Just think of what could have been if the Fighting Illini played the entire game like they played the last 6 minutes of tonight’s first round NCAA Tournament game. Watching the University of Illinois basketball team play tonight, you would have thought their record was 9-24. If you didn’t know better, a 24-9 record would have been unfathomable.
In the opening round of the 2009 NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, Illini coach Bruce Weber was selling his team as the underdog. I think Weber has an incredible understanding of his basketball team after witnessing their performance in tonight’s game.
Illinois just got totally outplayed tonight by a very scrappy Western Kentucky University Hilltopper team. The Hilltoppers played very impressively in beating Illinois 76-72, putting an end to an overachieving season for the Fighting Illini, who lost 4 of their last 5 games to close the season. Down by 17 points with 6 minutes to play, Illinois made a furious comeback to make the final score respectable, but this game was lost by their sloppy, uninspired play in the first 34 minutes of the game.
The Illini were outhustled on both sides of the floor tonight, being out-rebounded by 10 boards. Western Kentucky came out playing intense, at an incredibly quick pace and they made Illinois looked like they were standing still, which is literally how they played this game. Illinois looked asleep, getting killed by back door cuts and the wide open 3-point shot. Illinois looked bored, unathletic, lacking physical play and all-out effort. The end result was reflective of the effort that Illinois provided.
I wrote in a post earlier in the week that if Illinois G Chester Frazier couldn’t play, the trio of sophomore players needed to step up their games. G Demetri McCamey, F Mike Davis, and C Mike Tisdale needed to step up to lead this team. Of the three, Davis was the only one that even came close to doing anything productive. McCamey once again, played small on the big stage and Tisdale was never in the game, physically or mentally. The only Illini player that was ready to play at the same level of intensity and passion was senior G Trent Meacham, who led Illinois in scoring with 24 points.
The Fighting Illini have lacked an inside game for as long as I can remember. Even in 2005 when Illinois was national runner-up to North Carolina, they were a guard oriented, perimeter dominant team. At least the guards on that team had a little athleticism. The current Illini team lacks explosive athleticism at the guard position and their interior players lack strength and quickness.
The next two years of recruiting classes will bring a much needed fusion of talent, both on the perimeter and on the inside. Then we’ll see how the Illini game fares. Until that talent arives, the Illini faithful should be estatic that this year’s team won 24 games with this level of talent.