Two straight road losses have forced Illinois into doing some soul-searching. After blistering the nets in three straight dominant efforts to begin the Big 10 season, the Illini lost focus and drive against beatable opponents. They got behind against both Penn State and Wisconsin and couldn't battle back.
A lot of things broke down, both collectively and individually. They rushed shots, didn't work the ball inside and played defense only sporadically. Rebounding was lacking, and the transition game that helped them early in the season appeared in moth balls.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber knows what his team didn't do, but getting it to make improvements is another issue. He works on transition every practice.
"They've got to run harder. We have a drill we start out with every day called 'Sprintout.' It's something that we picked up from Michigan State. We're running, but we're not sprinting.
"I think too, Demetri (McCamey) has got to push it, not to put pressure on the defense but flatten out the defense to get them below the free throw line. You get them sucked in, now you move the basketball. I think that would help also.
"A part of it though, you get into the league and transition defense gets better, your offense gets better, your offensive transition to defense gets better. (Now) you don't get those easy baskets. The players are wondering where they are. Well, you've got to run harder, and you've got to be a little more patient. Move it and be more patient."
Illini guards are often quick to run down court when opponents miss shots, but they are out of position when their front line doesn't secure the rebound according to Weber.
"In our sprintout drill, we make them stay in the box until they get the rebound. The first play of the (Wisconsin) game, we get a stop. Mike Davis, Billy (Bill Cole) and one Wisconsin guy are fighting for the rebound. And D.J. (Richardson) and Mike Tisdale take off, so they're out of the picture. Now the ball gets tipped, and it bounces to Wisconsin.
"D.J. is quick enough to come back and get some long rebounds. One of Brandon's (Paul's) attributes is to rebound. If we were getting 4 or 5 easy baskets a game, you could maybe put up with not getting a long rebound here or there. But we're not getting those baskets, we're not getting the long rebounds. I say right now, 'Let's get the rebound and maybe we still can push it.'
"We've got to get something out of some transition. Hopefully we will be able to do that at home against a couple of very good teams in Michigan State and Ohio State."
Michigan State is the Tuesday evening opponent, and powerhouse Ohio State visits for a Saturday morning game. For the Illini to win, they must reverse their recent tendency to fall behind at the beginning of the game and the beginning of the second half so they won't have to play from behind all game.
And they must have contributions from all their players. Mike Davis is one of the Illini who's been in a recent slump. He gets a double-double first game against Wisconsin at home and then grabs only one board in the rematch and is a non-factor. Weber would love to find a solution.
"I can't explain it. When he has a sense of urgency, he seems to assert himself. At times, it's style of play of teams. He's not a real physical guy. If the game is more up and down, a game that's not quite as physical, Mike seems to have pretty good success. That's one theory, but I'm not sure that always matches up.
"It's a puzzling case. Hopefully we all can figure it out before it's too late. We're getting deep into the second part of the season. We need consistency from Mike Davis, we need it from everybody. We have to have a feel for what we're getting from guys every game. We can't have all these surprises and mysteries."
Davis is looking for answers also.
"I've just got to be active. When I'm active out there, I'm a good player. It gets me going. If I'm getting down on myself or doing things that are not active, I'm not good."
Davis guesses at a possible reason for his and his team's slumps.
"I don't know. Maybe we don't deal with success, we get kind of comfortable. I think we need to play with a little bit of a swagger. We're #16 in the country (now 22nd and 23rd), so we need to play like it. If we do we'll be fine. We can't come out nonchalant like it's gonna be easy.
"I've got to play better. I know that, the team knows that. We had a good meeting with the whole team and staff. We've just got to come out and play with heart and fight. And I have to play better. If I don't play better, we're gonna lose again."
The Spartans are 12-5 on the season. They have struggled but won several close games during a tremendously difficult schedule. They lack the physicality of past years, but they are battle-tested and ready to break out according to Weber.
"They guard. Their field goal percentage defense is 39% in the league. When you do that, and then they're able to rebound, they're good in transition, they steal some baskets, obviously it's a pretty good formula."
Weber understands the limitations facing the Spartans this year.
"I think they miss their big guys. Goran Suton, (Marquise) Gray and (Idong) Ibok were veteran five-year players. They knew the system, knew how to screen to get people open. It's not that their guys now are bad, but they don't have the experience, the bodies, the physicalness those guys had. They miss them.
"And then (Kalin) Lucas, when you don't play basketball for a long period of time, it takes awhile to come back. I think he shows some signs of that, but he's still trying to figure it out.
