Column: Dear Bruce, it’s time for us to go big

By Lucas Deal

In a game that was as ugly as Shelden Williams, the Illinois basketball team rallied from a 14-point first-half deficit to defeat the alma mater of Walter Payton, Jackson State, 76-55 on Wednesday night at the Assembly Hall.

Illinois (2-0), playing without the services of starters Rich McBride, Brian Randle and Jamar Smith, fell behind 10-0 in the game’s opening minutes and trailed 31-19 with five minutes remaining in the first half before using a furious rally to tie the game at 34 entering halftime.

And yet despite the gritty win, the Illini proved to themselves, their coaches and nearly 16,000 of their fans that playing short-handed will be a much more difficult task than any one of them expected.

It’s going to take determination. It’s going to take patience. And it’s going to take a whole lot of sleepless nights for Illini head coach Bruce Weber, who somehow has to come up with a lineup that will work for the healthy players he still has.

Against Jackson State (0-3), Weber went primarily small. I think it’s time he go big.

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    Most of Illinois’ injuries and roster problems have occurred in their backcourt and, as a result, guards Chester Frazier, Calvin Brock and Trent Meacham have each played major minutes. On Wednesday, the three combined for 118 of Illinois’ 200 total minutes.

    That can’t continue, because sooner or later, one of them is going to get into foul trouble, and when they do, there’s nobody else on the bench to replace them.

    If Weber goes big, however, there will be.

    During Wednesday night’s game, Illinois’ 6’11” freshman center Brian Carlwell played 11 minutes. While Carlwell was in the game, the Illini outscored the Tigers 28-12. When he was out of play, the Illini were only five points better.

    Carlwell’s imposing presence in the paint forced Jackson State’s offense to the perimeter – so much so that at one point in the first half, Tigers star Trey Johnson attempted a Jimmy Chitwood-esque 30-footer to end a possession. Not surprisingly, it fell short.

    But it wasn’t just Carlwell. Illini forwards Warren Carter and Shaun Pruitt used their size to score 16 and 15 points, respectively, and Carter also snagged a career-high 15 rebounds.

    “In the first half, we felt the hi-low was open a lot,” Pruitt said. “We definitely wanted to get the ball inside and use our height to our advantage and we did that in the second half.”

    At this point in the season, with the offense still far from crisp, the team just seems stronger when it plays bigger. But that makes sense, I guess. It’s a whole lot easier to make a layup than a 20-footer.

    Jackson State (0-3) head coach Tevester Anderson agreed.

    “I thought their big guys really hurt us a lot, especially in the second half,” he said.

    The Illini have six games in the next 13 days before Maryland comes to the Assembly Hall for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. If the Illini expect to beat the Terps, they’ll need all three of their guards. There can’t be any more injuries, and there can’t be any fatigue.

    These six games will be tough, but there’s enough time to work something out. In the words of Warren Carter, “It’s gut-check time.”

    Lucas Deal is a senior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected].