Illini killer/Penn State senior guard Talor Battle (#12) drives on Bill Cole (#30) during last night's two-point loss for Illinois (13-4, 3-1).

Penn State 57, Illinois 55: Hoops Musings for the Morning After, Gm. 17

Am I surprised that Illinois lost to Penn State last night?

Not at all.

Back on August 26, 2010, when the Big Ten schedule was officially released, I predicted that Illinois would lose this game after starting 3-0 in the conference.

Given that Talor Battle is an Illini killer and Penn State has played Illinois ridiculously tough the last five seasons (the Illini could have easily lost rather than won both games against the Nittany Lions last season), I knew this game would be a tight affair, especially with a trip to Madison next on the schedule.

With that said, I have to admit that as of yesterday afternoon I thought Illinois would still win last night, especially when considering the team’s hot start to conference play.

While disappointed that the Illini lost, I am not as discouraged in comparison to the UIC and Missouri games.

Quite frankly, Demetri McCamey and D.J. Richardson had very rough games last night, while Battle does what he always does against the Illini: make ridiculous, back-breaking plays.

Now don’t get me wrong.

Illinois didn’t bring the necessary effort at the start of the game, which is very disconcerting for a team that continually fails to realize the importance of getting up for each and every opponent.

And once again, Illinois failed to win a game that was there for the taking, despite the team’s poor play, turnovers and lack of execution.

But given the nature of UI-Penn State games in recent history, last night’s game is what it is: not all that shocking and just another lesson for Bruce Weber to hammer his team on.

With the Badgers up next, Illinois needs to look at and correct its mistakes, and then simply move on.

And now to some observations about last night’s game.

○ Consider Andrew Jones’ tip in bucket with one second left an instance of bad karma for the Illini. Illinois got lucky to beat Penn State last year at home when Mike Tisdale questionably left his man, Chris Babb, wide open under the basket on the game’s final play to run at and try to block a Battle three-point shot. Luckily for Illinois, Babb couldn’t corral the offensive rebound at the rim and stick the ball in the basket as the horn expired. Unfortunately, the Illini weren’t as lucky last night, with Tisdale making the right decision to come over and try to block the driving Battle’s layup attempt but no one rotating to block out Jones. Bill Cole was the closest player to rotate but decided to block out his man instead. Similar poor rotation/boxing out cost Illinois against UIC, when the Flames’ Darrin Williams got the game-winning tip in the final minute.

○ I don’t know about you but I had flashbacks of the 2009 game at Penn State (when Battle hit a full-court running layup to beat the Illini) as the senior point guard dribbled the ball at the top of the key before attacking on last night’s decisive play. I just had a bad feeling in my gut that Penn State was going to score on that possession, which the Nittany Lions did. Actually, it wasn’t a bad feeling but more of a certain one.

○ I didn’t like the full-court inbound play from Weber, who put Meyers Leonard and Mike Tisdale in the game. As it is hard to throw the ball 75 feet, come up with the basketball and get a shot up in one second, I would have liked to see Illinois set up at halfcourt and get Demetri McCamey (who actually inbounded the ball) in motion off a screen for a half-court heave. Of course, Illinois tried a similar play against UIC, and it failed miserably. In my opinion, I would rather try to free something up for an open 75-foot heave rather than a three-quarters court pass.

○ Illinois lost this game for a simple reason: poor execution/concentration. With the exception of a 12-0 run to end the first half, Illinois just couldn’t sustain any offense last night. The Illini came out sloppy and unfocused, committing three turnovers in the first six possessions, with Demetri McCamey setting the tone when he missed a lob pass to Mike Davis on the first possession for the Illini. The Illini struggled clearing the defensive board all night, as seen in Jones’ game winner and a 10 to 4 advantage on the offensive glass for the Nittany Lions. By the time Illinois tightened its belt a bit in the second half, the Illini couldn’t put anything together when it mattered. As expected, Illinois’ shooting came back down to Earth (41% from the field, 43.8% from three) while the turnovers (15 on the game) remained from previous Big Ten games. The Illini also got away from the ball movement and penetration that served it well in the last two games against Northwestern and Wisconsin.  What resulted was a game that Illinois could have still won but lost, which was probably the more deserved outcome.

