A season that had started off with such promise has just got interesting for the Illinois Fighting Illini. After losing to North Carolina a week ago and then coming back with a vengeance against Arkansas and winning big, it appeared that Illinois had started to recover from a crushing defeat. But now comes a blow to the Illinois egos, a defeat to the Providence Friars by a score of 70-51.
The game started just like the Illini wanted. Providence came out ice cold and were held scoreless for almost 7 minutes to start the first half. Illinois led 12-0 in the opening minutes. Illinois looked to be running away with the game early as they constantly beat the tough Providence zone by beating it up the floor before it had a chance to setup. James Augustine was rewarded for his speed up the floor with a few uncontested transition buckets. The Friars could never really find a groove in the first half except for the fact that they didn't allow Illinois to hit a 3-pointer against them.
This allowed Providence to be able to sag off the perimeter players of the Illini and stop the gaps that were found early in the Friars zone. Once Illinois missed a few 3's, they resorted to tossing the ball around the perimeter and their movement without the ball basically ceased. Occasionally they would slip into a gap or find someone for a lob but as minute by minute rolled on the Friars defense got tighter and tighter as they had nobody to worry about keeping them honest.
"We didn't seem to know how to attack the zone all night," first-year Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "We couldn't even get open 3s and there was nothing we could do to get going."
The Illini went into halftime with a 30-24 lead and that was with Deron Williams and Dee Brown combining for 2 points. James Augustine and Roger Powell had been the only bright spots in the half besides a few good passes by Luther Head, Brown, and Williams.
After halftime the Illini went south. No longer were they getting any good looks at the basket and their transition game stopped as Providence got hot from the perimeter. As Providence started to sense they could beat the Illini, they turned up the heat even more. Providence constantly beat Illinois for loose balls and once the momentum swung it didn't ever turn back. The Friars outscored the Illini 46-21 in the 2nd half with lots of those points coming in the final 5 minutes as the Illini appeared to give up.
Give credit to Providence though, they came out in the 2nd half with tenacity and a fight that Illinois couldn't come close to matching. Leading the charge was Ryan Gomes who tortured the Illini with 24 points and 12 rebounds. Also sparking the Friars were some clutch 3 pointers from Donnie McGrath who shot 4 for 5 from beyond the arc. The Illini only had 2 made 3 pointers, one by 7'2 center Nick Smith and the other by Deron Williams. "They outplayed us. They came ready to play and we didn't ," Williams said. "They were so active and prevented us from getting any easy shots." "I think we quit," he said. "That's not Illinois basketball. They went from 13 to 20 and that can't happen."
ILLINI GRADE REPORT (proceed with caution):
Backcourt: This was one of the most disappointing games I've ever seen by a prestigious backcourt. The talk lately has been how the Illini have quite possibly the best backcourt in the nation. Deron Williams came in averaging 16 ppg and left the floor with 3. The 3 points is less disappointing however than his 9 turnovers. His backcourt mate fared no better than him. In his 3rd straight game, Dee Brown has yet to find a groove. Brown struggled all night and ended with a whopping 4 points. Neither of these guys made a difference in the game. Luther Head at least played scrappy but the scorebook shows he too struggled. Richard McBride got 4 minutes of playing time and let loose only one 3 which he missed. I'm still scratching my head as to why he didn't play more.
Frontcourt: James Augustine and Roger Powell were the lone bright spots on the Illini roster tonight and even they didn't play that great. Augustine's numbers will say he had 16 points and 11 rebounds which is a great game except for the fact that he constantly got outfought for rebounds, the same goes for Powell. Powell ended up with 13 points but only 3 boards. Nick Smith saw lots of playing time but didn't provide much of a spark on either side of the floor. Aaron Spears and Jack Ingram both played sparingly. Brian Randle had a highlight dunk but once again showed his freshman inconsistencies.
Bench: Nobody on the bench got enough minutes to really make a difference besides Head. Otherwise the substitution patterns looked out of sync. What was supposed to be an Illini strength turned into a non factor.
Overall this is the worst game of the year for Illinois. Lucky for them they get to come back on Thursday against a cupcake at home. Maybe that will restore some confidence in them and then they can prepare for Memphis. It's time for one of the players to step up and right this ship before it goes south. Random Thoughts:
I was touched yet again by Jim Valvano's life. I've seen his speech at least once a year every year since he gave it and every time I get chills.
Providence has established a blueprint for how to beat Illinois. Zone them to death. Don't even think about getting in a running match with them.
Has Illinois finished a half strong yet?
Bruce Weber seemed to have no clue what lineup should be out there. Where was Richard McBride? I thought he was the guy that could beat the zone. Nick Smith got way more minutes than he deserved.
If Illinois guards struggle, the team is very beatable by anyone.
If Illinois ever loses the nickname Fighting Illini, they should change it to the Illinois Alley-Oops because that's their favorite play. The have to lead the nation in alley-oops.