Monday, November 22, 2004

Jackets Escape from Chicago With Win 60-59

Tonight the Jackets are FORTUNATE to leave the city of Chicago with a victory, beating U of Illinois-Chicago 60-59. Escape, squeek out, eek, edge – doesn’t matter what word you use, UIC had an excellent game plan, executed and played to our weakness. The good news is that we did get a victory and being exposed like this will give the team plenty to work on during practice.

The subplot of the night was Will Bynum's return to his hometown, where he is a "playground legend". Interesting, UIC's star player, Cedric Banks has a history against Bynum. Willie B had never beaten a C.Banks team through high school, which included 4 head-to-head contests. It almost become 5-0. It was nice to see those two guys after the game walking off the court together laughing and hugging.

Now, you have to give UIC credit. Cedric Banks really played well, consistently breaking our defenders down off the dribble and hitting shots. He ended with 23 points, 7 boards, 2 assists, 3 steals, 3 to's. A great night, but the only UIC player in double-figures. But they didn't turn the ball over a lot (12), they ran good screens, handled the ball well, and had a nice transition offense.

Let's talk about the Jackets, and I am going to focus on the areas that seem to need work, but don't want to sound too negative. We all know it is early and the team is learning to play together again and it is a different team. So with that, here are my thoughts.

1.BREAK THE ZONE. In both games, teams have decided to the play zone defense and force the Jackets to hit outside shots. Both nights we didn’t get that done. Tonight the Jackets went 4-21 from 3pt range (19%). BJ Elder went 3-10, so he was the only one coming close. To be honest, most of the time we looked lost and didn't know what to do in the half-court offense. There were a small handful of plays where the team got aggressive and found the opening in the zone and pounded the ball inside. But those times were few and far between. Mostly we either settled for a 3pt shot or turned the ball over. We have got to get more effective at our half-court sets or teams will continue to zone-up and pack'em down low. Have to make shots.

You know what - this is the same thing we were saying after 5 games last season. Paul Hewitt has this team so focused on being a defensive team that they seem weak in half-court sets. In a team profile on the "Southern Sports Show" after the game, Paul Hewitt said their goal is to be the best defensive team in the country. He even said - I'm sure those guys think about offense occasionally (laughing), but they understand that offensive opportunities come after solid defense and getting out on the break. Well, unfortunately there just hasn't been a lot of transition offense.

2.INTENSITY. This team is known for full intensity throughout the game. I thought there were stretches tonight where they didn't have it. Just a mental thing.

3.TURNOVERS. We didn't protect the ball tonight, with 19 turnovers. Jarrett Jack had 7 to's, Bynum 4, Muhammad & Schenscher 3. Just not a good night fundamentally. Coach says that he can accept mistakes due to aggressive play. However, many of those turnovers were NOT the result of intense UIC defense or aggressive GT offense. One turnover at halfcourt came when Bynum was looking back at Coach Hewitt for the play and the UIC guard pounced on the ball - direction arrow UIC. Not only that, many of the turnovers were the result of...........

4.LAZY PASSING. Boy does this one frustrate me. We start our half-court offense and cannot figure out how to break the zone, so we just pass the ball WAY out on the perimeter. And we get lazy and we lose focus. Lazy passes, No initial fake before the pass. Just look at the guy and telegraph him the ball. At one point, UIC obviously had gotten instructions to start overplaying the passing lanes way out top. And it worked, with back-to-back terrible to's. Elder throws a lazy pass that is picked off, Bynum gets careless and misses a pass that gets stolen. Frustrating, but nothing they can't fix.

Once again, this is EXACTLY the same thing we went through at times last year. And things are all interconnected. It is a result of an inability to break the zone. Last year we ended up HANDING the ball to each guy instead of passing it at times.

5.REBOUNDING. Ok, we outrebounded UIC 36-31, but this is a team about 3 inches shorter than GT at every position, and they lost their tallest guy for the last few minutes of the game. At the half I beleive we were being out-rebounded. Just basics of blocking out. I worry about this going against teams similar in size. Again, remember this was an issue last year.

Luke had 9 boards, Muhammad 7, and Jeremis Smith had 6. Smith was a bright spot and 3 of his boards were offensive. I thought Smith handled himself well, also dishing out a couple of assists. I will give him a hard time - his first collegiate shot was a brick, but hey, it's his first shot ever. To his credit he later came to the stripe and knocked down his only 2 free throws. And that's big because......

6.FREE THROWS. Wow. We struggled again. 10-18 from the stripe. Game 1 versus Al.St - 17-28. Hhhhmmmmm. That's 59% for the year. Bottom-line - we will LOSE games this season if we do not improve. But improving free throws is like herding cats - no magic way to do it. Probably more mental than anything. Bynum went 0-4 from the line. Luke hit two key FT's at the end to put us up by one, but Muhammad was 2-6 at the stripe and missed the front end of a one-and-one with 6 seconds that could have provided more than the 1 point cushon. There is one, maybe two guys I want at the line at the end of the game - #1 J.Jack #2 L.Schenscher.

7. TOUCHES FOR LUKE. There were long stretches where Luke didn't get touches, and we are more effective in the halfcourt when he touches the ball, whether he passes or shoots. With the height advantage he should have tried more shots in the post. Just didn't get the ball enough. Luke finished with 8 points on 3-5 shooting, but he also had 4 assists. So clearly, good things happen when Luke touches the ball.

8. THE FRESHMAN. Well, I mentioned Jeremis Smith, and he was the only freshman to get minutes. No Morrow, Fredrick or Dickey. Guess we are just going to have to see how things progress. I think it was clear from the start that Smith would see action, but I think some people are surprised that Dickey has not gotten any time yet. But it's early and Coach knows best. After all, the goal is winning games. I just shake my head and think - I never imagined the day where we recruit 4 top 100 kids, and not only can none of them crack the starting line-up, but they have a hard time earning minutes. Is this really GT basketball? Kidding of course. After the Cremins years I am having a hard time coming to terms with this. Of course when you have 5 seniors and a junior PG leader, that happens.

Again, these comments are not to be negative. Just observations from a tough road game in a sold-out arena. The season is early. It is a marathon, not a sprint. Hey, Louisville lost tonight, UNC the other night, UVA beat Arizona, Kansas struggled, etc. That's college hoops. Don't forget that our National Championship runner-up Jackets only finished tied for 3rd in the ACC last year.

A win is a win. And a ROAD win is about survival and grit and is even sweeter. In the end, THAT is what this team showed tonight. They held on in a tough environment and just figured out how to get it done.

Congrats to the Jackets!!!! Welcome back home and we look forward to you taking care of business against Arkansas Little-Rock this Friday. GO JACKETS!!!!!