Wow! What a contrast last night’s game was from last year’s game at Penn State. After losing three straight games before arriving at Penn State last season, the Illini came out on fire, scoring 20 points within the first 8 minutes and coming away with a victory that would starting a nice winning streak. After winning three straight conference games to start this year’s Big Ten season, Illinois came out flat last night, scoring just 8 points in the first 10 minutes. Hopefully, the Illini won’t fall into a losing streak after this game, but with Wisconsin up next, expect another loss and likely drop from the Top-25, albeit temporarily.

○ Illini fans had to hope that Jereme Richmond’s excellent tip in (plus the foul) at 11 minutes, which cut the Penn State lead to 44-43, would have been the turning point that allowed Illinois to put the game away. Unfortunately, as was the case all night long, Illinois couldn’t sustain any offense, as seen in a four-minute scoring drought. While Penn State wasn’t scoring either, Battle would hit his second ridiculous three of the half to give the Nittany Lions a 4-point lead that seemed much larger.

○ Speaking of Battle, I love watching this kid play. He’s a competitor that Illinois has had no answer for in four seasons. His shot from the Penn State decal in the second half foreshadowed that the Illini were probably not going to win last night.

○ The more I think about this game, the more it reminds me of the UIC game, with the exception of Illinois failing to get a nice lead in the second half, as was the case against the Flames when Illinois went up 7 points at one point. Like UIC, Penn State came out playing well. However, with that said, Penn State didn’t play all that great of a game, as was the case with UIC. With Illinois playing subpar, the game was still there for the taking. Unfortunately, the problem with the Illini in the last 4-5 seasons under Weber is that they never seem to win these games because they often fail to get over the hump. With 10 minutes to go in the second half, I was 100% confident that Illinois was going to lose last night, as was the way I felt against UIC when the Illini let the Flames hang in. After the 12-0 run to end the first half, Illinois needed to deliver a knockout punch early in the second half. That didn’t happen, and the Illini are now 3-1 in the Big Ten.

○ Even though Illinois lost this game, I am not as disappointed as I was after the UIC and Missouri games. Illinois played hard in the second half last night but just didn’t execute when it mattered as opposed to playing down to the competition against UIC and just collapsing against Missouri in the final minute. Quite frankly, this Illinois team will always struggle with consistency, and the Penn State game is yet another reminder of what will happen when the team doesn’t play with urgency from the get go.

Alright. Here are some quick player observations.

Demetri McCamey

10 Points (3-8 from the field, 2-4 from three, 2-2 from the foul line), 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 turnovers and 2 fouls in 37 minutes

○ While McCamey has been Illinois’ best player all season long, he had his worst game of the year against Penn State, reverting to sloppy and careless decision making. I thought McCamey played way too fast at times in the second half, trying to make the spectacular play instead of the smart one. On one possession, McCamey drove to the basket and had Bill Cole wide open on the opposite wing but bypassed that clear pass by trying to make an over-the-head, backwards pass to D.J. Richardson, which resulted in a predictable turnover. McCamey wasn’t as focused as he needed to be last night, and that’s disappointing but not that surprising when considering that this Illinois team still goes through the motions given the quality of opponent.

D.J. Richardson

3 points (0-4 from the field, 0-2 from three, 3-3 from the foul line), 1 rebound, 3 assists, 1 turnover, 1 steal and 1 foul in 31 minutes

○  Don’t quote me here but I believe last night was the first time that Richardson was held without a field goal during his Illini career. All in all, D.J. had a rough night, failing to get involved in the offense and struggling with Battle, who finished with 26 points. In Richardson’s defense, Battle did hit some ridiculous shots despite some excellent defense.

