Illinois could never shake a small but determined Coppin State team Sunday night. Their 17 point winning margin is no reflection of the closeness of the game. Illini head coach Bruce Weber admitted some trepidation as the second half clock ran down.
"It was a little scary for awhile. That was one thing we talked about. They were just gonna play. They've been to UConn, they've been to Purdue, they've been to Oklahoma. Those kids are for the most parts veterans and are not gonna back down to anybody. And they're gonna shoot the three; half their shots are threes. If you don't get to them, they can make some shots.
"They got on a little bit of a run. We had to change our defensive matchups. We went small ball to match them. D.J. made a big jumper, and we got it into Meyers. They had no answer for him. We finally got some shutouts in a stretch. I don't think the score is indicative of the game."
The Illini and Eagles basically traded baskets until the score was tied 20-20. The Illini got threes from Sam Maniscalco and Brandon Paul, and Meyers Leonard hit Richardson for a layup to provide the 8 point lead the Illini enjoyed at halftime. But Weber lamented the Illini never took over the contest.
"In the first half, maybe we subbed too much at one time. The finish at the half was not the best and let them get their head up. We could never get control of the game."
Weber wasn't looking for excuses, but Illini players undoubtedly had their minds on things besides basketball.
"I think overall, it's exam week. We've got tests, papers, speeches. Minds aren't right with basketball, especially with the young guys."
Weber admitted the youngsters have hit the predictable "wall."
"I think they've probably hit a little bit of a wall. 'Who am I, where am I going, what is my role? I've got all these studies, I'm trying to do that.' Hopefully they can get through exams, come back and have some lively practices."
Richardson hit 4 of 8 threes and tied his career high with 20 points. He hit several big buckets when the Illini needed them most. He added two assists to the Illini's 21 total without a turnover. Leonard added a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds. He also had four assists and two blocks against the shorter Eagles.
Maniscalco and Paul each scored 12, and Tyler Griffey added 8 and 4 rebounds. Maniscalco was credited for five assists with no turnovers as the Illini enjoyed better than a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. They also hit 56.4% from the field including 45.5% from the arc. They even finally won the battle of the boards despite being outrebounded first half. Yet they still struggled.
"It's human nature, everybody bragged on them after Gonzaga, how good they are. And then into the ratings. Maybe it's a good thing, maybe some humble pie. The young guys have to play better. If we don't have their attention after St. Bonaventure and tonight...I hope they're humbled right now."
When the chips were down, the Illini knew to get it to their big man, and he helped control the game from that point.
"They went man, and we were able to get him the ball. He's got to remember to go inside all the time; sometimes he drifts out. Today Meyers kind of took it over down the stretch. I think our guys are at least smart enough at that time of the game to know where the ball needs to go, which is important."
"Once we got Meyers some touches in the post and the short corner behind the defense, it opened up things for everybody else. But other than that, we kind of settled for jump shots, and we were too spread out."
Coppin State coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell decided on zone to defend Leonard, but he credited Weber for preparing his squad well against it. The man defense helped for awhile, but Leonard was too difficult to handle.
"We went zone basically to try to stay away from Meyers Leonard hurting us. I have a midget squad, and I've got to try to do the best with what I have. They're good players, and they made shots when they had to. The big man took care of the ball when he had to down the stretch and made those foul shots."
Weber hopes the next few days will help straighten out some things for his team.
"We've had ten games, ten preparation days, four days off, and really four practices. We've got to get some practice time again. I think that'll help. I've got to sit down with everybody, 'What do you think is your role. This is what we think.' Get that solidified.
"I told them I was proud of them after 10-0, but we still haven't been playing well. This is an important stretch...how we come to practice, mental preparation, competitive spirit in practices to get ready for not only UNLV but Cornell, Missouri and then into the Big 10 schedule."
Maniscalco sees positives in Illini play.
"I think we're getting better. We knew they would play a lot of zone. We need to work on it a lot in practice. I think we'll improve when this team has more experience against it and figures out more efficient ways to attack it. We got better as the game went on."
Leonard doesn't want to settle for mediocrity.
"10-0 is obviously nice, but along the way we've learned a lot, which is good. We certainly haven't got there yet. We want to be a special team, a great team, not just a good team. We've had some quality wins, and we've respected everyone.
"Obviously, we've got to keep coming to practice and getting better. You've got to be special every moment on the court and off the court as a team and as an individual in order to be great."
The Illini travel to Chicago next Saturday to take on UNLV.