While hanging tough with the undefeated and top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday afternoon, the Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball team ultimately let a golden opportunity slip through its collective hands, resulting in a five-point loss that leaves no room for moral victories.
Here are some thoughts on the OSU-UI game.
● While Illinois started great, it’s how the Illini finished that was yet again frustrating but not at all surprising. Up 9 points with about 12:30 to go, Illinois went into another scoring drought (roughly 4 minutes if my memory serves me right) and Ohio State quickly capitalized. Even when Illinois was seemingly playing well and controlling the game, the team’s margin of error was so low, as evidenced by the Buckeyes quickly taking control of the game on a couple of Jon Diebler and Deshaun Thomas threes. Just like the Big Ten Tournament game against OSU last year, Illinois was done in by letting the Buckeyes go on another huge run, 14-0 on Saturday and 20-0 last March. As has been the case for seemingly the last five years, the Illini fail to inspire much confidence with the lead and during end-game situations, losing another game that was there for the taking. Unfortunately, such results have become so expected that it’s not worth getting mad about anymore.
● Granted, Illinois played hard on Saturday, but the ultimate difference between Ohio State and Illinois came down to flexibility on the sidelines. Last season, Thad Matta ran his team through the best player in the country, junior point guard Evan Turner. This season, he has put everything on the best player in the country, freshman forward Jared Sullinger, totally reworking his offense. It doesn’t matter that Sullinger is a freshman; Matta has made him the focal point, to the point that William Buford seemed to be a forgotten man at times. As for the Illini, freshman Jereme Richmond was the team’s best player against the Buckeyes. Yet he does not get enough focus in my opinion because Bruce Weber continues to live and die with seniors who are complementary players as opposed to stars. Ultimately, Weber’s inability to realize what his seniors are and to start developing his future talent is why the Illini look like pretenders yet again and continue to underachieve and nosedive as a program. On the other hand, Ohio State is a national title contender seemingly every year because Matta knows not only how to recruit but how to use his players.
● Mike Tisdale is what he is: a finesse center who is more suited to and comfortable on the perimeter than in the post. With that stated, Tisdale played about as tough as he could on Saturday afternoon, emphatically swatting away a Jared Sullinger layup early in the game and keeping the Illini alive in the last minute before failing to corral a sloppy Demetri McCamey pass with Illinois down 71-68 in the final 10 seconds. While hardly perfect, Tisdale had a nice game in a complementary role, staying out of foul trouble and looking to make an impact rather than just floating on the floor. While the optimist would like to believe that such a performance would be a turning point for Tisdale, the realist knows that this will not be the case, especially when drawing upon his inconsistency during the last four seasons.
● I was not happy with how Illinois managed the final two minutes of the game. With 2:13 left in the game, the Illini had pulled to within 6. After an Ohio State miss was pulled in, the Illini slowly walked the ball up the court and then just stood around while the play clock ran down. No surprise, the play was an empty possession and the Illini did not score again until there were only 53 seconds left in the game. The Illinois players did not do a good job of playing with the necessary urgency, but I also thought that the coaches should have done more in the final two minutes. A time out on the empty possession could have set up a play and kept everyone from standing around, and the last play that was drawn up was not a good choice considering how much time was left.
● With regard to the final play, while it is not known for sure whether Bruce Weber designed the play to be a pass in to Tisdale or whether McCamey was trying to improvise, the play made no sense. With 6 seconds remaining in the game and Illinois down by 3, a 3 pointer sends the game in to overtime. Instead, McCamey tries to bounce the ball to Tisdale near the free throw line and the pass was tipped away. Even if that play had worked, what was the plan? Tisdale can shoot from there or continue driving for a dunk, but that still gives the Buckeyes a one point lead. Hoping for a foul and an and-one situation is not smart, because if Tisdale misses the basket or is not fouled, the Illini have no chance to tie up the game. The only play that would make the pass make sense is if Tisdale was trying to draw someone in and then kick the ball out for the three. The problem with this, assuming that is what the play was, is that Tisdale is not an accurate passer. Watch a game, and you will see that 80% of the time the senior gets rid of the ball, it is a hand off at the top of the key. While it is easy to analyze plays after they happen and a lot of credit is due to the Illini for keeping the game so close against the #1 team in the nation, you can’t help but wonder what could have been if a few calls had gone the other way.
● The argument over whether Bill Cole or Jereme Richmond should start has gotten very interesting. Cole has gotten the start over the freshman this year except for the Missouri and Iowa games, but Richmond has made a very strong case to start. Richmond has more points, rebounds, and assists per game than Cole despite coming off the bench. Cole is not the scoring threat that Richmond is, but I approved of him starting because of the energy he plays with on both sides of the ball. However, Richmond has proven that he can match that energy and it may be time for Weber to consider making a change.
