Illini No Match For Buckeyes In Columbus

The Fighting Illini basketball team expected to lose at Columbus Tuesday night, and it played like it. Disinterested defense, combined with fantastic Ohio State shooting, conspired to make this game a route from the start. A late push reduced the Buckeye advantage to 83-67 at the end, but it wasn't as close as that.

Illinois never led as Ohio State started on a hot streak and remained that way. The Buckeyes hit 14 of their first 16 shots to make the game a route. They had lost two of their last three, but they were prepared this time. Weber gave them credit, especially point guard and leader Aaron Craft, who got his guys prepared for maximum effort.

"Craft called them out and said, We've got some issues, we've got some problems, we've got some selfishness.' They stepped up to the plate."

That type of leadership is essential when battling for championships. Weber credited D.J. Richardson, who went over 1000 points in his Illini career with 12 points on this night, as someone who talks to his teammates during games. He's trying to lead, but he doesn't have the dominant personality that remains supremely confident in the face of adversity.

There is simply no one on the team willing and able to take over on the floor and insist on teamwork over selfishness. Despondent players need someone besides coaches to jump on their tails for lackadaisical play. Richardson tries, but he doesn't have enough confidence or enough help.

The Illini were advised to relax and enjoy themselves in Columbus. They were expected to lose big, so there was no reason for anything but focused, relaxed basketball. Weber says his players care; they cared just enough to remain tight and uncomfortable on the floor.

The defense that was emphasized from the summer on has fallen apart as losses have mounted. The Illini have given up an average of 76.3 points in their last six games. Players are not communicating, not helping their teammates. A lack of focus allows numerous drives and open jumpers.

Meyers Leonard led the Illini with 21 points and five rebounds, appearing to win his battle with OSU big man Jared Sullinger, who was limited by foul problems and ended with just 9 points and 6 boards. But Leonard was frequently seen playing matador defense on Buckeyes other than Sullinger, presumably to prevent foul calls. Weber needs more self-sacrifice than that.

"We told him before, it's not about him against (Sullinger), it's about the team winning. Part of that is pride on defense. When somebody drives the lane, somebody's got to stop it. If it's not your man, you go help your teammate and make a play. Then you follow up and make another play."

Brandon Paul is now just two points away from 1000 in his career, but he is limping to the finish. His nine points included just two layins as he spent his time throwing up fade-away threes or driving into traffic in the lane. He has completely disdained a midrange game, making it much easier to defend him.

While he is the Illini's best all-around player, he often does more harm than good when he tries to take over a game rather than working to help teammates obtain open shots. He hustled on defense at times, and he handed out three assists. But 2-9 shooting, 0-3 from the arc, is becoming his norm lately.

Illini deep reserves battled to the end of the game, reducing a 26 point OSU lead to the final 16 point margin. Nnanna Egwu and Myke Henry each scored six points in the late push. Weber wishes they were upperclassmen.

"I love the freshmen. They play hard, and they play with spirit. I wish that would become contagious with some of the other guys."

Losers of six in a row and nine of their last ten, the Illini are perilously close to losing all their remaining games. They have two home games to find some self-respect, with hot-shooting Iowa coming to town Sunday. Weber has two main hopes, besides a win, for his team Sunday.

"We've got a home game. We've got, over the next three days, to get some pride back on defense. For the kids' sake, I hope people come and cheer."

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