How different is this Illinois team from last season’s?
NEW YORK - Florida has as much talent on their roster as just about any team in the country.
What’s more is that the Gators returned essentially every one from last season. The most basic formula for determining preseason projections is talent plus returners, so its no wonder that Florida was considered the favorite to win the SEC and made an appearance on quite a few preseason top tens.
But what Florida proved on Tuesday night during the Tip-Off Marathon -- a point that was made by more than one person during the game -- was that we, the media covering college hoops, neglected to look at the make-up of the team that was returning. Florida brought in uber-talented freshman forward Partic Young to help shore up their interior, but they did nothing to address their biggest weakness: the lack of a true point guard that can turn a jumbled mess of talented players into a team that can win games.
Ohio State exposed them. The Buckeyes torched the Gators in the second half, making many question whether Florida’s lack of roster turnover was, in fact, an achilles heel in disguise.
After watching Illinois suffer a disappointing, 90-84 overtime loss to Texas in the night cap of the Coaches vs. Cancer semifinals at Madison Square Garden, I can’t help but ask those same questions of Illinois.
The Illini are a talented team. There is no questioning that. Demetri McCamey is a scoring guard that became the nation’s leader in assists last season. Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson, known last year as a promising but inconsistent freshmen duo, are back for their sophomore seasons and McCamey’s sidekicks. Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis, and Meyers Leonard provide a long and versatile front court, while Bill Cole and Jereme Richmond are combo-forwards that give Bruce Weber the option of playing really big or really small.
On paper, this is a team that is good enough to contend for the Final Four.
But projected success on paper is far from a sure thing once the teams take the court.
And that was evident tonight for Illinois.
Look, I understand that the better team can take a loss on any given night in this sport. And I understand that, regardless of your opinion on Texas and Illinois, when the Illini get 9-31 shooting from Richardson and Paul and Texas has two kids play as well as Jordan Hamilton and Tristan Thompson did, its tough for Illinois to be victorious.
But I also know what I saw. I saw McCamey disappear in crunch time despite how well he was playing all game. I saw him make some of the same mistakes that he made last season -- questionable shot selection, poor decision making. And he did all of this despite wowing everyone in attendance, including myself, with an NBA level handle, court vision, and offensive repertoire.
Illinois will get better; they didn’t play well tonight. Richardson and Paul will shoot better than this the majority of the time. The Illini will become better defensively as the season progresses. They always do. There is no doubt in my mind that this team will compete for a spot in the top ten nationally and in the top three in the Big East.
But the difference between being competitive in a championship race and being a champion comes down to execution in the clutch. The teams that can gets the bucket, or the stop, when they have to have it are the teams that win the close games. The teams that win the close games are the teams that hang banners.
And tonight’s performance only strenghened my concern that Illinois is not a team that can perform down the stretch.