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yoco :: College Basketball
(a sports weblog) news and commentary on men's college basketball and the ncaa tournament

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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Better than #1?

In Yoni's absence: some guest-blogging from Big Ten Wonk....

With Illinois perched atop the polls as a consensus number 1, your intrepid blogger indulges in some parlor-game speculation and poses the following scary question: would the Illini be even better today had Bill Self chosen to stay as head coach in April 2003 instead of leaving to take the Kansas job? (Or, if you like, think of it in even more O. Henry-esque terms: would Illinois be even better if North Carolina's Sean May had not injured his foot in practice in December 2002, which resulted in a catastrophic 17-15 season for the Tar Heels, which resulted in the firing of Matt Doherty, which resulted in the hiring of Roy Williams, which resulted in the vacancy that lured Self away from Illinois--the only such vacancy that could have done so, if Self is to be believed?)

Would Illinois be even better? The arguments on either side might run like this:

No. First of all there is nothing better than number 1. Second, the precise qualities for which the Illini are being praised--selfless (har!) ball movement on offense and hustling help defense--were somewhat or even greatly diminished under Self, whether because of the different system (Self ran a high-post offense with lots of high-low action; Bruce Weber runs a motion offense wherein the 5 can be and often is out by the arc setting screens) or merely the different developmental stages of the players (today's starting five all played under Self and they all--most strikingly Luther Head--play much better defense today than two years ago).

Yes. For one thing Connecticut's Charlie Villanueva would be wearing an Illinois jersey. He'd committed to Illinois and when Self took the Kansas job Villanueva looked long and hard at Kansas before choosing the Huskies. His play is often listless, it's true, but it's at least the listless play of a 6'11" former McDonald's All-American. And who's to say that Self would not have landed Missouri's Kalen Grimes? Or that--before bolting to the NBA, which he doubtless would have done in any event--Peoria product and current LA Clipper Shaun Livingston would not have at least declared for Illinois, as he did for Duke, giving the Illini the resulting prestige and in-state recruiting hegemony? Lastly, the Illini almost certainly would not have suffered as they did last December and January. Without struggling to learn a new system and adapt to a new coach, Illinois would have suffered fewer losses, secured a higher seeding in the tournament, and gone further, thus resulting in an even stronger program going into this season.

No one really knows the right answer, of course. But I'll close with the following words on behalf of both coaches.

In defense of Self: though not putting up the gaudy assist-to-field-goal percentages that are currently the talk of the national hoops commentariat, Illinois teams under Self did lead the Big Ten in assists. As for defense, the 2002-03 team was young and young teams, generally, don't play defense well. But Self's other two (older) Illinois teams did defend well--just ask Kansas, completely shut down in the 2001 regional semi's, despite starting three future NBA players: Drew Gooden, Kirk Hinrich, and Nick Collison. (I still remember what Frank Williams did on defense to Hinrich in that game, with Bill Walton doing the commentary and raving in Walton-esque hyperbole all the while, and wonder how Williams can't find a starting spot in the NBA.)

In defense of Weber: Villanueva is no loss--better to have him jogging up the court, missing three's and getting into foul trouble in Storrs than in Champaign. And Self was able to land recruits like Dee Brown and Deron Williams in large part because they saw, rightly, opportunities for playing time. (Conversely, with Brown and Williams established in the program and projected for minutes far into the future, legendary recruiter Self lost Brown's high school teammate and in-state prospect Shannon Brown to Tom Izzo and Michigan State.) The test for Weber is who he can land now that those minutes are once again becoming available in the near future.