Illinois Basketball: 7 Keys Behind the Illini's Strong Start to the Season

Preston BrownContributor IIIJanuary 8, 2012

Illinois Basketball: 7 Keys Behind the Illini's Strong Start to the Season

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    The University of Illinois basketball program has experienced just about every emotion possible over the last eight to 10 years. It started with that unequaled joy of a Final Four run followed by a bitter lost to UNC in that national championship. Then there was the unrivaled anger of the Eric Gordon incident, which led to the pain of years of underachieving talent (I'm looking at you Demetri McCamey).

    But finally there is hope.

    Cancerous veteran leadership that has held this team back for years is gone and multiple top recruiting classes have taken their place. Finally, Illini fans are beginning to see glimpses of the bright future that this team has in store as their boys have posted a 14-3 record this year (3-1 in the Big Ten).

    So without any further ado, I present the seven keys that have lead to Illinois' early season success and the program's overall turnaround. 

7. Home-Court Dominance

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    Year in and year out, Illinois has had one of the best home-court advantages in the country.

    This year has been no different. 

    Their student section, The Orange Krush, is everything you want in a student section. It is rude, obnoxious, creative and loud. And it has gained national recognition for its ability to get in opposing teams' heads and throw off their game. 

    Illinois is undefeated at home, posting a perfect 10-0 record in the Assembly Hall. When a team is able to consistently win games at home to the extent the Illini have, success is sure to follow, and their overall record this season has proved that. 

    Unfortunately, that record is all but sure to get some blemishes when the Illini get into the thick of conference play. But if they can continue to ride their home-court momentum and fully utilize their crowd, home-court dominance will prove for itself why it leads off this list of factors to this early season success. 

6. Depth and Chemistry

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    If there is one thing that has lacked in the Bruce Weber teams of the last five years, it's chemistry.

    Selfish players dominated the locker room, and as a result, it was hard for the team to find players on the bench who could come in and feel like they could confidently contribute.

    But this is not a slideshow titled "Why Illini Teams Have Continued to Frustrate" and my reason in explaining the incompetence of the past is to contrast it with its polar opposite that resides in Champaign this season.

    At times this year, Weber has gone 11 players deep in meaningful game minutes. He has used different player and position combinations depending on the matchups that he has been faced with and almost every combo has managed to deliver.

    Although the depth might not show on the stat sheet, the ability to consistently rotate starters with key reserves who all share positive chemistry has been an obvious and major factor to the Illini's 14-3 record.  

5. Coaching/Freshman Play

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    It was no secret that the ability of the Illinois coaching staff to utilize and maximize the play and skills of its hugely talented freshman class would be a major determining factor in the outcome of the season.  

    Thankfully for Illini Nation, those freshman have delivered. 

    Some may argue that these freshman are vastly underperforming due to the major hype that they came into Champaign with, and only looking at the score column of the box score might support that.

    I believe that that mentality is completely false.

    Point guard Tracy Abrams has led the class, contributing serious minutes (18.1 per game average) in every game thus far.

    Deadly scorer Myke Henry is just beginning to come into his own with solid performances in the Illini's past three games.

    And the raw, talented duo of Ibby Djimde and Nnanna Egwu are showing great energy and hustle while giving Meyers Leonard a breather.  

    But these dynamics can lead to a "Chicken or the Egg" argument. Is it the coaching staff that has brought out the players potential or is it the players talent that has allowed them to succeed?

    You can see that I titled this slide "Coaching/Freshman Play" because I believe that it is both. Weber's staff has done a great job of taking this inexperienced and raw group of players, teaching them a very disciplined and complicated half-court system and working individually with them to ensure their skills are being maximized on the court.

4. Vastly Improved Guard Play

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    The point guard position was one of the biggest questions mark going into this season.

    Questions abounded regarding the fragility of newly transferred Sam Maniscalco and his ability to play "big boy ball" in the Big Ten.

