As part of the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches Versus Cancer, the Texas basketball team has made its way to the City for the first true tests of the season -- tonight against Illinois, followed by a matchup against either Maryland or Pittsburgh in the championship game or consolation round, depending on the outcome this evening. Not only is it a chance to play in the mecca of basketball, Madison Square Garden, it's a chance to get a look at the new Texas offense against serious competition.
Since the run to the championship game in 2005 with the nucleus of Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head, players recruited by former coach Bill Self, the Illini have struggled to once again reach prominence on the national stage. In fact, despite current coach Bruce Weber nearly always putting disciplined, hard-working teams on the floor, the major concern for years was his inability to land blue-chip recruits, missing on players like Derrick Rose and Jon Scheyer, the latter even more stinging because the former Blue Devil played for Weber's brother in high school.
Building around somewhat overlooked talent like Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale, and Mike Davis, in the last several years Webber's hard work on the recruiting trail has finally paid off with commitments from top high school players like DJ Richardson, Brandon Paul, Jerome Richmond, Meyers Leonard, and Crandall Head, finally quieting calls for Weber's job that had been growing into an increasingly loud chorus.
Philosophically, Weber has an old-school mentality cultivated during his many years working under Gene Keady in West Lafayette -- he runs the same motion offense run at Purdue during those days and run now by Matt Painter and he believes in tough, hard-nosed man-to-man defense.
When run at a high level, as it often was with Deron Williams, the motion offense is a beauty to watch, feauting crisp ball and player movement that probes a defense looking for high-quality good shots, while utilizing the pass instead of the dribble. However, it's an offense that often takes up much of the shot clock and can sometimes result in settling for outside shots, a stagnation that cost the Illini dearly in the first half of that national championship game against North Carolina.
Through three games, it's been the crisp version of the Illini offense, putting up nearly 83 points per game, but more importantly averaging 20 assists per contest, a sign that the motion offense is creating open looks without having to resort to one-on-one play. As a result, Illinois is shooting nearly 55% from the floor.
The Illini are a deep team this season, currently playing nine players 16 or more minutes per game. Of course, that distribution of playing time has come against UC-Irvine, Toledo, and Southern Illinois, three easy victories for Bruce Weber's club. Expect role players like Bill Cole and Tyler Griffey to play fewer minutes during the Classic.
One of the biggest concerns for the thin Texas frontcourt will be the length of Illinois. Starting center Mike Tisdale is 7-1, Mike Davis is 6-9 with a long wingspan, and Bill Cole is 6-9 as well, with freshman 7-footer Meyers Leonard coming off the bench. Through three games, the Illini have blocked 21 shots.
That length hasn't always translated to securing a great deal of rebounds, however, as Illinois outrebounded Toledo by 19, but grabbed a combined three more rebounds than UC-Irvine and Souther Illinois. Overall, the Illini rank 178th in the country in rebounds per game.
The unquestioned leader on offense is point guard Demetri McCamey, at 6-3 and 200 pounds, a big physical point guard somewhat in the mold of former star Deron Williams. Where McCamey has struggled to match the steady Williams is in his consistency of focus and effort, often drawing the ire of his coach for poor decisions, lazy passes, and sub-par effort on the defensive end. At times last season, things finally seemed to click, important for the team because as McCamey goes, so go the Illini.
Though it's still early, McCamey appears to have taken the final step this season. He's cut down on his turnovers from 3.4 last season to only two this year, while dishing out eight assists per game and shooting over 60% from the field, an astounding number for a guard. He's also hitting more than 40% of his three-point attempts. As a senior, he may finally be close to putting his name in the conversation with the best point guards in the country.
Joining him in the backcourt as a pair of talented sophomores -- DJ Richardson, who played a season with Avery Bradley and Cory Jopseh as Findlay Prep, and Brandon Paul. Richardson is the purest shooter on the team and complements his outside shot with a variety of floaters off of dribble penetration. Late last year, Richardson struggled with his shot as he got worn down by the long collegiate season, but he can get hot quickly, with four games in which he hit four or more three point shots at a high percentage as a freshman.
