Basketball teams that believe in themselves get better when the going gets tough. Teams that doubt themselves allow any bad thing that happens to discourage them further. Illinois coach Bruce Weber has supported and encouraged his players throughout the year, but their inconsistent play and presumption of failure has dominated. Fragile egos outweigh confidence-building efforts.
Enthusiasm wanes with each mistake. Hunger to win is replaced with fear of losing. The body language of Illini players throughout the Michigan game suggested a team that doubted its ability. The Wolverines took advantage.
Illinois is a young team, but its older players don't always play with maturity either. For instance, Brandon Paul led the Illini in scoring with 21 points Saturday. But his 7 turnovers, more than half the Illini total, helped Michigan to 19 points off turnovers. Weber is ready to tear his hair out over his team's unforced errors.
"That hasn't changed since the beginning. Just careless passes, and a lot of times unforced. When you have those unforced ones on the road against a good team, it puts you in a bind. First half, that's how they got the lead. Brandon does good things, and his line is good. But the turnovers just kill us."
Illini big man Meyers Leonard hit the first two shots of the game for the Illini, who were determined to set him up for post touches. It looked like Leonard might be ready for a career day, but he was whistled for his second foul less than 8 minutes into the game. He sat out the rest of the half as Michigan went on an 11-1 run to take a lead it would never relinquish.
Leonard grabbed 12 rebounds in 27 minutes, but he scored only one free throw the rest of the way. Illinois needs their best player to dominate, but the early fouls prevented it.
"We went to Meyers early, and then he gets two fouls. That's a shame because that's a real big advantage. And then second half we got it to him, and he missed three or four short ones that you hope he could make."
The Illini were down just six points at the half, but they became the team that couldn't shoot straight from then on. They hit only 3 of their first 20 second half shots. The Wolverines were able to expand their lead to 14 points and coasted from there.
"On the road, you've got to find ways to win it. You've got to scrape; it doesn't matter how you do it. You only have a few chances in a game to go grab it and win it. When we took care of the ball and executed, we did some good things. We just didn't make the shots."
Making matters worse, UM star Tim Hardaway Jr. broke out of a major shooting slump, as did teammate Evan Smotrycz.
"Their worst three point shooters, Hardaway and Smotrycz, were 4-4 at halftime. That happens when you play at home. They made the shots and made the plays."
As usual, the Illini couldn't contain the dribble-drive. It has been their modus operandi, and other teams take advantage.
"That's basketball nowadays. It's who can get good space and dribble-drive. They put you in binds. They move the ball, get you spread out and then try to drive and make a play."
One bright note for the Illini was the play of Tyler Griffey off the bench. He scored a career high 18 points and added 5 boards, 2 assists and a steal. The former starter may be getting his confidence back at a time his teammates are losing theirs.
"Tyler gave us a great effort, got some shots down. He had shot the ball in practice real well the last week. I'm really happy for him. We've got to play the guys that are gonna play well. The problem is, at the guard spots, you're a little limited if guys don't play well."
Weber refers to the injury absence of Sam Maniscalco and the transfer of Crandall Head, depleting the guard corps. Paul and D.J. Richardson must play more minutes, and tiredness may contribute to erratic play. Same for freshman point guard Tracy Abrams, who is forced to play beyond his years and experience level whether he's ready or not.
Weber praises his freshmen for having a hunger to win that may be greater than their upperclassmen teammates. But they all have their limitations as well.
"Tracy does a good job. He's just fighting for his life. He wants to win. He's not gonna get a lot of points right now, but he did a decent job on (Trey) Burke. When he goes 5-15, you know you've done a pretty good job on him. Tracy brings good energy. Once in awhile, he doesn't get us into the stuff. But he's learning.
"His effort, Nnanna (Egwu's) effort. Myke Henry, he made a couple mistakes, but they care. They want to win. The older guys have to be a little more consistent. That would make it easier on the younger guys."
Dragging their tails between their legs, the Illini return home for a Wednesday encounter with an aggressive Purdue squad. The Boilermakers have had their number, so that plus the lack of confidence make victory questionable.
"It's a team we haven't beaten in three years, and we're in a desperate situation. When they turn it up, can we deal with the heat and match their intensity?"
Many Illini fans presume all hope is lost. The team still has potential, if it can somehow put everything together and rebuild confidence. But chances are slim at this point. The players say they haven't given up, but something needs to change soon. Otherwise, all bets are off.