There wasn’t much you could say about the Illini and their fall to top-ranked Ohio State on Saturday afternoon.
It was certainly disappointing.
It was certainly a let down after building a lead.
The one thing you really can’t call it, and we all know it deep down inside, was all that surprising.
There was a lot going on in this game, so let’s put all of the thoughts onto the table.
First and foremost, let’s dispense with the officiating argument. The officials probably could have called fouls every time Jared Sullinger had the ball, if they wanted to. And yeah, I know, if you go look at my twitter feed…umm…well it contradicts that. For certain. But at the same time, that was the heat of the moment — Looking back on it, the fouls, called or uncalled, were important but not the tipping factor.
The factor was….Demetri McCamey.
For 40 minutes, the Illini played close with Ohio State, and had the Illini received anything from McCamey, they could have won the game. What they received was…ugh.
5 points (on 2-of-11 shooting), 5 assists and four turnovers. If you’re looking for a reason why the Illini lost and why you shouldn’t be surprised, there it is.
It is encouraging that the Illini were able to even keep it this close with the Buckeyes, considering how poorly McCamey played. That’s usually when the Illini fall apart, when McCamey isn’t on the court or is out of focus and playing poorly.
Against the Buckeyes, it almost looked like the team flourished. With McCamey on the bench with two fouls and five minutes left in the first half, the Illini gave a little ground but were able to go on an 8-0 run to end the half and take a one point lead into the half.
The leadership of the underclassmen, specifically Jereme Richmond, Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson was paramount during that run.
Then down the stretch, the Illini couldn’t maintain any of their momentum. They ran up to an 8 point lead at the 11:59 mark, and it was then, with the score 50-42 that they stopped pushing the ball.
They stopped attacking the hoop.
They stopped running the offense.
In reality, they just…stopped.
When the Illini become stagnant like that, watching the clock and running time down, and not executing much motion in the offense until the shot clock hits 10 seconds, they become a really easy team to defend.
It keeps happening to the Illini, and to hear Illinois head coach Bruce Weber talk about it is obviously difficult to get them out of that rut.
“Yesterday in practice we did a few offensive things, I said, ‘OK, seven point lead, you’ve got the ball, six minutes left,” Weber said. “Because, we’ve hit points in the game where we watch the clock, we don’t cut hard, or move hard. And defenses pick up — they grab on to you, they hold you — and now you’ve got to react to it. It came back to haunt us.”
“You’ve got a lead, and you’ve got to find a way to make plays,” Weber said. “I don’t think we’re selfish as a team, but we’ve got a few guys looking to hit a grand slam instead of looking for the simple play.”
Given how well the younger players played together in this one you have to expect that they will see more time, especially together, as the season goes on. It would certainly be deserved. And you would think that all of the seniors, even McCamey, would start seeing less court time together.
And that isn’t to bag on McCamey. He is a great, talented player and the Illini wouldn’t be where they are now without him. Sometimes you are going to have a bad game, and you have to rely on your teammates to pick you up and carry you.
For the most part, that’s what happened against Ohio State, until the very end when they just couldn’t hold on.
That, however, may be the most troubling and worrisome part — This Illini team simply can’t afford for McCamey to have an off night. If it happens again you’ll most likely see a similar result: The Illini falling just short.
Just don’t be surprised by it when it happens.
Paul Schmidt is a senior contributor and media relations director for the Sports Bank, and is entering his tenth year of writing about sports in Chicago and Illinois. You can reach him via email here.Follow paulmbanks