Friday, January 28, 2011
(Photo: Indiana players celebrate Thursday's upset win over No. 20 Illinois: Darron Cummings, Champaign [IL] News-Gazette)
It's become a familiar refrain here at Drive and Dish, but we gave serious consideration to using this blog to predict an Indiana upset over No. 20 Illinois yesterday. Unfortunately, yesterday's beginning-to-end, tightly-packed schedule didn't permit us the time required to write a coherent, quality blog post. But we thought that last night's game looked to be an obvious "trap game" for the always mercurial Fighting Illini: Illinois was coming off a hard-fought, nail-biting, nationally-televised home loss to to No. 1 Ohio State and was expected to make amends by rolling over an injury-riddled, last-place opponent on the road.
As long as the sun comes up in the east, Bruce Weber's Illini can be expected to follow up a heart-breaking loss in which they "choke" at the end of a nationally-televised "big game" against a highly ranked opponent (Illinois' usual "big game" result), with an unforeseen, almost laughable, quickie loss to a lower-regarded opponent. Such "let down" losses are usually the result of Illinois' players overlooking their supposedly "inferior" opponents, and accordingly, forgetting to "show up."
If you're a smart gambler, you always bet against Illinois.
And once again, it's too bad we didn't get the chance to make our prediction, because, true to form, No. 20 Illinois suffered a humiliating 52-49 road loss to struggling Indiana Thursday night in Bloomington, IN.
With the upset win, the Hoosiers notched their mere seventh Big Ten conference win -- and their first win over an opponent ranked in the AP Top 25 -- since Tom Crean became head coach of the once-great, but recently-moribund program three years ago. Making matters worse for Illinois was the fact that the depleted Hoosiers were without both of their starting guards, Verdell Jones and Maurice Creek.
Illinois' record now drops to 14-7 overall, and to an eye-opening 4-4 in Big Ten play. Indiana improved to a meager 11-10 overall, and 2-6 in the Big Ten. What makes Illinois' most recent letdown loss all the more galling for Illini fans is the fact that, once again, Illinois has failed to live up to lofty preseason expectations. Most analysts had expected the upperclassmen-laden Illini to compete for the 2011 Big Ten conference title and to be a major player in the NCAA Tournament in March. But now with the Big Ten title out of reach, Illinois finds itself in an all-too-familiar place -- sitting directly atop the NCAA Tournament bubble.
College basketball fans may remember that Illinois was widely expected to do big things last year. However, the 2009-2010 team spent the season with a figurative ball and chain affixed to an ankle after it sauntered its way into back-to-back embarrassing upset losses at the hands of Utah and Bradley in the 2009 Las Vegas Invitational Thanksgiving Tournament. Despite high preseason expectations, the 2010 Illini muddled their way through what turned out to be a challenging schedule, and limped into the final week of the season as one of the most high profile teams on the proverbial NCAA Tournament "bubble." Ultimately, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee left Illinois out of the Tournament field, and the Illini ended their disappointing 2010 season with an ugly home loss to Dayton in the N.I.T.
This season was supposed to be different. Heading into the inaugural 2010-2011 tip-off, Illinois looked good on paper. First, they had the distinction of being the tallest team in college basketball. Their roster had two players who stood at least seven feet tall, and they had a returning starting front line that went 7'1", 6'9" and 6'9," respectively. Second, Illinois featured a promising coterie of experienced upperclassman, talented sophomores and highly-touted freshmen from the much-hyped 2010 Illini recruiting class. But perhaps most importantly, Illinois entered the season with the ace-in the-hole of being led by a standout senior point guard, Demetri McCamey. And that seemed to bode extremely well for the Illini, since point guards are the lifeblood of college basketball. Want to look like a genius when filling out your NCAA Tournament bracket? Pick teams that are led by tough, experienced, standout point guards. Your brackets will thank you.
Unfortunately for Illinois, all their size, talent (or purported talent) and experience hasn't been enough to turn their fortunes around from last year. First team All Big Ten senior point guard Demetri McCamey, senior power forward Mike Davis, senior center Mike Tisdale and senior forward Bill Cole have loads of experience, but they have yet to exhibit consistent toughness, intensity, competitiveness and determination to win. That amounts to a lack of leadership. And it shows in the results, as the Illini are quickly spiraling their way out of being in legitimate NCAA Tournament contention.
This past Saturday, llinois gave undefeated, No. 1 Ohio State all it could handle in the friendly confines (for the Illini--not so friendly for visiting teams) of Assembly Hall in Champaign, IL. But predictably, Ohio State's much-vaunted inside game, led by super freshman Jared Sullinger, wore the Illini down late in the game. And ultimately, the Illini came up short of pulling off an upset win over the No. 1 team in college basketball. That wouldn't have been a problem for Illinois if the Illini had come out of Bloomington, IN, with a "W" last night (as they were supposed to do). Close losses to good teams don't hurt you in the eyes of the Tournament Selection Committee when you've got a good record, you have plenty of impressive wins over good teams, you have a string of road wins, and you win the games that you're supposed to win. But close losses to good teams won't help you get you into the NCAA Tournament when you're bogged down with multiple embarrassing losses to bad teams, when you don't win games on the road (Illinois is currently 1-3 on the road), and when you fall to teams that you're supposed to beat.
Illinois was supposed to be good this year. But once again, they've failed to live up to expectations. And once again, they're in big trouble with regard to their prospects for making it in to the NCAA Tournament.