Much to my surprise, the Illini men’s basketball team is, indeed, perfect on the young season heading into tonight’s ACC-Big Ten Challenge against Trevor Booker (above) and undefeated Clemson (ESPN2, 6:30 p.m.). If Illinois is to remain perfect, then they’ll need to play far better than they did against Tulsa this weekend, when they failed to connect on a three-pointer, sunk just two free throws in the entire game and had to rely almost exclusively on their defense over the final ten minutes.
To place the Illini’s 6–0 start in proper context, let’s just say that Illinois has played relatively well against a few teams whose talent and ambition roughly match its own. Vanderbilt, which the Illini beat on the road, appears to be a dead lock for the upper-middle-class of the SEC. The Commodores are clearly a step behind Tennessee and Florida, but fit in smashingly alongside LSU and Kentucky. Tulsa and Kent State, which also fell to Illinois at the South Padre Island tourney, will be battling for top honors in mid-major conferences. (When factoring out the wolf in sheep’s clothing that is Memphis, it’s hard to classify Conference USA as anything but a mid-major). Place either Kent State or Tulsa in the Big Ten and they’re likely jostling for position in the fourth through seventh range.
Illinois has yet to face any North Carolinas or Dukes in the making, and, luckily, the ACC-Big Ten Challenge won’t be presenting that tall of an order. Still, Illinois will have its hands full with another well-matched team in Clemson, which returns a solid nucleus from a team that won 10 ACC games last season, and figures to finish this season toward the lower portion of the upper half of the conference standings. Like the Illini, the Tigers have begun their season by toppling an above-average mid-major school (Temple). But the rest of Clemson’s schedule so far leaves a lot to be desired: they’ve beaten cupcakes like Texas Christian and Savannah State (which actually gave Michigan a helluva game). Illinois — at the Assembly Hall — will be Clemson’s first big test of the season, and I’m predicting a FAIL for the Tigers.
Clemson’s offense and defense have both proven to be efficient and effective so far this season, but the team hasn’t played anyone of particular note — hence, a rather weak strength of schedule. Last year’s team was even better defensively, anchored by outstanding perimeter man-to-man defense that held the opposition to 30% shooting from beyond the arc. But two of Clemson’s best defenders graduated from that squad, and the perimeter defense appears to have slipped mightily. The Tigers have made great strides with their interior defense, but to date they haven’t exactly been facing Wilt the Stilt, or even the Illini’s Mike the Stilts (above), in the paint. It remains to be seen how Clemson’s shorter frontcourt will handle Illinois’ height.
Offensively, Clemson’s backcourt will give Illinois’ defenders all it can handle in the form of a superb one-two punch, senior K.C. Rivers (below) and sophomore Terrence Oglesby. Both guards can stroke it from the outside, although Rivers has struggled with his shot this season. Good depth at the guard position, coupled with a pair of scoring big men in upperclassmen Booker and Raymond Sykes, provide Clemson with a well-rounded scoring attack. It should come as little surprise that Clemson likes to push the ball far more than the Illini, who are once again near the bottom of the barrel in terms of pace.
So what will the Illini need to do to prevail in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge for the first time since Dee Brown was running the show? For starters, they need to adopt a strategy that has served them well in smaller samples this year: attack the basket and remain aggressive in the paint. Clemson lacks interior depth. If Booker and Sykes are sitting on the bench in foul trouble, the Illini can further exploit their size advantage. Moreover, the Illini need to get to the foul line and take advantage of their newfound improved accuracy at the charity stripe. Five free-throw attempts, the number they had against Tulsa, isn’t going to cut it against many quality foes.
Step two is a tangential point, and also obvious: Mike Davis needs to get plenty of early-game touches in the paint. Against Tulsa, he was limited to just two shot attempts and relegated to a screen-setter on offense. With that approach, the team’s offensive shortcomings were on full display in the Illini’s worst offensive showing of the season. In the four games in which Davis has launched 10 or more shot attempts this season, the Illini have been far more efficient. He’s Illinois’ lone, consistent scoring threat in the paint, and the team needs to go back to him against Clemson.
Step three requires the Illini to ratchet up its perimeter defense. While the team is holding opponents to just 27.3% shooting from three-point range — good for 35th in the nation — that’s not necessarily due to a stellar defensive effort. Some of it is luck, and some of it is due to the quality of shooters Illinois has faced. Of the teams Illinois has played so far, only Vanderbilt (38.7%) features team shooting above 35% from beyond the arc. Clemson is shooting 40% thus far from three-point range.
Finally, box out! Clemson hits the glass hard — and well — on offense. They’ve been one of the nation’s premier offensive rebounding teams over the past season-plus. While the Illini hold a +5 rebounding margin per game this year, that margin nearly fades away entirely on the offensive glass.
Illinois has shown that its strength this season will be in its collective output. This year’s team has shown a remarkable knack for sharing the rock; as of Dec. 1 the Illini ranked No. 1 in the nation in assist percentage (74.7% of its possessions). The last time an Illini team was anywhere near that selfless with the rock was, to little surprise, 2004–05, when the school finished seventh in the country at 66.6% thanks to deft passing from Deron Williams, superb cutting from Luther Head and Dee Brown, and solid screens from the bigs. But for Illinois to remain undefeated — and to improve the Big Ten’s chances in the nearly hopeless struggle to steal bragging rights from the ACC — they’ll need to make certain they’re sharing the rock with both Mikes, and playing their most stringent perimeter defense of the season.
Clemson is the best non-conference foe the Illini will face. If the team has high hopes for playing in the NCAA Tourney, then they need to figure out a way to win this game.