Illini focused on closing out games


Illini focused on closing out games

CHAMPAIGN "Finishing" was the word on everyones tongue on Monday. After allowing Wisconsin a big fourth quarter during the 31-14 loss on Saturday, the only thing Illinois coaches and players could think of was finishing.

It was a four-quarter football game and I think we played three, Illinois coach Tim Beckman said at his Monday press conference. I was proud of the way we played those three quarters, but in the game of football, you have to finish.

You have to be able to respondin a positive manner, rather than letting them knock us down.

Before their game at Wisconsin, the Illini players took it upon themselves to address issues from past weeks. The players met for an extended period of time without the coaches after their regular team meeting at their hotel in Madison. The meeting was led mostly by the seniors, and allowed everyone to voice their issues and regain some of the fire the team felt before losing big to Louisiana Tech and Penn State.

Defensive end Michael Buchanan said the meeting was beneficial for everyone and it showed in the first three quarters against Wisconsin.

We made some big strides last week, playing with intensity and coming out fired up. "We just have to do a better job finishing, he said. Definitely were more confident, we have a lot of things to build on from that game. We played a great three quarters of football.

Hanging with the Badgers on the road for three quarters was encouraging, but the team realizes it must continue to improve in order to still be a factor in the Big Ten this season.

Safety Steve Hull, who had an interception against Wisconsin, described the Illini as a hungry team. He said the meeting helped the team become more player-driven which is a trait he believes championship teams possess.

We talked on Friday about where we are this year and how weve fallen from last year, Hull said. Defensively, for three quarters, we were very sound. We did everything correctly. We just have to build on those three quarters.

Offensively, Beckman said he wants to see his quarterback have more time with the ball. Against Wisconsin, Nathan Scheelhaase had one of his best games of the season, but had to scramble to buy time and create plays, both through the air and on the ground.

Getting Scheelhaase more time comes down to the Illinois offensive line. Beckman specifically addressed blocking as something his team can do better in order to control the outcome of the game. Offensive lineman Graham Pocic said consistency with blocking was his units goal.

Sometimes theres one guy who breaks down and it just happens that guy has a single blockyou have to be able to handle the one-on-one blocks. We have the talent to do it, he said. Michigan will have strong inside guys, strong outside guys, speed on the edge. They move their D-line a lot and use a bunch of different fronts.

The biggest challenge when Illinois travels to the Big House this Saturday, however, will be slowing down Michigan's Denard Robinson. The Wolverines quarterback has already set a Big Ten record for career rushing yards by a quarterback and is fourth in the NCAA in the same category, but running is only one aspect of Robinsons game that worries Illinois.

Robinson is averaging 188.4 yards passing so far this year, helping Michigan to a 3-2 record and a spot at No. 25 in the latest Associated Press poll.

To stop the Wolverines from racking up 44 points, as they did against Purdue last week, the Illini must watch Robinson like a hawk.

We better know where he is at all times, Beckman said with a laugh.

You have to contain him. Its going to be really big to keep our eyes in the right place, Buchanan added. From a pass rushing standpoint, we cant give up the field. We have to close our rushing lanes and keep our eye on him. This is a big challenge but were up for it.

There is no simulating the talent of a player like Robinson, but Beckman mentioned the team could throw freshman wide receiver Justin Hardee or another young player behind center to give the defense a taste of what its like to go against a multi-faceted player like Robinson.

Of course, just practicing against Scheelhaase, who possesses above average speed and throwing ability, is always a benefit during the week. On top of that, Beckman will continue to run NFL-style drills at his team to get them ready for their game in Ann Arbor.

Kick-off for Illinois and Michigan is scheduled for 2:35 on Saturday, October 13. The game will be televised nationally on ABC.

Illinois Notebook

-- Terry Hawthorne was able to fly home with the team after being taken from the field by ambulance in Madison. The initial results of scans were negative, but Beckman says the senior will undergo further tests in Champaign to determine whether or not he sustained a concussion in Saturdays game. His status for the Michigan game is uncertain, but Beckman said that if Illinois had practiced on Monday, Hawthorne would not have been a participant.

-- Despite Illinois 2-4 record, Beckman is certain Michigan will not overlook this weeks game. When asked if Brady Hoke might be looking ahead on the schedule, Beckman said, I know him, and I know he wont look past us.

-- After the loss at Wisconsin, running back Donovonn Young complained about the lack of touches for him and fellow running back Josh Ferguson. Beckman played down any notion of discontent, citing passion for the game leading to rash statements from the sophomore. Donovonn knows he can make playsthe ultimate thing is how do we make the Illini better, Beckman said.

The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem


The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

The 2011 Eastern Conference Finals between the Bulls and Miami Heat featured three future Hall of Famers in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Derrick Rose had been named the youngest league MVP in league history weeks earlier. Luol Deng was blossoming and would earn All-Star nods in each of the following two seasons. $82 million man Carlos Boozer had averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 rebounds in his first season with the Bulls. The series was loaded with star power.

