Sunday, January 14, 2007

A long winter in Champaign?

It hasn't been a Happy New Year in Champaign so far on the hardwood. For the first time under Coach Weber, we lost 3 games in a row. That hadn't happened in this century under any ILLINOIS coach. The low point came last weekend with the blowout home loss to Ohio State. That was one of the worst basketball performances by an ILLINI squad I'd ever seen. We simply didn't compete and had no answers for a far superior BUCKEYE squad.

We did show some life at home on Wednesday against Iowa. We were up early in that one only to trail at the break before mounting a steady comeback in the 2nd half to hold on for a 'must-have' win in BIG-10 play. That would have been devastating had we lost our 4th in a row (3rd in conference). But, it didn't happen. Breakout games by Randle (16 points) and McBride (five 3's) were really the difference. I've been waiting all season for a healthy ILLNOIS squad to showcase its athleticism. The truth is we're a balanced squad - scoring from downtown and down low. Of course, any Weber-coached team will play tenacious defense. This year's team is no different. We press and check as well as anyone in the half-court 'D'.

Going into today's road game against the SPARTANS, we sported a two-game winning streak inside the Breslin Center. Head to head, Illinois led the series with SPARTY 52-48, including seven of the last ten. SPARTY had gotten the better of us at home (30-18 overall). The first half of today's game was all good guys (up 11 at the break). We won the turnover, rebounding, steal, and assist battles convincingly. More importantly, I saw mostly good decisions being made - demonstrating some solid basketball acumen. Our defense was tenacious, and we leveraged the down-low play with Pruitt, Carter, and Carlwell. On the outside, Rich McBride led the charge (nine points) en route to 3 for 8 from behind the arc. We actually had some chemistry for a rare time all year.

Then there was the 2nd half. It was as if we went into the break and swtiched jerseys with SPARTY. Ugh! What a difference a halftime can make. We had more turnovers (six) than points (five) during the opening eight minutes of the second stanza (eventually 8 turnovers during 16 posessions). Billy Packer had it right (I like him a lot as an analyst compared to Vitale and others). Panic mode seemed to set in unnecessarily. We had the ball and an 11 point lead and chose to let it evaporate away with poor shot selection and sloppy defense. Too many guys were just standing around on both ends of the court, flat-footed play. It was obvious to me that we were affected by the home crowd and decided to press in response. Our matchups were poor and our shot selections even worse. SPARTY took us out of our gameplan. After that, it was all down hill from there - sparked by a 15-0 Michigan-State run.

Chalk this loss up as another one that didn't have to be (like the Maryland and Arizona losses earlier in the year). At least Chester had a great game back after missing the IOWA contest (or this one could have been much worse). When are we going to learn that there are forty minutes to regulation? When are we going to learn there are no such things as style points in the college game? When are we going to learn that free throws matter; and make some (11th in the BIG-TEN)? There's a big difference in being 14-5 versus 13-6 (which we now are). This was our 3rd 'give-away' loss of the season - so far. With Minnesota next (on the road) and Wisconsin on Saturday (at home), it wont' get any easier in conference play. Right now we're on the outside of the BIG DANCE looking in. What a turn of events from two years ago when we battled UNC for the National Title. Of course, that team had 5 pros on it: Powell, Head, Williams, Brown, and Augustine. And, I ask again, 'who's our next pro?'. The real question I have for my squad right now; does any of this matter now? What are we playing for? Next year is a long long way away.

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