Illini basketball needs star player for crunch time, better results at line

By Jeremy Werner

Everything seemed to be going perfectly. The Illini basketball team jumped out to a 12-0 lead over Arizona five minutes into the first half and held the lead until the final minute of the second half.

But that final minute plus the five overtime minutes were a microcosm of this year’s version of Illini basketball: The team is just one player away.

To the Illini’s credit, most of the players played a great game. Shaun Pruitt came out of a seasonlong scoring funk, exploding for 24 points on 10-of-11 from the field.

Trent Meacham also continued to give the Illini an outside scoring threat, tallying 16 points, including 3-of-6 from three-point range.

Calvin Brock continued to be a welcome surprise, scoring 11 points, including a clutch fadeaway jumper with 40 seconds left in regulation to give the Illini a short-lived lead. Brian Randle also added 11 points, but his biggest impact was teaming with Brock to limit All-American candidate Chase Budinger to no field goals in regulation.

Even with solid performances by most of their starters, the Orange and Blue could not finish off the Wildcats. The Illini had possession with 10 seconds in regulation but did not have the man to take the shot.

Chester Frazier brought the ball up, and like so many last-second plays this season, Frazier could not find an opening and was forced to throw up a prayer. Although it could be debated why Chester Frazier, a career 33.9 percent shooter, had the ball in the final minutes with the game on the line, the argument would be pointless because the Illini simply do not have the guy to take that shot.

Even Bruce Weber knows it.

“We got to find somebody to make some plays at the end of the game for us to find a way to win a close game against a good team,” Weber said. “We need someone who can create, and I’m not sure we have that at this point.”

Illinois has had two opportunities in the past few weeks to boost its NCAA Tournament resume by defeating quality opponents like Maryland and Arizona. With the losses, the Illini’s streak of eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances might be endangered.

So who can the Illini go to with the game on the line?

The most logical guy to take the final shot for the Illini would be Meacham, but even he missed a potential game-winning free throw with 21 seconds remaining. In fact, the Illini had plenty of opportunities to win the game by sinking just one free throw.

The Orange and Blue finished the game 10-of-22 on free throws, dropping the season team percentage from the “charity stripe” to 58.8 percent. The Illini have shot only two fewer free throws than their opponents (160), but have converted on 30 fewer attempts (94).

Pruitt is the Illini’s best offensive threat but a post player is limited in last-second situations because it is difficult to create one’s own shot in the paint.

Brian Randle is the best at creating his own shot, but unless he gets around the rim, the shot is not too reliable.

Calvin Brock has shown increased confidence lately, but like Randle does not have the shot consistency to be reliable.

Weber’s solution?

“Get better players, I guess,” Weber said. “Somebody that can create.”

You know Weber said this with a tear in his eye because he thought he had found that guy.

He just happens to be one of the nation’s leading scorers, too. He’s just doing it for the Indiana Hoosiers.

Say it with me one time, Illini Nation, “Freaking Eric Gordon!”

Now let it go. It’s done. Over. Time to move on.

So what are the Illini to do without that star player?

The main thing is for the Illini to stay aggressive throughout the game.

The team seems to lose its killer instinct after building up a big lead, but that’s a big no-no when your offense is far from reliable. Meacham, Brock and especially Randle need to continually attack the basket as the Illini enter their Big Ten schedule.

But very simply, the Illini need to make their free throws. These guys put in hours of free-throw shooting a week, but it does not seem to be working. So, Coach Weber, let’s bring in Rick Barry to teach the players how to shoot the granny shot. My high-school coach gave us gold stars on a poster board if we shot more than 60 percent from the free-throw line in a game, maybe that would give the Fighting Illini incentive.

Hey, it can’t get any worse … can it?

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