Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Game Preview: Oakland at Illinois

Game 9: Oakland (5-3) at Illinois (8-1)
Wednesday, December 8, 2010 | 8:00pm

Oakland enters a four-game swing which features games at Illinois, at The Palace against Michigan State, at Tennessee, and at Michigan. Three of those teams are currently ranked in the Top 25 in the nation, and Michigan has proven to be no slouch with its recent road victory over Clemson. Needless to say, this might be one of the toughest stretches of games the program has ever had. Fortunately, the Golden Grizzlies have won four in a row, including two spectacular performances at home over the weekend, so their confidence level should be high heading into the game with Illinois. The Fighting Illini have looked very strong early on, which their 8-1 record clearly indicates. Their sole loss was on a neutral court to Texas in overtime, and they also have wins over Maryland, North Carolina, and Gonzaga.

Making It Rain
This year's Illinois team has a lot of talent, including a few future pros, at nearly every position on the court. They can beat opponents in several different ways but are particularly lethal when they make it rain from deep. As a team, the Fighting Illini are shooting 41.4% from beyond the arc, good for 20th in the nation. But this isn't a team that just jacks up treys all night long; they can also defend the perimeter extremely well, as they are currently allowing opponents to shoot just 26.8% from deep which is 22nd in all of Division I. The team's offensive 3FG% is lessened a bit by lower shooting percentages from forwards Tyler Griffey and Bill Cole. What's really scary is that their four biggest threats from deep are shooting a combined 46.6%, led by Demetri McCamey's 52.8% and D.J. Richardson's 50.0% marks. Brandon Paul also loves to shoot the three-ball, and 7-footer Mike Tisdale can go out there and knock a few shots down as well. Essentially, this team is capable of knocking down half of their three-pointers when needed. Against Gonzaga on Saturday, the Illini opened the second half by scoring 10 of their first 11 baskets from downtown. If they are allowed a run like that against Oakland, the end result will be quite lopsided.

With all of its games against Big Ten opponents, Oakland enthusiasts don't just get to see good basketball teams, they also get to see some of the country's best student sections in action. In our preview of the Purdue game, we highlighted The Paint Crew as one of the most regimented, uniform student sections in all of college basketball. Against Illinois, we'll see a wilder bunch in The Orange Krush which sits as close to the floor as any student section out there. Oakland's Grizz Gang has come a long way, but it can always learn from watching some of these Big Ten groups. The Illini student supporters are perhaps best known in the Big Ten for the spectacles they put on during road games. Seemingly every year, hoards of students buy tickets to away games, go to the arena clad in the opposing school's colors, and then reveal their true colors - that vibrant orange - in a swift move during the Illinois player introductions. Thanks to modern technology, we can actually see this happen during a game at Iowa here. Although the Grizz Gang has given Oakland a great fan presence at the IPFW away game, we can't help but think how great it would be if the OU students were able to adopt this model for games in the future. While Summit League games might be out of the question due to distance, there will likely be opportunities to travel to an Ohio-based school during the non-conference season in the future. The opposing school's fans would never forget something like that.

Key Personnel Match-Up
Keith Benson/Will Hudson vs. Mike Davis/Mike Tisdale
Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale together give Illinois the most seasoned frontcourt in the Big Ten this season. They are both seniors, average approximately 11 points and 7 rebounds per game, and have skillsets that could be utilized at the next level. Similarly, Oakland's downlow duo of Keith Benson and Will Hudson has looked dominant already in Summit League play, and they level the playing field a bit against the high major teams. Benson & Hudson versus Mike & Mike should be a fun match-up to watch, though the sexier match-up would feature Benson on Davis more often than not, as both are the stronger NBA prospects of the bunch. Davis is far from a true center and may not even be the typical NBA power forward, but he can bang in the post and knock down mid-range jumpers with the best of them. He reminds me a bit of a guy like Jeff Green of the Oklahoma City Thunder, capable of doing just about whatever his team needs with his versatility. Benson can guard guys like Davis and even replicate how they get their offense, but as a fan I'd love to see him try to out-muscle both him and Tisdale. The 7'1" Tisdale has a bit of finesse to his game which can stretch defenses, but it'd be interesting to see what Oakland could do against him if Benson and Hudson force him to play exclusively inside.

