By Brad Thompson–
That ‘it’ is the toughness, leadership and fight that has been absent all season for the Fighting Illini. Tuesday night’s 89-70 loss to Ohio State was another example of ‘it’ not being there.
Illinois Coach Bruce Weber even said so after the game when talking about the impressive second half performance by Ohio State’s David Lighty.
When asked what his team was missing this season, Weber said, “Lighty. If you have a Lighty, a heart and soul who comes every day and does what you need. We just don’t have that toughness, that leadership – that difference-maker.”
What Weber said is true and maybe this is his way to motivate his players, but it’s got to hurt to hear your coach publicly say your team has no heart or soul.
The Fighting Illini’s odds of winning in Columbus against the third-ranked Buckeyes weren’t great, especially with Ohio State coming off a loss at Purdue, but Illinois hardly showed up. Sure Ohio State is solid team with senior leadership and some of the best young talent in the country, but it never felt like Illinois was ever in the game.
Weber is trying everything to get his team to play well. His strategy on Tuesday was to bring Demetri McCamey off the bench and start freshman Crandall Head in his place. This move, along with almost all the decisions Weber has made this season, did nothing to spark the Illini. McCamey ended up playing 34 minutes and had an average night for a player of his caliber – 15 points, four rebounds and six assists to go along with five turnovers.
After last season McCamey and Mike Davis both tested the NBA draft waters. When each decided to return for their senior season, the expectations in Champaign soared. With a 7-8 Big Ten record and having lost eight of the last 12 games, clearly Illinois hasn’t met those expectations.
Ohio State played harder and wanted it more than Illinois did on Tuesday. The Illini didn’t have the fight in them it takes to win on the road in the Big Ten, let alone upset the third-ranked Buckeyes. The fact that Illinois make eight of nine three-pointers to start the game overshadowed their inability to compete with the Buckeyes, especially on the defensive end. Even with their incredible shooting from behind the arc the Illini were still down by 15 at the half, mostly because Ohio State went on a 14-2 run to end the half. Finishing strong to end a half is the sign of a good team, for Illinois that sign is pointing the wrong way.
Last week I predicted Illinois will make the NCAA tournament and I still believe that. With home games against Big Ten bottom feeders Indiana and Iowa, the Illini should at least finish Big Ten Conference play with a 9-9 record. Their only other game on their schedule is a road trip to West Lafayette to face eighth-ranked Purdue. This game can only help Illinois, losing to a top-ranked team won’t hurt their tournament resume too much and beating Purdue would secure a spot in the field of 68.
Weber’s squad has those three games left in the regular season and the Big Ten Tournament to figure things out. They have the talent and experience to make noise if they are invited to the Big Dance, but if Davis and McCamey don’t step up their leadership, Illinois will have a quick exit.
Their window is closing, but Illinois still has time to get it together. Let’s see if ‘it’ happens.
Do you agree with Brad? Post your comments below.
Brad M. Thompson, a former college football player and coach, made his return to the Midwest in 2009 after fighting wildfires out West. He earned his master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and covers the Big Ten Conference and Chicago sports. Follow him on Twitter at @Brad_M_Thompson. Find more of Brad’s blogs here.