By Paul M. Banks and Paul Schmidt
Never bet against red on Valentine’s Day. The scarlet clad Ohio State Buckeyes 72-53 dominance of Illinois on February 14th was both shocking and disturbing. Like finding out your fiance once appeared in an early “Girls Gone Wild” video. It dramatically alters both your expectations and your beliefs.
Today, Illinois dropped a home game versus a team they will have to play again in their gym on March 2nd. “It is a good wake up call and made the guys more humble, and showed us we still have more work to do…I don’t think we did anything well, to tell the truth,” Junior guard Demetri McCamey said.
After today, I’m guessing you don’t like the Illini chances in the game at Value City Arena, nor the Illini prospects in their next contest, at #7 Purdue. The Boilers are red hot, winners of five in a row, and have already beaten Illinois at Assembly Hall this season. At 17-9, 9-4 in conference, adding in these two potential losses puts Illinois at 6 conference defeats.
Like I have said numerous times since conference play started, Illinois needs to go 12-6 or better in conference to get a tourney bid. Or 11-7 and then win a Big Ten tournament game. Normally, I would pencil in at least one or two Illini wins for the conference tourney, because they have the best winning percentage, most wins etc. in that tournament’s history.
But not this year- because it’s played on the neutral court of Conseco Fieldhouse and the Illini are 0-5 on neutral courts this season. I hate to be a buzzkill, or a “Negative Ned,” so I’ll bring up something positive now. The last three remaining games I haven’t mentioned yet are all very winnable. And that gets you to the magic 12-6 mark. The schedule includes: February 23rd at Michigan (who just don’t have it this year), February 27th versus Minnesota (who look like they may have packed it in for the season) and March 6th/7th (hey guys, any time you want to tell us when this game will be, fine by us….) home versus Wisconsin in the “swing game”. No, I’m not referring to Bo Ryan’s offense.
Wisco could have Jon Leuer back by then, and his absence was key to the Illini going up to the Kohl Center and stealing one away. Sconnie will no doubt be looking for vengeance, and I’m predicting that game will come down to the wire. Of course, given what happened to Illinois today, all immediate prognostications will be exceedingly negative. Just like people in Illination were believing the Illini could run the table a few days ago.
“Don’t know if we prepared as well as we should — maybe that’s human nature when everyone is telling you how good you are,” Coach Weber said after game.
Reasons for NCAA hope: On paper 11-7 looks very likely, and 12-6 could still happen.
Illini have 3/5 left on the road, and the team’s 5-2 road record invites warm thoughts.
Most importantly, this team has shown an ability to produce when their backs are against the wall, winning at both Clemson and Indiana despite being down significant margins. “In the past they have come back big and beat some great teams,” His Royal Smoothness Evan Turner said following his team’s big win over Illinois.
Reasons to make NIT travel plans:Demetri McCamey is still this team’s entire offense. When he struggles, look out. Baby Ben shot 4-12 from the field Sunday (of course, garbage time production allowed him to finish one point and one assist shy of a double double) and the team’s scoring output severely diminished.
“Things just weren’t going our way, though. Then I think we started hanging our heads, and I’m not sure that anyone played well. No one picked up anyone else, verbally, physically…We all have to play well, if McCamey does, they have to focus on him and not on everyone else,” Head Coach Bruce Weber said after the game.
The schedule does them no favors, and as I said earlier, you can’t pencil in a Big Ten Tourney win this year.
Mike Davis hasn’t done a Demetri style turnaround in response to his benching, and he’s a key cog to this season. You can’t honestly say that the freshmen, Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, have made huge strides in their development this season either.