I watched a little of the Cavs/Wizards game last night. Yes, two NBA teams with immense talent which cannot and should not be compared to college basketball in any way. But it just reinforced for me the single thing that has been missing from Illini Basketball for a decade now: creativity.
As I'm watching LeBron and Kyrie do their thing - yes, I'm going to start with an opener which is more or less "we need players like LeBron and Kyrie" - it made me think of some of the things that Frankie did. Not just "uh oh get a TO baby" Frank Williams against Iowa, but non-conference game against Texas Southern Frankie. Basically, it made me think of the early 2000 teams and the great passing. Not just Frankie, but Brian Cook passing out of the post, or Lucas Johnson making a little touch-pass underneath - that kind of stuff.
Hmmm... this still sounds like "'we need to find a Kyrie and a LeBron". I need to back up.
When I was younger and could run up and down a court without wheezing, my friends would invite me to pick-up games. I now believe they did this for the laughs when I was rolling around on the floor with cramps in my calf, but really, I was the 10th and 10 is better than 9. I've mentioned this before: big guy camped out in the corner hoping to hit a three - that was me.
My number one takeaway from pick-up basketball games: I can't keep up mentally. There is no chance the game would ever "slow down" for me. I mostly stood around confused at how so many of these guys improvised on the fly. I'm mentally clicking through "OK, the rebound bounced to you, and this is half-court, which means you need to take it back there or pass it to that other guy whose already back there dear God why are these guys double-teaming me can I call a timeout?" The other guys just seemed to know what they were doing while I had to think about it.
So when I watch basketball, I'm always impressed by the players who seem to know what they're doing. And by "know what they're doing" I mostly mean "decision-making on the fly". Split-second decisions based on what is developing. If I drove the lane in a pick-up game, the shot was going up. It never even crossed my mind that if the other guy comes over to help, his guy might be open. And the thought of spinning and hitting the guy in the corner for a three - there's no way I would ever think of that. Everything was happening too quickly.
Remember that play Michael Finke made last year where he was driving the baseline and the big guy over to cut him off so he kind of tucked a pass around the big guy's hip to a wide open Mav for a layup? Finke had 0.42 seconds to think of that move before the big guy got his hands into position to deny any pass. And somehow, while driving, it just came to him. Something happened on the court, he reacted with the right move.
I feel like those plays are so few and far between since Dee and Augie graduated. We saw some of it from Demitri McCamey, a little from Ray Rice and Brandon Paul, and that's pretty much it. We're just not that creative.
And Illinois basketball was built on creativity. As I've mentioned a dozen times, I cut my teeth on Bruce Douglas and Efrem Winters. 1989 was five extremely creative guys on the court together. And my favorite Illini basketball player of all time - Ken Norman - was maybe the most creative big we've had in 35 years. Creativity isn't just passing. Go watch Snake do his thing in the lane and you'll see overflowing creativity.
The thing I don't know is how much of creativity comes from recruiting and how much comes from coaching. It seemed to stop immediately after Bill Self's players departed, and neither Weber nor Groce were able to recapture any of it, so I'd tend to think it's a recruiting thing. Weber's offense looked great with Self's players and awful with Weber's players.
Last week I watched Ethan Happ do all kinds of ridiculously creative things on a basketball court, and I'm putting that mostly on Bo Ryan looking at a scrawny kid from Rockridge High School with no real basketball offers and seeing that creative potential. I'd love to tag along with Ryan at some July recruiting event. Every coach is over here fawning over Jimmy 5-star on court 1, but there's Ryan on court 19, finding the next Ethan Happ.
But it's not just recruiting. I'm sure it's also coaching. It's a system that teaches players how to react in certain situations. In order to drop the ball to a trailer the trailing player needs to be trailing. Ethan Happ arrived at Wisconsin with surprising talent for a guy with only Horizon League offers, but that system (and the players who know the system so well) make him that much better. We saw that here under Henson, Kruger, and Self.
I think the biggest "lack of creativity" void was emphasized by Trevor yesterday: not a single alley-oop this season. Kipper pointed for one (and the Minnesota defender had hesitated, meaning it was there), but Te'Jon didn't see him. I do think Te'Jon will see him in the future, given that he shows more creative potential then just about any Illini player since McCamey - but I really do think we're about to go an entire basketball season without one alley-oop. Somewhere, Kenny Battle is crying.
So as we begin to compile our wish lists for the future, this is probably #1 for me: a creative system with creative players to run it. I want to be in awe again, saying "how in the world did he see that?" to no one in particular as I pace around my living room. I want to get back to the Illinois Basketball of old. Someone, please: Make Illinois Basketball (C)reat(ive) Again.