"They haven't shot the ball exceptional, but all it takes is one game to really get going. If they shoot it well, it makes them really tough to defend. They have great quickness and can spread you on the court."
Senior point guard Lucas (6'-1", 195) is the leading scorer for the Spartans with a 14.7 average. He is shooting .415 from the arc and has 62 assists. He may not have all his quickness back yet after his Achilles tear, but he is still fast and smart running the MSU offense.
Senior Durrell Summers (6'-5", 205) follows Lucas closely with 14.2 points a game. He is shooting over 40% from the three point line also while skying for nearly five boards a game. Junior Korie Lucious (5'-11", 170) and freshman Keith Appling (6'-1", 180) compliment Lucas well at the guard spots. Both average between 6 and 7 points a game and are fast and explosive. Lucious has 65 assists, while Appling is shooting over 45% from three.
Junior Draymond Green (6'-6", 230) is the heart and soul of the team and its best all-around asset. He is averaging 12.8 points and 9 rebounds a game. He is shooting .463 from the field including .415 from the arc. He leads the team with 66 assists and has 32 steals. He was the best Spartan last year as 6th man and is an indispensable man as a starter.
Athetic junior forward Delvon Roe (6'-8", 230) hasn't put everything together as expected, but he is shooting nearly 50% from the floor and averages 6 boards a game. He also has 24 blocks in 17 games.
When Roe isn't playing the post, a triumverate of big players is. Sophomore Garrick Sherman (6'-10", 240) has had good moments. Freshman Adreian Payne (6'-10", 225) is a highly rated freshman with length and leaping ability who is still figuring out college ball. And sophomore Derrick Nix (6'-9", 270) is the kind of bull coach Tom Izzo loves to have on hand. Other Spartans who make contributions include junior Austin Thornton (6'-5", 220) and senior Mike Kebler (6'-4", 205).
Illini sophomore Tyler Griffey has great respect for the Spartans.
"They're a well-coached team, they're a disciplined team. They're always gonna be amped up to play against us. They get good play from Lucas, Lucious and Green, so it will be a good game and fun to play in. They're gonna be physical, they're gonna be tough. You've got to be ready for it. I think we'll be prepared. I'm looking forward to it."
McCamey knows what the Illini need do to win.
"They are a real good team. Draymond Green can play any position on the court. We know we've got to contain him and not let Lucas and Durrell Summers go off. We've got to play team defense and rebound the basketball.
"We know they're tough, they defend and like to rebound and attack the glass. We've got to do a better job than we did Saturday at Wisconsin. We know we've got the players to beat them. We know it will be a tough game that will come down to the wire. We've got to execute better than we did the last two games."
Davis will be guarding Green at least part of the time. He wants to be tougher than at Wisconsin.
"I'll probably be guarding Draymond to start off, and Delvon Roe. I didn't do a good job on (Jon) Leuer. I've got to do a better job. If Draymond goes for 26, we're gonna lose. He's a guard pretty much. He's a point forward. Coach Izzo gives him a lot of freedom. I've got to stay down and guard him so we can win this game."
The Big 10 is a war this year. Nearly every game is a tossup, and fans of all 11 teams expect their favorites to win most of them. Obviously, there are already many disenchanted fans around the Midwest right now. But this is also true for Big 10 coaches. Weber tells it like it is after a loss.
"It's painful. It's very hard to deal with. I'm just being honest. It means a lot. You put a lot of time into it; it's your life.
"Winning and losing I think sometimes is overblown. I'm just disappointed in our performance the last two games. We lost the play-hard charts, I didn't think we were great in execution. To me, that's just as painful as a loss. And then having to be a parent to 13-14 kids and deal with all the ups and downs, it can be mentally draining."
He has no intention of giving up. He is determined to see his Illini get back in the race for the championship. He provides a formula for success.
"I think the big thing is to play hard. We have to come out and play hard. I think that's got to be a big thing, to come out and play our butts off at home and compete. Hopefully some of the things will start going your way.
"It shouldn't be a stressful situation. It should be, 'Hey, we've got two great teams coming in. We're playing at home, students are back. We're on national ESPN Tuesday, and we lead off a national TV tripleheader on Saturday. It should be something that you relish, but you've got to go in with the mindset we're gonna compete our butts off."Davis says two wins this week puts the Illini back in the race for the championship. He realizes his senior class has been in a feedback loop where it wins big games and then plays poorly. That must change.
"It's just kind of the way we've always been. We win a couple games, then we come out and lay an egg. It's getting down the line, it's getting late. We've got to change it. If we don't change it, we're not gonna win the Big 10 championship like it is our goal to do."