Illini fans had a rough holiday weekend. First we had the football team’s loss to Cincinnati, a game in which our quarterback missed open receivers left-and-right, the defense looked completely at a loss, which allowed Illinois to prove how not good they are against a top ten team on national television. The Bearcats, by the way, play the spread offense the correct way – the way Illinois should – but to run it that way you need an accurate passer and willingness to throw.
Then it was the basketball team’s turn to disappoint. Bruce Weber’s boys got the chance to play a pair of non-cupcakes away from home in Las Vegas and promptly lost both games. First they let a 32-16 halftime lead slip away against Utah, a game I didn’t watch due to the internet-only TV coverage, but from all reports sounded like the Illini went passive in the second half, trying to work the clock and maintain the lead, which allowed the Utes to adjust, come back, and win on a last second shot in which Illinois forgot to send anyone back on defense.
Against in-state school Bradley, Illinois was simply outworked and outfought. This was game the team from Peoria seemed to want more (hence storming the floor like it was an NCAA tourney game at the end). The Braves built an 8-point lead, which Illinois chipped away at in the second half to move ahead by five with about three minutes to go. After that, Bradley scored nine of the next 11 points, the Orange & Blue, managed a pair of free throws, and that’s how you choke away a second loss in two games.
A number of troubling trends: the Illini continue to leave good shooters open on the penetration; someone needs to recognize the fact that a contested layup is sometimes better to allow than an open three. The team relied too much on its own jumpshooting, which went cold against Utah and was spotty against Bradley’s tough D. Hopefully Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson continue to develop their confidence and learn to recognize when they should drive. McCamey seems better at this but still seems prone to flinging up tough off-balance shots when he should be going hard to the rim. Rebounding was troublesome. Utah outboarded Illinois, and while Bradley did not, they seemed to get the all the clutch rebounds at the end of the game. Weber shortened his bench this tournament – something I’ll take issue with. I would’ve had Billy Cole in more against Bradley; something tells me he would not have been outfought down the stretch.
At any rate, these two games were a pair in which Illinois had superior talent but could not get the result. So what happens tomorrow night in Clemson when the Illini face a team with just as many scorers and athletes? Here’s to hoping Weber and company get the gameplan right and the boys respond well to some adversity.