Illinois has been a good shooting team all year. Shooting under 30% at Minnesota, including 12.5% on three point attempts, is the exception rather than the rule. Minnesota played outstanding in-your-face defense, but the Illini simply couldn't buy a bucket. Some games are like that. Coach Bruce Weber tried to explain the problems in his postgame teleconference.
"I think if you look at the numbers, everybody's shooting percentage is dropping (in Big 10 conference games). Assists are dropping for a lot of people. People guard. You go on the road. People know each other. It makes it a little bit tougher. Guys prepare for people.
"We need Trent (Meacham), we need Alex (Legion), we need somebody to step up and make some shots. Last week against Wisconsin, we shot 50%. I think with Ohio State we shot it pretty well. This was obviously the worst of the season by far.
"We've got to get some layups. The coaches kept telling them in the huddles, someone's got to get a fast break, somebody's got to get a putback, steal a basket for us. That's what they got, and we didn't do it. That was the back breaker. They only shot 30 something at halftime too. But then they stole a couple easy baskets, they got to the free throw line, and that was probably the difference maker."
Illinois' offense was not sharp, with screens minimal and quick cuts nonexistent. Some shots were taken early in the shot clock before a better shot could develop. And the Illini began to press when they got behind, forcing up off balance and hurried shots.
The Gophers knew the Illini's game plan well and stopped the quick curls that usually generate open midrange shots. When it became obvious their shooting would not improve, Illini players collapsed mentally, allowing the gross final victory margin.
But it is also true that one of their best scorers has been at less than full speed lately.
"Mike Davis has struggled a little bit. He has been under the weather. He hasn't been himself. I hope he can get his energy level going again. It's tonsilitis, and there's a byproduct of it that's kind of knocked him out a little bit. I'm not gonna get too deep into it.
"I give the kid credit. He hasn't felt as good as he should. It's just a matter of time until he gets healthy. He's got to get a little tougher and fight through it. The one thing I don't want is for the fans to start kicking him, knocking him down and criticizing him when he isn't totally 100%. He does still have to be a little tougher."
Illinois has struggled on the boards all season, but the Minnesota game magnified that problem. The 15 rebound differential included a 15-8 Gopher advantage on the offensive end. The 15 offensive boards led to 19 second chance points compared to 5 for the Illini. This played a major role in the outcome.
Weber needs his men to work harder on the glass.
"(Mike) Tisdale can block out, but he's probably not at the point where he can block out and go get rebounds. I hope he'll be better a year from now with strength and explosion and a great summer. Dominique (Keller) has got to do a better job. It would help if Mike Davis (felt better).
"Chester (Frazier) has got to get his nose wet again and get in there. I've got to remind him again we need him for rebounding. He gives so much on all the other stuff, but we need some rebounds from him. He can't be standing out there watching. If we could knock out 2-4 of those offensive rebounds, it might make a difference in a couple games."
In a strange twist, Minnesota had one more turnover than the Illini but scored 18 points off turnovers compared with 6 for the Illini. Officiating seemed to favor the more aggressive team, so the Gophers made 11 more free throws. Weber was unwilling to blame the officiating, realizing his team didn't play well enough to win.
One could dwell on the details from now until Sunday's game with Iowa and never understand why Illinois collapsed Thursday night. Fortunately, the team will likely be able to put it behind them quickly. Weber wants to make sure of it by not harping too much on the loss.
"Coaches and fans probably take it harder than the kids. We've got to do a good job of not going too overboard. Whatever we do (in practice), it's got to be intense and competitive. This is a test of what they're about."