Illinois Basketball: Observations from the Northwestern & Maryland losses

CHAMPAIGN, IL - NOVEMBER 22: Mark Alstork /

This last weekend, the Illinois basketball team did not fare fell against two more tough opponents.

Brad Underwood’s squad went 0-3 this past week, dropping the contests by a combined 12 points.  Two of these games were decided in overtime, where the Illini did not make enough plays down the stretch to win.  There were way too many key mistakes when it mattered most.

Let me start off by saying, I am very impressed with the fight that Underwood has instilled into his players.  These guys aren’t used to winning much, and they have such a losing mentality that it is tough for them to win close games.  But, in all three games last week, they fought until the end which really says a lot to me.

After dropping a tough 80-73 road decision to Wake Forest in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the Illini traveled to Rosemont to face the Northwestern Wildcats, a team that has really struggled to find their identity this season.

The Illini seemed to be in control of this game for the majority of the contest, but they really struggled to make plays down the stretch in regulation and overtime.  They struggled a lot again with attacking the zone defense and committed 19 turnovers in the process.

Illinois had this game at their fingertips and lost it.  There were some good things that came out of this game, though.  Te’Jon Lucas was very aggressive on both ends of the floor.  He finished with 14 points, which is a very good sign.  Leron Black had 15 points and 7 rebounds, and Mark Alstork added 14 points.  Aaron Jordan finished with 10 points and continues to shoot the ball very well.

On Sunday, the Illini returned home to face Anthony Cowan and the Maryland Terrapins.  This game was embarrassing from the start, as the Terrapins opened the game on a 10-0 run.  There was no effort from anyone in the starting lineup.  Nobody seemed like they wanted to be there.

Underwood was livid at his guys, as the Terrapins shot 73-percent from the field en route to a 45-26 halftime lead.  I was at this game and honestly considered leaving at halftime because the play of the Illini was absolutely atrocious.

But, whatever Underwood did in the locker room at halftime worked, as the Illini fought all the way back to take the lead late in the second half.

The Illini held a 75-73 lead with 4.3 seconds left and the ball. Instead of running a play to get the ball in, the Illini didn’t bring anyone to the ball, forcing Da’Monte Williams to throw a full court pass that was not touched.  This allowed the Terrapins to have the ball under their own basket.

After missing a game-winning three, the Terrapins tipped it in at the buzzer to force overtime.  Eventually, they would win on an Anthony Cowan free throw with no time left on the clock in OT.

For starters, I think that call at the end was pretty bad.  Yes, there was some contact there, but you can’t let a controversial foul call decide a big game like that.

Either way, this was another heartbreaker for the Illini.  The Illini really struggled to stop Anthony Cowan – 27 points – at the beginning of the game.  They really should’ve pulled this game out, especially after forcing 25 Terrapin turnovers.

Aaron Jordan was on fire again, finishing with 15 points.  Leron Black had 18 points and 5 rebounds, and Mark Alstork had 17 points.  I thought Alstork played great this weekend, especially late in the game.  He really showed that he was a veteran, especially his play defensively down the stretch.

After thinking about both games, not only did the Illini struggle with turnovers and making plays down the stretch, but two key players played pretty bad this weekend.  Mark Smith and Michael Finke just didn’t play like I thought they would.

Smith had an awful week and just couldn’t get anything going.  He could barely stay on the floor with foul trouble and missed defensive assignments and just looked lost out there.  I expect him to respond and play better but the Illini definitely could’ve used him this past week.

Finke just didn’t play well this last week, and you should expect more from one of the veterans of the squad.  The Champaign native can’t hit an outside shot to save his life right now and gives up so many points on defense because of how slow he his.  I was very frustrated with Finke’s performances.

Next: 4 takeaways from the loss to Maryland

Overall, the Illini had a disappointing week, a week in which they could’ve easily gone 3-0.  But the Illini have a chance to bounce back this week.  They face Austin Peay at home on Wednesday, a game in which they should win handily, before traveling to Las Vegas to take on a very good UNLV squad.  This game will be a very tough test for Underwood and company but, hopefully, they can rebound and pull out a quality road win that they desperately need.