For the 2-0 Bruins, that's a nice position to be in.