We all know how crucial of a game this is today. Gonzaga enters the Battle in Seattle with a bit of a limp while Illinois is coming off a good looking win against North Carolina. These two teams locked up for a beauty last year that Gonzaga was able to squeak out. While a lot of Illinois' cast is similar to last season, there are still a few unknowns about this Big Ten power. To help us fill in the blanks, Joe Kutsunis from the excellent SB Nation blog 'Hail to the Orange' . Joe has a lot of insight about this very good team....Gonzaga is in for a tough one. Enjoy!
The Slipper Still Fits: An NIT bid last season could not have been what the Illini faithful were expecting. What happened down the stretch last season (besides playing in the murderous Big 10) that knocked this team out of NCAA Tournament contention and have you seen improvements on that so far this season?
Hail to the Orange: The biggest reason for not making the dance is how we fared in the non conference, and not just losing to very good Gonzaga and Missouri teams. Our losses to RPI basement dwellers Bradley and Utah absolutely killed our resume, and we never got enough high quality wins to pull ourselves fully out of the hole. Had we won against Gonzaga, or at least not lost to Bradley, we may very well have snuck in.
TSSF: Gonzaga and Illinois provided one of the more exciting games of the 2009-10 season. After your recent win over North Carolina, Bruce Weber said "We owe Gonzaga". Is this a game that Illinois fans have been looking forward to since January?
HTTO: I know that I have been, at the very least, and if anyone on the Illini felt raw about last year's loss it would be Demetri. He is from Chicago, and takes the games he plays at the United Center very seriously, because of what it means to every Chicago kid. I think he felt that he had a great performance last year that was overshadowed by defensive lapses, and he wants badly to get one back. All of that is fine with me, because I always prefer him motivated over uninterested.
more Q&A after the jump....
TSSF: Demetri McCamey is about as good as it gets at the point guard position. What are his greatest strengths and how has he been slowed down in the past?
HTTO: Demetri plays the point guard position as well as anyone I have seen in an Illini uniform, and I believe he is among the best in the country. There are PG's that will have more points or better moves in the lane, but nobody has the complete package like he does. He sees the court very well, knows where everyone is supposed to be and when to get the ball to them and has complimented his passing with poise in the lane and a team best 51% shooting from beyond the arc. Offensively, very few people have been able to do much to shut him down. On defense in the past he has been a liability, and still isn't one of the better defenders on the team, that said, he is much more involved so far on that end this year, and he isn't a liability at the very least.
TSSF: Last year and possibly this season, it seems like the key has been the front court and their consistency. How has Mike Davis looked so far and does the frontcourt still concern the Illinois fanbase?
HTTO: Mike Davis had a big game against North Carolina, getting a double double with 20 points. He doesn't worry me all that much, in spite of the fact that he can disappear for long stretches and get down on himself, we still get much more good out of him than bad. Who does worry me is Tisdale. He has really struggled this year defensively. He is one of the smartest players on the floor and an asset in the late minutes of a close game because of his free throw shooting ability, but because he is caught out of position on defense he gets dumb fouls and neutralizes himself. Tisdale staying out of foul trouble is huge, even if it means he doesn't score or rebound very much at all.
TSSF: We're big in to recruiting on our site. One of the best recruits of last year's cycle was Jereme Richmond and he was a huge get for Bruce Weber. His stats look nice but what kind of impact has he made so far in this young season?
HTTO: He adds stuff we needed but didn't have last year. He has rebounding toughness and scoring skill in close to the basket, and might be the only player on our team who can (or will at least) drive baseline. He is a big kid that can create his own shot, which is huge when our set offense is disrupted, and it seems every time there is a big game on TV he takes another big step forward. If for no other reason that the minutes he is getting this year would have gone to tough but low scoring Bill Cole, Jereme is a huge addition to the team.
TSSF: Lastly, finish this sentence, Illinois will beat Gonzaga if
HTTO: We don't let Gonzaga get too many offensive rebounds and we have a good shooting night. We might be over matched up front but I will take our guards over nearly anyone else (within reason) if we get our offense going and at least play tough defense we can win. If we try and slog it out inside with your bigs I don't like our chances. I foresee another high scoring affair, just like last year, 78-73 Illini.