    Boy has he delivered.

    Maniscalco has shown his incredible knowledge of the game and Bruce Weber's system as he has orchestrated the offense to near perfection.

    Calling him six foot would be generous, but he has shown that he can make clutch shots and isn't afraid to take on triple-teams while driving to the rim.

    And I haven't even begun to talk about juniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson.

    Former Big Ten freshman of the year Richardson has overcome the loss of confidence as he struggled to sink shots at the end of last season and is quietly leading the team in scoring with 13.2 points per game while shooting 40 percent from behind the arc.

    Paul has shown why he is one of the unquestioned leaders of this team. He is not afraid to attack the rim on offense and take the hardest defensive assignments on the other end of the court. He has rounded and truly become a complete player this year and is a threat to score from any position on the court.

    And now I am provided with a perfect transition into to my next guard-related slide... 

3. The Emergence of Joseph Bertrand

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    I do not know how else to sum up the emergence of sophomore guard Joseph Bertrand.

    Sporting the No. 2 Jersey, Bertrand has exploded onto the Big Ten scene averaging 15 points per game over the last five with a career-high 25 (shooting 11-12 overall) when he put the team on his back and carried the Illini to a win versus Nebraska. And remember that this is after he only scored 14 baskets in the team's first 12 games. 

    He is everything you want in a guard. 

    He is fast, smart, strong, agile, accurate and aggressive.

    He is not afraid to take "the" shot and has the ability to carry this team through the times when it appears to be unable to do anything offensively.

    I was apprehensive to crown him a superstar in the making when he broke out versus Mizzou in the Braggin' Rights game, but ladies and gentleman... I see now that this guy is the real deal.

    You heard it here first folks, Joseph.Bertrand.Is.Going.To.Be.A.Superstar.

    Don't be surprised if you see him making the big bucks in a different jersey in a couple years. 

2. Meyers Leonard

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    Although seven-foot center Meyers Leonard managed to sneak into the No. 2 spot for my top seven keys to Illinois' success, it is not for the reasons that you would probably guess.

    Statistically, Leonard has been a beast averaging 12.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game.

    But it is not his play that has put him in this spot, it is the threat of his ability and opposing teams' willingness to key in on him.

    Meyers is far too emotionally fragile and is often pushed around in the paint, opting to set screens on the top of the key instead. He backs away from double-teams and will make mental errors when he sees that he cannot score when he gets the ball in the low block.

    So why should he garner such a high honor of being No. 2 on my list?

    It is the fact that teams are so afraid of what he can do.

    They are constantly double or triple teaming Leonard to keep him from getting scoring chances, and my basic math skills tell me that when he has more than one man on him, another Illini should be open for an easy shot. And this is exactly what has happened.

    It should be noted that Joseph Bertrand's emergence is largely due to the increased attention Leonard is receiving.

    If Leonard can improve his mental game and show some of the toughness that the rest of his team possesses, he should be able to move up in this list with ease. 

1. Unrivaled Play in Clutch Moments

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    Last year, Illinois was a team full of choke artists.

    They could be leading by 15 or more points to an inferior opponent and end up losing by 10 simply because of their inability to finish.

    This team could not be any more different, and that is why their play in the minutes that matter has gained the No. 1 spot in these rankings.

    Here is a stat for you: In nine games where the score is within five points with less than two minutes remaining, the Illini are an unblemished 9-0.

    But it gets better.

    The Illini have had six games with a final outcome DECIDED by five points or less, and the Illini are 5-1 in those games (with the only loss coming to a dominant Missouri team).

    No one outside of the Illini locker room would have thought that this team dominated by underclassmen would have the mental toughness to finish and execute when it matters most, but a recurring theme this year for this team is surprising doubters.

    The teams that can "win ugly" are the ones that hang around all season and can go deep in March.

    I am not saying that this team is destined for a Final Four in 2012, but they have shown the potential to do just that in the not so distant future.