Bill Cole

8 points (3-5 from the field, 2-4 from three), 0 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 turnover and 3 fouls in 21 minutes

○ Cole should have crashed on the winning Penn State bucket. With that said, I thought Cole played fine, with the exception of not grabbing a single rebound. I’ve been impressed with the fact that Cole has been looking for his shot, as opposed to hesitating, when there for the taking. Cole missed a curl three late in regulation that was long, but didn’t hesitate on what was a very good look. Cole is playing with great confidence after losing it earlier in the season.

Mike Davis

8 points (4-7 from the field), 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal and 2 blocks in 36 minutes

○ Without question, Davis was Illinois’ best player in the two wins against Wisconsin and Northwestern, when his rebounding and passing were the difference, respectively. With that in mind, Davis had a very quiet game against the Nittany Lions, grabbing just 4 rebounds and leaving some scoring opportunities on the floor. Davis really should have been about 6-7 from the field as he missed a couple of one-handed push shots near the rim in the second half. After being his active best recently, Davis wasn’t active enough against Penn State.

Mike Tisdale

16 points (5-11 from the field, 2-3 from three, 4-4 from the foul line), 14 rebounds, 0 assists, 2 turnovers, 3 blocks and 3 fouls in 36 minutes

○ Early in the second half, it looked like Tisdale was maybe going to win this game for the Illini. While Tisdale went quiet in the final 10 minutes and had a costly turnover on a handoff attempt to McCamey, he played a solid game and was Illinois’ best player without question last night.

Brandon Paul

7 points (3-7 from the field, 1-3 from three, 0-1 from the foul line), 1 assist, 3 turnovers, 1 steal, 1 block and 3 fouls in 22 minutes

○ Paul had some nice moments during the 12-0 run but was way too up-and-down again. Paul needs to get back to the consistency that he played with early in the season. For Paul, he needs to prioritize his defense, which can be a springboard for easy offense, as opposed to worrying about his offensive game.

Jereme Richmond

3 points (1-3 from the field, 1-1 from the foul line), 4 rebounds, 2 turnovers, 1 steal and 1 foul in 13 minutes

○ Richmond struggled for the most part, at least when first entering the game, missing a lob pass to Leonard and getting a step-back jumper blocked in his face. In the second half, Richmond was a little better, making a beautiful assist to Davis against the zone and hustling down a tip in plus the foul.

Meyers Leonard

0 points (0-1 from the field) in 2 minutes

○ Leonard missed an open jumper in the first half and was inserted on the final inbound play. With the exception of an occasional block here and there, Leonard has not had much of a defensive impact, although it’s hard to do anything in two minutes.

Tyler Griffey

0 points, 1 turnover in 2 minutes

○ Here’s something I’ve noticed the last couple of games: Griffey doesn’t seem comfortable or confident when swinging the ball on the perimeter, as seen last night when his pass to the top of the key was stolen by Battle, who got an easy layup. Griffey would be better served on the perimeter as a pick and pop player more than anything else at this point of his career.

Crandall Head, Joseph Bertrand, Jean Selus, Kevin Berardini

○ None of these Illini played last night.

Alright.

Until Saturday, when the Illini travel to Wisconsin.

It’s hard to imagine that Illinois is going to sweep the season series from the Badgers and win two years in a row at the Kohl Center.

With that said, I’m expecting a loss and will be looking for the Illini to play with some urgency from the opening tip, as was the case during last year’s game at Purdue.

If Illinois shows me that and plays a spirited 40 minutes, I’ll be encouraged.

If Illinois comes out hanging its head from the Penn State game, I’ll be discouraged.

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Tags: Basketball Bill Cole Brandon Paul Bruce Weber Crandall Head Demetri McCamey Illini Basketball Illinois Basketball Illinois Fighting Illini Basketball Jereme Richmond Jerrance Howard Meyers Leonard Mike Davis Mike Tisdale Tyler Griffey U-of-I Basketball University Of Illinois

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