Paul is a superlative athlete and high riser who can finish through contact around the rim -- think Dwyane Wade-lite. He's a streaky shooter who hit less than 30% of his threes last season, a percentage that he has nearly doubled this year. He doesn't have the pure stroke of Richardson, but he can be dangerous when he's hot. He's not a guy Texas wants to run off the three-point line early in the game because of his finishing ability, but they do want to force him to take contested shots to keep him from quickly getting into a groove.
Likewise with the two frontcourt stars for Illinois, the stick-thin combination of Davis and Tisdale, two guys who have incredible length, but lack body mass. As a result, they can often be pushed around by stronger players. Tisdale has a solid back-to-the-basket game when he can get position, which is often a struggle that forces him onto the perimeter, where he has an excellent stroke.
Davis can also be extremely effective in the mid-range despite a somewhat unconventional shooting stroke that leaves the elbow on his shooting hand quite wide. A strong rebounder who sometimes struggles to secure the basketball, Davis has an excellent touch on floaters in the lane, unusual for a player of his size.
At their best, both players can gain confidence from a handful of easy baskets that turn them into dangerous threats from the perimeter. On the flipside, both had games last season that spiralled out of control when things didn't go well for them early and they ended up settling for, and missing, jumpshots.
Keys to the Game
This is an talented and experienced team that returns all five starters from last season, while adding some key parts in freshmen like Jerome Richmond, a slashing, athletic wing, and Leonard, another lanky interior player. Here's what Texas needs to do to hang with the Illini:
- Defend deep into the shot clock: Every time down the court, Texas has to expect to play 35 seconds of defense, as the Illini will remain patient running their offense.
- Stay in front of McCamey: As mentioned earlier, as McCamey goes, so go the Illini. Rick Barnes' squad will be better off this game with McCamey scoring 20 points and not having any assists than if he goes for 10 points and 10 dimes. The idea is to stay in front of him and keep him out of the lane, where he can find teammates for easy baskets around the rim or open looks from behind the arc. That's easier said than done, however, because like Deron Williams, McCamey has an excellent crossover and is a big, physical guard.
- Get out in transition: It's a point of emphasis this season for Texas and something that becomes even more important when facing a strong defensive team like Illinois. Allowed to set up their halfcourt defense, Texas could have trouble executing an offense that the team is still learning.
- Finish around the rim: The undersized Texas frontcourt of Tristan Thompson and Gary Johnson could have some problems finishing around the rim, but it's important that the Longhorns don't settle for outside shots and attempt to attack the basket, particularly Jordan Hamilton. The star sophomore will have to go against a strong defender in Bill Cole, but he won't have the height and length disadvantage Thompson and Johnson will face.
- Limit Tisdale and Davis: If the Longhorns can make things difficult for Davis and Tisdale early, there's a chance they can force them to become passive jumpshooters. On the other hand, if Texas allows them easy looks early and lets them build their confidence, they quickly become dangerous players.
- Rebound the basketball: Against Louisiana Tech and Navy, the more athletic 'Horns didn't have problems securing rebounds and Illinois isn't a great rebounding team, but at some point in the season securing caroms off the glass will become a problem for the thin, often undersized Texas frontcourt. If Illinois is able to hit the offensive glass and make the Longhorns defend for 70 seconds at a time, Texas could quickly become mentally and physically taxed. Jordan Hamilton and the guards will have to help out the interior players on the glass, which could help fuel the critical transition game for the 'Horns.
Overall, this game is more about the learning experience than the final outcome. As mentioned above, Illinois is a tough, experienced team that is well-coached. And despite some positive signs, Texas is a team that is still trying to come together and refine the new offensive identity. There will be some growing pains along the way. if Texas can hang with the Illini or even pull out a close victory, it will be a major positive going forward.