Good ‘D’ carries over to ’07 but ‘O’ lacks a true shooter

By Jeremy Werner

Illinois struggled out of the gate against Northeastern but its suffocating defense and athleticism keyed the Fighting Illini to a 63-55 victory against the Huskies. The Illini were able to avoid an embarrassing loss in their season opener to a much weaker team, unlike ranked USC and Kentucky. The victory was a glimpse of what’s to come for the Illini, both good and bad.

Illinois’ defense was again superb, holding the Huskies to 29 percent shooting, including 15 percent from behind the three-point line. With Frazier and Randle, Illinois has two players who can give opposing teams’ best players fits. The Illini were fourth in the nation last year in scoring defense, limiting opponents to 57.1 points per game. Illinois will likely be one of the best defensive teams in the nation again this season, and it will need to be with an offense that will struggle to score more than 60 points a game.

Shaun Pruitt was the focal point of the offense for the Illini on Sunday but struggled early on, finishing with 12 points on five of 14 shooting. He again will shoulder the offensive load for the rest of the season but needs help. Illinois shot a paltry 29.4 percent from the floor in the first half.

Bruce Weber needs a scoring threat from the outside and it doesn’t look like he has very many options. The Illini only made three of their 15 three-point attempts. Trent Meacham looked aggressive shooting eight times but only made two out of six three-pointers. Steve Holdren showed he has a pretty jumper but he struggles to create his own shot, limiting his productivity. He had only three shot attempts Sunday, converting on two.

Randle remains the key to the Illini’s offensive success, and he showed why on Sunday. Randle scored 14 points against the Huskies mostly on breakaway dunks and lay-ups around the basket. But early foul trouble limited Randle to 22 minutes. When Randle is on the floor, the Illini offense is much more dangerous as long as he stays aggressive. He needs to remain assertive on defense, but if he continues to get into foul trouble the Illini will be limited in what they can do offensively.

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    The Illini also continued to shoot horribly from the free throw line, making only eight out of 16 attempts. I’m sure each player shoots hundreds of free throws a week, but sooner or later Illinois will need to be able to convert more than 65 percent of its free throws if it wants to make it to its ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament.

    Weber substituted early and often against the Huskies. Twelve players entered the game for the Illini. The frequent substitutions kept the players fresh which helped the Illini keep the game fast-paced, leading to several forced turnovers and breakaway alley-oops. Speaking of which, Randle and Rodney Alexander could probably give 2007 NBA Slam Dunk Contest winner Gerald Green a run for his money.

    Illinois’ depth is its biggest strength and Weber obviously doesn’t want to sacrifice any of it, as freshmen Bill Cole, Mike Davis, Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale and walk-on Jeffrey Jordan all received playing time, meaning none will redshirt. Weber said that the freshman class was better than he anticipated and it looks like he will rely on it to play a big part of the Illini’s season. Weber could still redshirt sophomore center Brian Carlwell, whose role has been overtaken by the 7-foot-1 Tisdale.

    With so many freshmen playing significant playing time, Illinois will make mistakes. The Orange and Blue turned the ball over 15 times against Northeastern and cannot do the same against the top tier of the NCAA and expect to win.

    Some of the Illini’s struggles may have been a case of first game jitters, but they need to sharpen up quickly before they play some elite competition in the Maui Invitational. But Illinois also showed some promise Sunday. An intense defense, depth and amplified athleticism could help the Illini overcome their inexperience and shooting woes and should keep them among the top five teams in the Big Ten this season.

    Jeremy Werner is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected].