"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Jim McIlvaine previews the Golden Eagles

The season tips off in just a few days, and we've lined up a series of preview postings that will roll right up to Friday night's opener. To kick things off, we're pleased to welcome Marquette legend Jim McIlvaine back to Cracked Sidewalks to share his perspectives on the upcoming season. And away we go.......

When you played with the Nets the team went through three head coaches. Based on your experience, what were the greatest challenges in adjusting to a new coach once the season began?

They actually fired John Calipari shortly after I arrived and hired Don Casey as his interim replacement. Casey stuck around for another season, before they brought in Byron Scott.

I think the the most important thing for me was to make sure both coaches had a good feel for who I was as a person and a player, before the season started. After you play in the NBA for a few seasons, people seem to try to describe everything there is to know about you in two or three sentences. Anything they don't know about you, they assume, based on those two or three sentences. I think it helped my relationship with both coaches, to sit down and talk to them early on, before they were able to make assumptions about me based on what they might have seen in a few minutes of tape or read in a newspaper clipping somewhere.

Do you expect Buzz Williams to innovate with this team, or stick to similar schemes since he's inherited such a veteran crew?
Much like Bob Huggins did at West Virginia last season, I think we'll see Buzz stick with what works for this team in terms of the strengths of their personnel. That's not to say we won't see new elements to the team at both ends of the court, but many changes will be subtle and come over time. Quickness and strong perimeter play is obviously our calling card, so an emphasis on those areas will remain. However, we've already seen more integration of a traditional "back to the basket" post game in his half-court sets and that will continue as our post players (and the people passing to them) continue to gain confidence in their abilities in the low post. I think we'll also see more of an emphasis on an offensive game that reads and reacts to the defense, instead of running specific options off plays called from the bench.

What are you looking for in early season games from the team?
Obviously we have a lot of veteran talent, but there are some key positions where we have new players. Practicing against each other only tells coaches so much about how these players react to each other and how different lineups work in game situations. It's the opportunity to play against other teams, who have different strengths and weaknesses than Marquette's, that give coaches a better feel for what's going to work and what won't, once conference play starts.

The three-point line was moved back to 20 feet, nine inches this season. How do you think the new distance will affect MU both offensively and defensively?
For certain perimeter players on our team, I don't think it will have much impact in terms of their shot selection. However, I think it will make other players a little more selective in their shot selection. I think it will also help open things up for low-post play, as perimeter defenders won't be able to "dig" into the post as easily, because their rotations to the perimeter will be longer.

Defensively, I think teams will be forced to make more of a commitment as to how they choose to defend the post. Unless they have longer perimeter players defending post entries, teams defending a strong post player (like Luke Harangody), will either have to rely on the defense of the player guarding him or commit to double-teaming him and prepare to rotate on passes out of the post. The extended line should also help spread the court more for dribble penetration, especially for teams who have reliable spot-up shooters on the perimeter.

What kind of an impact do you expect to see from freshman big man Chris Otule, who figures to see consistent minutes this season?

Big guys always develop at a different pace than perimeter players and I don't think Chris, Liam or any of our other bigs are any different in that regard. Defense and rebounding will come easier for them than scoring, but that's to be expected. Chris has good hands that work well together, which isn't always the case for big men. This means he goes after rebounds and post-entry passes with the strength needed to hold onto the ball, but he's also able to transition into a mode where he's able to make an offensive move with a softer touch, that won't leave the backboard shaking from impact. Chris is aggressive and eager to learn and I think the coaching staff will continue to focus on channeling that energy in a way that won't lead to foul trouble.

The Three Amigos have been the heart and soul of this program since arriving on campus. What do you expect from James, McNeal and Matthews this season?
I expect all four of our seniors to continue representing our university with the class and dignity that makes all alumni proud to be associated with Marquette. On the court, this is the season that will define their legacy. They were one of the most-heralded recruiting classes in recent history at Marquette and they will certainly leave their marks in the record books. I think they'll all be disappointed if they don't make it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Obviously, a lot can happen between now and then with injuries and other unforeseen bumps in the road, but they certainly have the potential to do that and no conference in the country will better prepare a team for the NCAA tournament than the Big East.

Are there any players on the roster who could provide an upside surprise for MU this season?
Even though they're both drawing a lot of attention now, I think Jerel and Lazar will still surprise people with how much they've elevated their games at both ends of the court. I think Pat Hazel, Chris Otule and Dwight Burke will also be a pleasant surprise for many of our fans, who haven't looked for any significant offensive contributions from our post players. Dwight's shot has undergone a massive transformation over the summer and he's now a comfortable and confident foul-shooter. He already has the strength and experience to compete in the low post and the fact that he can now knock down free throws reduces the inclination teams might have to automatically foul him on an offensive rebound. Chris should get enough minutes over the course of the regular season, that come tournament time, he (and his teammates) will have gained confidence in his play that you don't normally see in freshmen.

I think Pat Hazel is also benefiting from flying under the radar as Lazar Hayward did earlier in his career. Everyone will focus on Lazar and the seniors and ask about how Otule will fare and that will allow Pat to come in and make solid contributions and build on his playing time as the season goes on. I know the coaches and players feel he has made tremendous progress from last season and at this point, he is our strongest finisher in the post. I don't want to mention every player on the roster, although I feel I'd be remiss if I didn't say Jimmy Butler could see some significant minutes this year as well.

What is something about the life of a radio color commentator that the common fan might not know?

Regardless of what you do outside of radio, TV or other media work, as a member of the media, you automatically turn into a cheapskate and a food critic. That means free press room food (and it's not always free) now becomes the subject of intense scrutiny, regardless of whether it's me calling the games with Homer or Donald Trump. We could all pay for a meal prior to the game and have confidence in knowing we'd gotten a good meal in our stomachs, but it almost feels forbidden to do that now, unless someone else is buying. We would rather starve ourselves, waiting to find out what's in store for us when we arrive at the arena. I've had everything from a bowl of pretzels and flat soda to food that would make Emeril Lagasse jealous and I'd have to say the Bradley Center food is the absolute best! If people knew how good the Bradley Center media food was, everyone would start their own sports blogs and Scott Kuykendall's phone would be ringing off the hook for media pass requests.

A few years ago you took on the challenge of saving Camp Anokijig. How is the camp doing today?
We're just finishing up our third full season as an independent youth and family camp. Even though many camps in the area saw a decline in attendance this past summer, we had our third record year in a row and we couldn't be happier. We're still working very hard to pay down the debt we incurred to save the camp from developers and we still have a long way to go in that regard, but we're making progress every day.

In addition to the blog I maintain at ESPN Milwaukee, I also help maintain a blog for Camp Anokijig (which the Cracked Sidewalks crew helped us set up), which talks about all our latest developments.

Jim, thanks so much for joining us here on CrackedSidewalks.