By Paul Schmidt
What exactly is wrong with the Illini?
Perhaps more specifically, why can’t the Illinois men’s basketball team play well on the road? Or in the first halves of games? Or with any degree of consistency?
There certainly isn’t a simple answer to this problem. It seemed as though the answer would be starting Jeff Jordan at the point guard position instead of Demetri McCamey. While McCamey is a much better scorer than Jordan, that just isn’t what the Illini need — they need a passer, a ball distributor, an energy guy. The one thing the Illini have a bevy of this season is players that can fill it up. There’s no less than six players on the roster who have had a 20-point game this season, but no true passer to put in the lineup with them. That’s the role that Jordan fills so well.
Unfortunately, as can be evidenced from their lackluster effort in Bloomington against Indiana, that wasn’t the solution. Though the team is still playing better with Jordan in the lineup, they were again plagued by a slow start, poor shooting, and a complete lack of any orientation on defense.
So, what is wrong with the Illini?
“You can come back by playing good defense and playing hard, but at the end you’re going to have to pay for it, because your legs will be tired and you will be exhausted,” Illinois’ McCamey said after their loss to Gonzaga. “You just can’t do that against good teams.”
While this is true, the Illini haven’t exclusively been falling behind good teams — they have been doing it to the bad ones too: Illinois trailed big against Indiana, Northwestern, Wofford, Utah, Bradley, Clemson and Missouri as well.
“We’ve probably only had two or three good starts this season in the first five minutes,” McCamey said. “It’s just not this game, it’s something we’ve got to figure out for the Big Ten season. We’ve talked about it, that the first five minutes are the first part of the war, and we just haven’t done that this season. We’ve got to pick it up at the start of games, pick it up and put them on their heels.”
It’s that type of start that has not only spawned “The Cardiac Illini”, but has also given the Illini some ridiculously frustrating losses, including the game against Gonzaga at the United Center, one of the more frustrating games in recent Illini memory.
“It’s one thing to just go down and get beaten by 30, but to be down 21 or 22 points in the first half, cut the lead to 2, end up taking the lead…” Illinois forward Dominique Keller said after the Gonzaga loss, his voice trailing off. “I’m just tired and frustrated to just come back from that and lose, it’s way worse than just getting blown out.”
The Illini struggles extend further than just lackluster first halves and trouble on the road, however. The Illini have lost seven straight on neutral courts dating back to last season, and that has led to a lot of confusion and discussion on the team as to what the problem could be.
“I don’t know,” Keller said. “We all know before these games that we’re not getting it done on the road or on neutral courts. I don’t know if it is just us having a lot of young players, or our older players not stepping it up, or if it is a combination of both.”
“For some reason, we just can’t get it done on neutral courts, though, and it’s like I was telling the team a couple of weeks ago, that’s not a good stat to have,” Keller added. “In the NCAA Tournament, all the courts are neutral. You don’t play on your own floor. You don’t play on the road. You play on neutral courts, so it is definitely something that we’ve got to fix in a hurry, because if we are fortunate enough to make the Tournament, every game from there on out will be on a neutral court.”
After another beat, Keller reiterated the point one more time for emphasis.
“We definitely have got to fix that,” Keller said grimly. “It’s hard with no more neutral court games.”