Here are some quick player observations:
5 points (2-11 from the field, 1-5 from three, 0-1 from the foul line), 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 turnovers, 1 steals and 3 fouls in 31 minutes
○ McCamey really struggled in this one, playing out of sorts from start to finish. He set the stage early with a sloppy turnover in the transition and finished the game with a lazy pass to Tisdale in the final seconds. The senior could not seem to get his shots to fall, and the Buckeye defense really bothered him. The referees let Ohio State, particularly Aaron Craft, get very physical without calling anything, and this seemed to throw McCamey off his game. McCamey has really struggled to run good offense in most of Illinois’ losses this season, and Saturday’s game revealed his main deficiency as a point guard. McCamey is not a true point guard, regardless of what anyone says, because his decision making is not great when the game matters.
3 points (1-6 from the field, 1-5 from three), 3 rebounds, 2 assist, 2 steals, and 3 fouls in 25 minutes
○ Richardson continues to struggle through his funk, similar to what Brandon Paul went through the latter half of last year and Bill Cole endured earlier this season. In the past four games, Richardson is 3 for 19 from the field. It’s no surprise that the Illini are 1-3 in that 4 game stretch. Richardson needs to find his stroke again as the Illini prepare to take on Indiana on the road this Thursday.
6 points (2-4 from the field, 0-2 from three, 2-2 from the foul line), 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 turnover and 2 fouls in 15 minutes
○ Cole played very well for his limited minutes. While he did miss both three point attempts, he had two layups that he was fouled on, and managed to make both shots and the free throws for two old-school three point plays.
11 points (5-10 from the field, 1-2 from the foul line), 7 rebounds 1 assist and 2 fouls in 35 minutes
○ Davis was simply outmatched against Sullinger. While he did a decent job on offense and played as hard as he could, he was unable to stop the super freshman on defense. No surprises here.
15 points (5-9 from the field, 1-2 from three, 4-4 from the foul line), 4rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks, 2 turnovers and 4 fouls in 32 minutes
○ When one of your big men struggles against an opponent, you know that player is good. When both of them struggle against the same player, you know he is incredible. Sullinger bothered Tisdale with his physical play, and Tisdale got in foul trouble relatively early and had to back off the freshman in the post. With that said, both Tisdale and Davis played hard and tougher than usual. Unfortunately for the Illini, their big men are string beans compared to the man-child Sullinger.
8 points (3-11 from the field, 1-5 from three, 1-1 from the foul line), 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 turnover and 1 steal in 25 minutes
○ Paul may have let his last game, a 20 point performance against Michigan State, go to his head. With the exception of a stretch in the first half where he played well, Paul wasn’t consistent enough on Saturday.
18 points (9-12 from the field), 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block, 1 turnover, 3 fouls in 29 minutes
○ After a strong performance against Michigan State, Richmond had another terrific game, this time against the best team in the nation. The more I think about it, how is this kid not starting? Illinois may be better off benching either Tisdale or Davis and putting Cole and Richmond on the floor at the start of games, simply for the sake of much more consistent toughness.
2 points (1-2 from the field), 0 rebounds, 2 assists and 4 fouls in 8 minutes
○ Leonard had 4 fouls in 8 minutes, which is not surprising considering how raw he is and that Sullinger is as advanced of a freshman in college basketball that I’ve seen in a long time. To Leonard’s credit, he had a nice game passing the ball with his back to the basket, hitting Richmond for two easy buckets in the first half.
Tyler Griffey, Crandall Head, Joseph Bertrand, Kevin Berardini, Jean Selus
○ As expected, none of these Illini played.
The Illini are likely out of contention for the Big Ten regular season title with the loss, but they still can secure a top 3 seed in the Big Ten tournament if they finish strong.
It starts with a possible trap game on the road against Indiana. The Hoosiers have been close with several good teams this year but unable to close well.
The Illini are not exactly the best team at finishing strong either, so everyone must play well to earn the road win and get things moving back in the right direction.
Until next time.
Topics: Basketball, Bill Cole, Brandon Paul, Bruce Weber, College Basketball, Crandall Head, D.J. Richardson, Demetri McCamey, Illini, Illini Basketball, Illinois, Illinois Basketball, Jean Selus, Jereme Richmond, Joseph Bertrand, Kevin Berardini, Meyers Leonard, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale, Ohio State, Tyler Griffey, University Of Illinois