Friday, January 28, 2011

Illinois: On the Bubble Again

(Photo: Indiana players celebrate Thursday's upset win over No. 20 Illinois: Darron Cummings, Champaign [IL] News-Gazette)

It's become a familiar refrain here at Drive and Dish, but we gave serious consideration to using this blog to predict an Indiana upset over No. 20 Illinois yesterday. Unfortunately, yesterday's beginning-to-end, tightly-packed schedule didn't permit us the time required to write a coherent, quality blog post. But we thought that last night's game looked to be an obvious "trap game" for the always mercurial Fighting Illini: Illinois was coming off a hard-fought, nail-biting, nationally-televised home loss to to No. 1 Ohio State and was expected to make amends by rolling over an injury-riddled, last-place opponent on the road.

As long as the sun comes up in the east, Bruce Weber's Illini can be expected to follow up a heart-breaking loss in which they "choke" at the end of a nationally-televised "big game" against a highly ranked opponent (Illinois' usual "big game" result), with an unforeseen, almost laughable, quickie loss to a lower-regarded opponent. Such "let down" losses are usually the result of Illinois' players overlooking their supposedly "inferior" opponents, and accordingly, forgetting to "show up."

If you're a smart gambler, you always bet against Illinois.

And once again, it's too bad we didn't get the chance to make our prediction, because, true to form, No. 20 Illinois suffered a humiliating 52-49 road loss to struggling Indiana Thursday night in Bloomington, IN.

With the upset win, the Hoosiers notched their mere seventh Big Ten conference win -- and their first win over an opponent ranked in the AP Top 25 -- since Tom Crean became head coach of the once-great, but recently-moribund program three years ago. Making matters worse for Illinois was the fact that the depleted Hoosiers were without both of their starting guards, Verdell Jones and Maurice Creek.

Illinois' record now drops to 14-7 overall, and to an eye-opening 4-4 in Big Ten play. Indiana improved to a meager 11-10 overall, and 2-6 in the Big Ten. What makes Illinois' most recent letdown loss all the more galling for Illini fans is the fact that, once again, Illinois has failed to live up to lofty preseason expectations. Most analysts had expected the upperclassmen-laden Illini to compete for the 2011 Big Ten conference title and to be a major player in the NCAA Tournament in March. But now with the Big Ten title out of reach, Illinois finds itself in an all-too-familiar place -- sitting directly atop the NCAA Tournament bubble.

College basketball fans may remember that Illinois was widely expected to do big things last year. However, the 2009-2010 team spent the season with a figurative ball and chain affixed to an ankle after it sauntered its way into back-to-back embarrassing upset losses at the hands of Utah and Bradley in the 2009 Las Vegas Invitational Thanksgiving Tournament. Despite high preseason expectations, the 2010 Illini muddled their way through what turned out to be a challenging schedule, and limped into the final week of the season as one of the most high profile teams on the proverbial NCAA Tournament "bubble." Ultimately, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee left Illinois out of the Tournament field, and the Illini ended their disappointing 2010 season with an ugly home loss to Dayton in the N.I.T.

This season was supposed to be different. Heading into the inaugural 2010-2011 tip-off, Illinois looked good on paper. First, they had the distinction of being the tallest team in college basketball. Their roster had two players who stood at least seven feet tall, and they had a returning starting front line that went 7'1", 6'9" and 6'9," respectively. Second, Illinois featured a promising coterie of experienced upperclassman, talented sophomores and highly-touted freshmen from the much-hyped 2010 Illini recruiting class. But perhaps most importantly, Illinois entered the season with the ace-in the-hole of being led by a standout senior point guard, Demetri McCamey. And that seemed to bode extremely well for the Illini, since point guards are the lifeblood of college basketball. Want to look like a genius when filling out your NCAA Tournament bracket? Pick teams that are led by tough, experienced, standout point guards. Your brackets will thank you.

Unfortunately for Illinois, all their size, talent (or purported talent) and experience hasn't been enough to turn their fortunes around from last year. First team All Big Ten senior point guard Demetri McCamey, senior power forward Mike Davis, senior center Mike Tisdale and senior forward Bill Cole have loads of experience, but they have yet to exhibit consistent toughness, intensity, competitiveness and determination to win. That amounts to a lack of leadership. And it shows in the results, as the Illini are quickly spiraling their way out of being in legitimate NCAA Tournament contention.

This past Saturday, llinois gave undefeated, No. 1 Ohio State all it could handle in the friendly confines (for the Illini--not so friendly for visiting teams) of Assembly Hall in Champaign, IL. But predictably, Ohio State's much-vaunted inside game, led by super freshman Jared Sullinger, wore the Illini down late in the game. And ultimately, the Illini came up short of pulling off an upset win over the No. 1 team in college basketball. That wouldn't have been a problem for Illinois if the Illini had come out of Bloomington, IN, with a "W" last night (as they were supposed to do). Close losses to good teams don't hurt you in the eyes of the Tournament Selection Committee when you've got a good record, you have plenty of impressive wins over good teams, you have a string of road wins, and you win the games that you're supposed to win. But close losses to good teams won't help you get you into the NCAA Tournament when you're bogged down with multiple embarrassing losses to bad teams, when you don't win games on the road (Illinois is currently 1-3 on the road), and when you fall to teams that you're supposed to beat.

