Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde seems to be a pretty accurate description of how the Illini played last night. They started off strongly with solid defense and decent offense, although it was a missed opportunity not to pull further ahead at the beginning when Indiana was down.

After the strong start, Illinois allowed Indiana to make a big run late in the first half and then another run to start the second half. Thus, they had to constantly dig themselves out of holes of their own creation caused by lapses on defense and poor shot selections on offense. Despite the lapses on defense, however, give the Illini credit for holding Indiana to their lowest shooting percentage of the year--40.8%.

Ultimately, however, free throws are what cost Illinois the game. Since the free throws did not come at what would appear to be crucial moments, it may not have been apparent to most viewers how important those free throws were. Illinois shot only 50% from the line. That's right, 8 of 16. Indiana made 15 of 23. Illinois made 25 field goals to Indiana's 20, although Indiana had 5 more 3-pointers (Illinois was an uncharacteristic 2 of 14 from 3 point range). If you do the math, that means Illinois outscored the Hoosiers by 5 points from the floor. The Hoosiers made up for that with 7 more made free throws. If Illinois had made just 3 more free throws, which would still have been less than 70% free throw shooting, they would have won the game. For a recap of the game, click here, here, or here.

Thankfully, there were also some postivies that came out of the game. I was very frustrated during the second half as Illinois went down by 15. I started to wonder if they were just going to give up and concede the game. The way they were playing, that seemed to be the case. I know this will probably sound cheesy but that frustration turned to pride as they battled back and got within 2 points a couple of times down the stretch. Even though they weren't able to pull the game out in the end, the team showed a mental toughness that I wasn't sure they had. Even though it was a loss, they should be able to build off of this and learn from the experience. The thing we all need to remember is that, other than Dee and Augie, this is still a young team from an experience standpoint and they are going to encounter growing pains.

I really liked what I saw from Pruitt last night. I have been on him about his free throws but he played a very solid game in the post last night, both offensively and defensively. He seemed to be the only one that could do much with Killingsworth. Randle also was very active and had a nice all around game. My only concern with him is that this is the second game in a row where he has fouled out and it really hurts to lose his defense late in the game. Augustine had a decent game but fouls were a problem for him as well (although his first two fouls were pretty poor calls by the refs in my opinion). He also missed 3 out of 4 free throws, which shouldn't happen with a senior of his caliber. With Augie sitting for extended periods of time, Indiana ended up outrebounding Illinois 39 to 31, which didn't help the Illini's cause.

I think it is safe to say for the moment that this team goes as Dee goes. In the two Big Ten games that he has played well in, Illinois has won. In the two games he has played poorly, they have lost. Give him credit for having 11 assists, five rebounds, and 3 steals last night but we need a little more scoring from him, even thoguh that is asking a lot from one player. I think it is a positive that Illinois was almost able to pull out a tough game on the road despite getting only 5 points from Dee but the team really needs to have a little more scoring consistency from him if they are going to contend for a Big Ten title. We also need more from the guards as a whole. They just didn't get it done last night.

With two losses (and Wisconsin at 4-0), the team's margin for error is shrinking. They need to win these next three games (at Northwestern and then at home against Minnesota and Purdue) prior to going into the Wisconsin game on January 31st if they want to still be in a position to contend for the title.

One other observation from last night as well as the Iowa game. At the end of both of those games, fans came streaming onto the court in celebration. It just goes to show you how far the Illinois program has come--it is a big, big deal for the opposing team when they manage to beat the Illini. I don't like to lose but I do like that it is such a big accomplishment for the other team when they beat us. It speaks of how good Illinois has been lately. Kudos to Coach Weber and the players for bringing the program to that level. (But how about we not let any other teams this year have that type of celebration?)

In closing, I think if you had told anyone at the beginning of the season that we would be 16-2 at this point, then they would have been thrilled. At this point, however, 2 losses in 3 games is a little disappointing and, frankly, Illinois missed a golden opportunity last night to steal a big road win that would have helped immensely in the conference title race. But that is also the reality of the Big Ten conference season. What the Illini did last year was an abberation in terms of going through the conference season with only one loss. That just doesn't happen for any team in any conference very often. Illinois is still in the hunt for the title this year and even if they come up a little short, they could be very well positioned for the NCAA tournament if their young players continue to develop and if they continue to grow as a team.

Up next: At Northwestern on Saturday (3:30 p.m. tip). Go ILLINI!

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