Illinois Player To Watch: Jereme Richmond
Jereme Richmond hasn't been the most talked about freshman in the nation this season, but he certainly has the abilities to put himself in that discussion based on potential. He's a guy who NBA talent evaluators love for his size, length, and athleticism. Once some of these seniors graduate, Richmond's production will surely skyrocket as he gets more minutes. The freshman is a 6'7" wing with a diverse skillset, but what gives him an edge against Oakland is his ability to get to the basket. In the game against Texas, it was Richmond who had the ball in his hands to send the game to overtime, something he achieved with a quick stab to the basket and great shot fake that led to an easy lay-in against solid defensive pressure. Oakland's guards will have their hands full with McCamey, Brandon Paul, and D.J. Richardson, but if there is one area where the Golden Grizzlies might not have a match, it's against a guy like Richmond.

Oakland Player To Watch: Travis Bader
Against Oakland's two biggest opponents, Travis Bader has shot 46% from deep. In the other six games, the redshirt freshman has a mark of just 32%. Maybe it's the bright lights, but Bader has made his presence known in Oakland's BCS road games this season. He hasn't been quite as effective from deep since the Southern game, so hopefully the team's return to a big arena will reinvigorate the three-point threat. The Golden Grizzlies will need every point they can get against Illinois, so a confident Travis Bader would surely go a long way in keeping the game close.

Oakland has played at Illinois two times in the back-to-back years of 2003 and 2004. The results were oddly similar: an 88-53 loss in 2003 and an 85-54 loss in 2004. Interestingly, Oakland's loss to Illinois in 2004 was but a minor blip for the Fighting Illini that season, the one in which they very nearly went undefeated, losing just their final Big Ten game of the regular season and to North Carolina in the national championship. Oakland was also that same North Carolina team's first round opponent in the NCAA Tournament that year as a 16-seed, a game which the Grizzlies lost 96-68. Judging by their win margins over Oakland, Illinois was the better team that year by three points!

Opponent Q&A
We checked in with Joe from the Illinois blog Hail To The Orange to get his opinion on a few our thoughts and questions.
We've seen Brandon Paul enter the starting line-up in two of the last three games in place of Bill Cole. What contributed to that move, and how do you feel the team performs with three guards in the line-up to begin games?

Joe: The biggest factor has been Bill Cole's move from being a moderate contributor on offense to falling almost completely off of the radar. He is still one of the stronger defenders on the team but he has had some trouble being the threat on the court that the team needs. Despite Cole's size he basically plays a guard position anyhow, so for the rotation it doesn't really change much.

Demetri McCamey's offensive numbers are strong and he's shooting a pretty remarkable percentage, but I know a lot of folks wanted to see some consistency from him on the defensive end. How do you feel about his defensive play through the first month of the season?

Joe: He has picked it up quite a bit. He isn't really a liability on defense, and you couldn't always say that in the past. He won't be a guy we put on a the other team's PG but he keeps up with the two guard and he will not shy away from contact, so by all means come at him if you think he will let you through uncontested. Its never going to be his strength, but lord knows with as much work as he has to do on offense, he may have earned to take a few defensive possessions off.

Aside from the starters and Jereme Richmond, which Illinois player in your mind has the ability to make an impact on the game, whether offensively or defensively, against a mid-major opponent like Oakland? In other words, which unheralded player should we watch out for in this game?

Joe: Meyers Leonard is a seven foot tall ball of basketball excitement. He will be whenever Tisdale needs a spell and he will probably get increased minutes in a game like this. He is the opposite of Tisdale in a lot of ways. He gets his points at the hoop with power and physicality and might have one of the most spectacular dunking talents on the team. I am just glad to know we have 3 more seasons to see this kid develop.

