February has been one of the more brutal months in recent memory for the Illinois basketball team. Last night’s 65-54 win over Iowa was the first this month, stopping a six game skid, and reminding us this team is capable of effective basketball – at least in stretches.
Coach Weber went to the old motivational handbook, bringing his two best players off the bench. Meyers Leonard responded with one of his best, hard-working performances of the year. He had 22 points, 14 rebounds, and 2 blocks, and he fought inside the entire game. Brandon Paul played unselfishly for the most part and played furious defense on Iowa star Matt Gatens.
The team fought hard, rebounded hard, and threw the ball away and let the shot clock run down hard. In short, they won the only way this team can: fighting through their flaws. Full credit to the coaches and players for coming out with great effort and intensity. These Illini can beat about anyone on a given day, but they can also lose to about anyone.
We saw a glimpse of what could be from Meyers Leonard. Given another year to hone his skills, mature, develop lower body strength, and realize how much effort you need to dominate the interior, he could average his line from last night. If that happened, he’d be an All-American, and the 1st pick in the NBA draft. Illinois would be a major threat no matter who is coaching. However, it seems more likely he will come out after this year and will spend the next few years in spot duty at the end of the bench as some team’s project. But at least he would be getting paid.
Brandon Paul, meanwhile, continues to be an enigma. When properly motivated, he’s an all-conference defender and the teams best driving threat. He also continues to make bad passes and throw up bad shots. If he can be corralled into accepting that he is not the team’s focal point on offense, the team has a chance in its remaining games. Gus Johnson commented last night that BP3s 43-point game against OSU might have been the worst thing that could have happened to him. He’s not far off with that assessment.
Tracy Abrams continues to improve, Tyler Griffey was physical and active, and DJ Richardson hit some shots. The Illini carved up Iowa’s press and shot pretty well. This made up for a number of painful possessions in which the shot clock ran down, resulting in horrible shots.
Coach played certain guys too long, not trusting his bench – another theme of recent years. He should have played Mike Henry for Paul and Egwu for Leonard in the second half. At least steal some minutes here and there. Why, you may ask? Because the only hope for the Illini is to gain back some confidence and win the Big 10 tournament. They have the talent to do it if they get a little lucky with match-ups. But they cannot win three games in three days with key players averaging 36-37 minutes. So Bruce needs to lengthen the bench these last two games and expand the rotation to protect his best guys.
Maybe March will be better for the Illini than February. We can always hope.