By Paul Schmidt
It was an opportunity to end a fringe bubble team’s season.
It was an opportunity to keep themselves squarely in the field.
Now, it seems that the Illini just might be fighting for their lives.
After their 62-60 loss to the Minnesota Golden Gophers – a game in which the Illini trailed by 19, 51-32 with 7:11 remaining on the clock – the Illini have put themselves in serious jeopardy.
The recipe was so simple: Hold serve at home, don’t get embarrassed by Ohio State on the road, and maybe pick up one win in the Big Ten Tournament. That would have not only been enough to get into the dance, but earn an 8 or a 9 seed.
Now…things have changed.
Now the Illini HAVE to — absolutely, no doubt in my mind, HAVE TO — beat Wisconsin at home next weekend.
They absolutely MUST win at least one game in the Big Ten Tournament to feel safe, and should probably consider winning a second.
The worst part of the Illini loss was the complete lack of energy with which they played.
“I thought we all felt pretty good in warm-ups, so there was no sense that that was going to happen,” Illinois forward Bill Cole said. “You see that energy like when we were coming back, when we flashed the press, and it’s like, ‘Hey guys, where was this energy the whole time’?
The Illini were again stymied by the zone, this time a basic 2-3 or 3-2 defense by the Gophers. According to Tubby Smith, the Gophers have drifted more and more to the zone over the past several games.
“We did it because we have been struggling guarding people man-to-man, giving up baskets all year like that,” Smith said. “When they were missing shots it becomes a matter of confidence or lack thereof. We didn’t give them many opportunities to beat us one-on-one.”
Contrary to how it looked in the first half, the Illini *did* actually practice against the zone this week, and significantly so.
“They went 3-2 into a 2-3, and basically that’s been 80 percent of our practice the last couple days,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said. “We’re not a great passing team, and you have to pass it against the zone. We missed so many shots, but we didn’t get any offensive rebounds, and that really hurt us. Plus, you have to get to the line more.”
Still, one has to question how the coaching staff could let a team, in what almost amounted to a play-in game for the NCAA Tournament, play and fail in such a spectacular way in the first half? This wasn’t #1 Kansas in Lawrence. It was Minnesota, on your home court!
The Illini cannot afford to have another lackluster effort this season. They, technically, couldn’t afford this one. There is, however, still reason for hope.
“No one’s a lock yet, and no one is all the way out if you’re in the middle of the pack like we are,” Bill Cole correctly said after the loss.
Still, the Illini are a lot closer to being out than they were just a few hours ago.