Illinois was supposed to be good this year. But once again, they've failed to live up to expectations. And once again, they're in big trouble with regard to their prospects for making it in to the NCAA Tournament.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Florida State Upsets No. 1 Duke

Yesterday, Drive and Dish returned to posting about basketball (sort of) when we explained why we didn't run a blog post predicting a Penn State upset win over No. 16 Illinois, despite the fact that we expected Penn State to win. It's become routine for Penn State to upset Illinois. It happens almost every year. Illinois may have been heavily favored to win Tuesday night's game, but Penn State has had Illinois' number over the years.

Similarly, the mighty Duke basketball program has been upended by unheralded Florida State several times in recent years. Just as Illinois always seems to struggle when they play at Penn State, Duke seems to struggle when they're ranked No. 1 and they play Florida State on the road in Tallahassee. Florida St. upset a top-ranked Duke team in 2002 and upset another top-ranked Duke team in 2006. We never, however, imagined that Duke would have trouble with Florida State this year. Given Duke's previously unblemished record, season-long No. 1 ranking (obviously, having a No. 1 ranking doesn't mean that a team is unbeatable; we cite Duke's No. 1 ranking only because Duke has been the clear No. 1 team this year), and seeming clear superiority over all other teams in college basketball this year, we figured that coach Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils would take the Seminoles out pretty easily this time.

We were wrong.

Florida State upset Duke 66-61.

The loss won't set Duke back much, if at all. In fact, it may not be a bad thing that Duke got the "undefeated" monkey off their backs in the second week of January. They won't have to slog through their ACC intra-conference schedule with the added pressure of trying to be the first team to go undefeated since Bob Knight's 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. They weren't going to go undefeated anyway. Nobody does that in today's game. Now they can stay entirely focused on winning the conference, winning the ACC Tournament, and winning the NCAA title.

(Photo -- Florida State fans rush the court after Florida upsets No. 1 Duke: AP Photo/Steve Cannon)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

No. 16 Illinois "Upset" by Penn State

After nearly two years of alternating between semi-dormancy and full-on dormancy, Drive and Dish returned to semi-active status (or semi-dormancy for all you "glass half empty" types) with two posts apiece in November and December. But despite our new-found blogging second wind (or relative second wind), we've yet to weigh in on basketball since the 2010-2011 basketball season started -- and we're a blog that's devoted to discussing basketball.

That almost changed yesterday as yours truly gave momentary consideration to penning a quick blog post that would predict a Penn State upset win over No. 16 Illinois, in anticipation of last night's contest between the Nittany Lions and the visiting Fighting Illini. For the Illini, the game was widely expected to produce a routine mid-week win against a mediocre in-conference opponent. The "win" would boost coach Bruce Weber's surging Illini to 4-0 in Big Ten conference play, and coming off of consecutive impressive beat-downs of Wisconsin and Northwestern, set the stage for what promised to be an epic rematch with No. 20 Wisconsin on Saturday at the Kohl Center in Madison, WI. But since 2006, Illinois has struggled mightily in each of their matches with Penn St. And the buzz around the water cooler at the Drive and Dish corporate headquarters on Tuesday morning was that Illinois would likely come out flat against an opponent that they would characteristically overlook -- despite the fact that Penn State upset Michigan State on Saturday, and despite being, no doubt, implored repeatedly by Bruce Weber and staff not to overlook them -- and get knocked off by a hungrier, if less talented Penn St. team. Again.

But shortly after our editorial staff decided to get to work on an early morning post predicting a Penn State upset win over Illinois, the rapidly increasing daylight began to reveal the effects of a significant overnight snowfall. And that meant that we immediately had to scrap the idea for the blog post and get to work on a quickie round of snow-shoveling. Unfortunately, the rest of the day never yielded adequate time for us to return to work on our Penn State vs. Illinois post. So we didn't get to make our bold prediction.

Later in the day we got to thinking about it, and realized that since Penn State has pulled off an "upset" win over Illinois in something like every season since 2006, an Illinois road win over Penn State might actually be the bigger upset, regardless of what line the Las Vegas odds makers had set for the game. And when Illinois opened the game ... you guessed it ... flat, against the fired-up Nittany Lions, we were more or less glad that we hadn't posted our prediction. As of last night, Illinois has been "flat" against Penn State just about every time the two teams have faced each other for five years. Therefore, it can hardly be considered "going out on a limb" to predict an underwhelming showing by Illinois when they play coach Ed DeChellis' Nittany Lions.

As it happens, Penn State indeed upset No. 16 Illinois last night, 57-55. If we'd posted our prediction yesterday, we'd be able spend today gloating and telling everyone "told you so." But since we don't like gloating, or saying "told you so" (and don't like people who do), we wouldn't be cashing those chips in anyway. Besides, by now, there's really nothing all that bold about predicting a Penn State "upset" win over Illinois ... it's too predictable.