But buried deep in that series was a matchup of unsung reserves that influenced the series far greater than their numbers in the box score indicated. Udonis Haslem averaged just 4.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in 22 minutes in the series – the Heat won in five games – but his impact was felt nonetheless, in part because of the physicality he brought against an energetic second-year forward named Taj Gibson.

“When we played them in the Eastern Conference Finals, Gibson had an incredible impact on that series, and (Haslem) was just coming back from an injury,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said before Saturday’s tilt between the Bulls and Heat. “And we thought that was probably the missing component in that series early on, was having a player like UD to match up against (Gibson). And that really helped us close that series.”

Five years later Haslem is on the final leg of his NBA career. He’s only appeared sparingly in seven games for the Heat in this his 14th NBA season. But the two-time NBA champion has had a lasting impact on the Heat organization – so much so that they allowed him to miss Friday’s game to attend his son’s state-title football game in Florida – and has etched himself in Heat lore, despite never averaging more than 12 points or nine rebounds in a season.

It’s not unlike the career path Gibson has taken in his eight seasons in Chicago. The now-31-year-old Gibson has spent the majority of his career playing behind the likes of Carlos Boozer, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. And while he’s been an integral part of the Bulls’ rotation since joining the team in 2009, his role has never matched his ability or production. It’s why Haslem said he sees so much of himself in Gibson, an unselfish, care-free teammate, yet also someone who is willing to work every day despite the lack of accolades.

“Taj plays hard, man. He’s a guy that gets all the dirty work done. The banging down in the paint, he knocks down that 15-footer, (he) rebounds,” Haslem told “A lot of similarities to myself when I was a little younger. Like you said, unsung. Doesn’t look for any attention, doesn’t look for any glory. Just goes out there, is professional, and does his job every night.”

And in his eighth NBA season, Gibson has done his job every night incredibly well. Through 23 games he’s posted career-best numbers in field goal percentage, rebounds, assists and steals, and isn’t far off in points and blocks per game. His 16.9 PER would be a career-high.

He’s done all this with little real estate in the spotlight. Jimmy Butler has cemented himself as a legitimate MVP candidate, and free-agent acquisitions Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo have earned headlines.

But Gibson has been as reliable and consistent a frontcourt player as the Bulls have – he’s one of three players to have appeared in all 23 games this season – and he’s playing some of his best basketball while the Bulls are mired in a mini-slump.

“He’s a rock for us on this team,” Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s going to go out and do his job. He’s never going to complain about his role. He’s going to put on his hard hat and make the little plays that may not show up in the box score, but help you win.”

Including Gibson’s 13-point, seven-rebound effort in Saturday’s win over the Heat, he’s averaging 12.6 points on 58 percent shooting and 7.3 rebounds in the Bulls’ last 11 games. He’s corralled 16 offensive rebounds in that span – including two on Saturday that he put back for layups – and is the main reason the Bulls entered as the league’s top offensive rebounding team in the league (and second in total rebound percentage). The Bulls are also nearly six points per 100 possessions better defensively with Gibson on the floor.

Gibson’s and Haslem’s career numbers are eerily similar – Gibson has averaged 9.3 points on 49 percent shooting and 6.4 rebounds, compared to Haslem’s 7.9 points on 49 percent shooting and 7.0 rebounds, with this year excluded. And both players accomplished their numbers while acting as the third scoring option, at best, on their respective teams. Wade, who spent 13 seasons with Haslem, also sees similarities in the two forward’s games and personalities.

“Taj does his job. He doesn’t try to do too much. Some nights he’s featured a lot. Some nights he’s not. He’s out there to do his job, wants to win,” he said. “(Haslem and Gibson) are very similar. He has that mentality where he’s a workhorse and he’s going to do whatever it takes.”

Added Spoelstra: “Incredible amount of similar qualities. In my mind both those guys are winning players and have all the intangibles and toughness. Doing the little things, the dirty work, both those guys embody all those qualities. We’ve always respected Gibson because of that.”

Gibson is third on the Bulls in field goal attempts per game, the first time in his career he’s been higher than fifth in that category. The Bulls are using him more than ever before, and it’s paying off. He's in the final year of his four-year contract with the Bulls, and is looking at a significant pay raise in free agency this coming summer. Whether his future is in Chicago or elsewhere, don’t expect him to change his persona or mentality anytime soon. Much like Haslem did for years in Miami, Gibson has defined being a consummate professional, teammate and player.

“When you’re on championship teams, competing for a championship, trying to go deep in the playoffs, trying to do special things, guys are doing to have to sacrifice their game. Everybody can’t play big minutes; everybody can’t take the shots,” he said after the Bulls’ win over the Cavs on Thursday. “I’m one of the guys that sacrificed my game for the good of the team. Whatever the coach wants me to do, I’m going to go out and do (it).

“If a coach wants me to set 100 screens and not take a shot, I’m gonna do that because I’m about helping the team. And that’s what I’ve been doing all these years. As long as I’m out there enjoying myself, having fun and playing with great teammates, I’m blessed.”

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