The Fighting Illini haven't had any major missteps so far this season, even against some tougher opponents. What is it that defines this year's Illini squad so far? Any weaknesses?

Joe: Weakness is what it has been for the last three seasons. We don't have a true powerful inside presence, we slide out, we get pushed out of position, we don't go strong to the hoop and we tend to get out rebounded. That said, our big men, Mike and Mike, are very good at the game that they play, if you give them an open shot they are going to bury it from the baseline. If you lay off of our guards they will kill you with jump shots. We play off of the screen and roll as well as anyone can and we get a lot of mileage out of it.

Thanks to Joe for answering our questions. In Hail To The Orange's preview, they have anticipated an easy win for Illinois, something they are not alone in thinking. In its Weekly Watch post, highlighted the Illini as its team of the week which featured this money quote: "Illinois still has one more major nonconference event: the Border War against Missouri in St. Louis. If it wins that toss-up game, Bruce Weber's group should be 12-1 heading into the rugged Big Ten season." Now it's very uncommon for mid-majors to take down ranked opponents that are clearly proven, but it seems folks are overlooking Oakland just a bit. One can be sure that Bruce Weber and his staff have not overlooked this game, so regardless of what the media thinks, the Fighting Illini team will be ready for the Golden Grizzlies.

The Extra Pass
The interesting thing about this year's Illinois squad is that it largely features the same pieces as last season, one that did not even result in an NCAA Tournament appearance. Granted, D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul are sophomores now and presumably have grown, but the core of McCamey, Davis, and Tisdale has been around for a while now. This team looks better than last season's already, but if that is the case, then it's because of something other than talent, as Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis notes:

When Illinois players walk into their locker room, a simple question greets them on the greaseboard: Boys or men? The words were put there by Illini coach Bruce Weber last spring after his team's season ended ignominiously with a quarterfinal loss in the NIT. Weber recognized that his players had talent. What they lacked was toughness, physical and especially mental. That's why they folded down the stretch, dropping five of their last seven games to miss out on the NCAA tournament.

The most palpable change can be seen in the physiques of Illinois' two senior big men, 7-1 center Mike Tisdale and 6-9 power forward Mike Davis. They are finesse players who would rather face up than post up, but now they are carrying considerably more muscle. Tisdale added 30 pounds in the weight room in the offseason. Davis gained 15. Both were by design. "Tisdale can shoot it, but midway through the Big Ten season he quit posting up," Weber said. "Same thing with Mike Davis. He'd get his double-double, but it was a quiet double-double. You never watched him and thought, 'Wow, he just took that rebound away from somebody.' "

Toughness is also a matter of leadership. That's where McCamey comes in -- and goes missing. Last season, he ranked second in the nation in assists per game (7.1), and he was 11th in the Big Ten in scoring (15.1). However, he was also 11th in minutes played at 34.5 per game, and that took a toll. "We depended on him so much. He had to handle the ball every time, make every play, play almost every minute," Weber said. "He tended to rest a little bit on the defensive end."

Like Davis, McCamey put his name in the NBA draft and then returned to school. The scouts and general managers McCamey talked to were all impressed with his offensive abilities. The two things they wanted to see from him were more consistent effort on the defensive end and evidence that he can lead a winning team. Now, Weber reminds McCamey at every opportunity that playing D won't just help the Illini. It will also help his future.

When the Illini are able to combine their talent with that inherent drive to win, they can be a pretty scary team. They haven't had a letdown yet this season, and if they do, will it come at home? The Golden Grizzlies have some interesting players who can compete with the Illini players, but to go into Champaign and pull the upset against this squad would require an absolute beast of a performance. As Grizzlies fans, let's hope for one!

To get in on the Oakland-Illinois conversation, you can head over to the Golden Grizzly Hoops forum to post with other fans before, during, and after the game: Game Thread.

1 comment: