Illinois showed every one of its warts today. Despite an impressive 10-0 start to the season, the youthful Illini have demonstrated areas that needed improvement. Saturday all those concerns came to the forefront simultaneously.
The Illini shot only 25.4% from the field, 28% from the arc. And the 18th ranked free throw shooting team made only half its tries. Nine of their shots were blocked by Runnin' Rebels, and they threw up 8 air balls. They were outrebounded on the boards and were outscored in the paint 36-16. It was a total team collapse, caused in large part by solid defensive pressure by UNLV.
"They're long, they're athletic, they're older," Illini coach Bruce Weber reminded afterward. "They've played road games. They rose to the occasion and we didn't."
That is an understatement. The Illini received only three points from their bench compared with 16 points for UNLV. Their three bigs Brice Massamba, Quintrell Thomas and Carlos Lopez outscored Meyers Leonard 27-7.
"I've got to give them credit. Usually they shoot threes. They attacked us. Their bench killed us. Their bigs really killed us inside. 11 for 15 with their big guys."
The Illini's lack of experience showed clearly today.
"Very disappointing. We've got a lot to learn, and they got into our heads. We missed layups, free throws. We've been such a good free throw shooting team. But I guess that's part of being young and trying to figure it out."
Many now wonder if the experiment to use a deep bench is at an end. But Weber is committed to it.
"You've got to play them; they're a young group. It was a big game, maybe too much. A very tentative first half and didn't play strong."
Chicago area players on the team all played poorly in front of family and friends. They appeared tight and uncomfortable in that environment. It allowed UNLV to go on a 14-2 run to end the half with a 33-22 lead. The Illini reduced it to 8 a couple times in the second half, but the Runnin' Rebels reclaimed dominance each time.
Teams are figuring out how to guard the Illini. If they double team Meyers Leonard, his offense is less effective. He makes good passes out of the post, but Illini three point shooters are often inaccurate. If you switch on Sam Maniscalco and Tyler Griffey, they have trouble getting open shots.
"They're a very experienced team. They did some things, they switched and did some things we didn't react to. We tried to run some set plays, and they would take them away by the switching. We stood and watched and dribbled."
The only Illini in double figures was D.J. Richardson with 19 points. He shot 5-8 from the arc, but Weber reminds even he struggled from the field.
"He got us going from three, but he was 1 for 9 from two."
That is in addition to Brandon Paul 2 for 12 and Maniscalco 1 for 10. Leonard had 7 points, and his six rebounds were two less than Richardson. Leonard is the most logical Illini threat, and Weber reminds he still has a long way to go. Double teams and tough guarding caused him to lose focus.
"It's like St. Bonaventure, he's thinking rather than playing. The big thing is he's got to get to the offensive glass. If you're shooting that percentage, that's where he's got to go get offensive rebounds.
"We were like 20-some percent from two, so that means a lot of rebounds. He has one offensive rebound. Tyler and Meyers should be kicking butt on the boards."
Worst of all for a Weber-coached team, UNLV outfought and outhustled the Illini throughout the game.
"The first half they led us on the MATTO by six or eight. We're at home in Chicago, don't let them outcompete you no matter whether you make shots or not. That's got to be a key.
"I've got to do a better job preparing them and helping them. And they've got to do a better job performing."
Illinois is not as bad as it appeared Saturday. Unfortunately, a large pro-Illini crowd including some top high school prospects had little to cheer about. It counts as just one loss on their record, but the negative memories will last the rest of the season for the fans. Hopefully the team will recuperate quicker. Like Weber says, one game does not a season make.
"We've got a long way to go. Obviously, this is very disappointing for our group to play like that. But it is not the end of the world, not the end of the season."