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Five Things // Playing Like the 1989 Illini

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Five Things is a handful (i.e., five) of thoughts about a single topic. Hopefully, discussion ensues.

The 1989 Illini Basketball and Playing With a Bigger Lineup

1: Stepping Outside of the Box

One of my first basketball memories is watching Big Ten basketball and being absolutely infatuated with the Illinoi Illini's 1989 team that consisted of Kendall Gill, Nick Anderson, Steve Bardo, Marcus Liberty and Kenny Battle. Disclosure, I have no illusions that any current member is as talented as that Illini team, however, it's the concept that's important. My thoughts here deal with the idea of Pat Knight assembling a similar team next year in the Big 12.

For whatever reason, I remember the discussion being about those teams that what Illinois was doing was a new concept. A number of wing-type of players that could play multiple positions. Just to refresh your memory, he's what I remember the best five Illini that were on the floor for most of the game:

Player Ht/Wt
Kenny Battle 6-6/210
Kendall Gill 6-5/195
Steve Bardo 6-5/190
Marcus Liberty 6-8/205
Nick Anderson 6-6/205

I think Bardo was essentially the team's point guard, Gill was at shooting guard, Anderson at small forward while Battle and Liberty played the post (it's been a long time, so don't quote me on this). The idea here is that Texas Tech has a similar situation when we discussed the small forward and power forward situations. There is a collection of players that are in this range. The question is finding time for these guys and how do they all fit.

There are a ton of players that fit into this range of swing player for Texas Tech that could play multiple positions, but has some height and athleticism to get away with it. Brad Reese (6-6/200), Theron Jenkins (6-6/211), Jaye Crockett (6-7/205), Mike Singletary (6-6/230) (although I think he's purely a small forward unless he can lose some weight and add a consistent jumpshot), D'Wayln Roberts (6-7/194), Corbin Ray (6-7/225), David Tairu (6-3/177) and Aaron-Mike Davis (6-3/190). That's a heck of a collection of talent and players that have potential, although I realize that Reese, Jenkins, Crockett, Tairu and Davis have yet to play a game in the Big 12.

I just keep thinking that there's got to be a method to Pat Knight's recruiting efforts, and as best I can tell, I think this is where he wants to go. More athletic at as many positions possible. There's also the issue of only having a limited number of big men to recruit and in order to combat that Knight may be thinking that it's to his benefit to be bigger at every other position (see more below) to offset the lack of a traditional big-man.

The quandary that PK faces is that we know he has some talented players who do return that may not fit this scenario. We know that some of Texas Tech's best players are John Roberson and Nick Okorie, with the thought that David Tairu is going to get serious consideration for playing time immediately. Minutes are the biggest obstacle to this entire plan. Roberson will probably see at least 25 minutes a game, Okorie could conceivably see 20 minutes and another 15 or so to Tairu.

I think Roberson has been okay, but there's still room to improve, aside from the fact that he's undersized, which has caused him issues offensively finishing around the basket or guarding bigger perimeter players. However, Roberson is adept offensively and he can be a big asset on that end of the court. It's just a matter of finding the minutes OR adjusting the mindset and playing a team with bigger athletes.

2: A Collection of Athletes

To reiterate above, one of my memories about that Illini team was that this was a tremendous collection of athletes. I think that almost every one of those players was drafted, so there was obviously quite a bit of skill there as well, but I vividly remember this Illinois having a true collection of athletes that handled most other teams. But what about Texas Tech. As discussed above, Pat Knight has recruited and signed a nice collection of athletes that are in and around the range of the '89 Illini team.

The hard part about all of this is trying to figure out minutes, which is a tad bit infuriating. There's only 200 minutes to go around for a college basketball team. With a traditional lineup, it's pretty easy, but there's no doubt that someone in that small forward category is not going ot play, or play very little. Someone is going to be the odd-man out in a traditional lineup, unless of course Reese or Jenkins can swing to the shooting guard, although I get the feeling that this is where Tairu comes in the picture.

With a non-traditional lineup, it squeezes minutes of the smaller guys, like Roberson and Okorie, who may be a little bit one dimensional in terms of what they can give you, although I would argue that Okorie is a pretty good defensive player.

3: The Best Players Play

I have a hard time seeing players out on the court that can't play. I'm not going to name names, but there were times last year where I grew incredibly frustrated. Sometimes these players played out of necessity and other times I think there weren't very many options. Ignoring the traditional method of how lineups should be (PG, SG, SF, PF & C) is perhaps Pat Knight's biggest obstacle.

Due to the fact that the team struggled so much last year, I think it's appropriate for Pat Knight to state at the beginning of the season that every position is open. There are no handouts. I'm tempted to say no one has earned the absolute right to say that a particular position is theirs. Granted, certain players played extremely well, but there were no all-conference performers and this past year's team was littered with inconsistent performances. Some days it was great. Others . . . not so much. If Texas Tech ends up with a starting lineup of Tairu, Reese, Jenkins, Roberts and Lewandowski then so be it. In my opinion, every position is open.

4: Man in the Middle

The downside to this type of lineup is that this may force a guy like Robert Lewandowski out of the picture, but I think that Lewandowski is such a unique player that I'm not at all worried about his time. One of the advantages of having an athletic lineup is that there's a tremendous amount of defensive versatility. Switching back and forth on screens without compromising defense could be a tremendous advantage. Most likely, any opposing team is going to have a traditional post player and Lewandowski is agile enough to cover most post players. It would also be nice to have a defensive anchor, so at the very least, I don't want to see Lewandowski's minutes dropped at all, but would in fact prefer to see him play at least 30 minutes a game.

5: Being Bigger in Other Places

One of the things that I've constantly harped on about all of Knight's teams is that there was this perpetual disadvantage rebounding the ball. Convention logic says that if you're going to throw out a smaller lineup, much like the lineup I'm proposing, then you're probably thinking that this type of disadvantage will continue. I do remember that 1989 Illini team being better than average rebounding (I couldn't find stats to back this up, just have to rely on memory), but I thought that one of the advantages was that by having bigger guards and forwards play is that you would be bigger in different places like point guard and shooting guard. It's not much, but it's better than what's been happening, which is essentially being undersized or opposing players being better athletes at almost every position.