Who's Next - Getting Inside the Illini

Bloomington - Shortly after dropping a 15-point point decision to Iowa, IU Coach Tom Crean said if his team played that way again Saturday at Illinois it would lose by 40. With five days still to go before these two teams meet, we take a look ahead to the game with the Illini...

When he returned to the locker room after Illinois' 73-68 loss on Saturday night at Northwestern, Illini head coach Bruce Weber didn't hear a peep from any of his players. In Weber's eyes, it had nothing to do with how hard they took the loss and everything to do with their lack of camaraderie. And since they weren't talking to each other, they wouldn't talk to the media either.

"Until they start talking and taking leadership, they're not talking to anyone else," Weber said in the Daily Herald. "I don't know when it'll end. I hope it ends soon. Somebody's got to take this team and go with it. But right now, it's not happening."

Illinois had enough leadership to turn an early 13-2 deficit into a seven-point lead midway through the second half. But when Northwestern started supplementing its man-to-man defense against point guard (and scoring leader) Demetri McCamey by running a second defender at him whenever he had the ball, Illinois' offense crumbled.

McCamey committed three turnovers in less than three minutes as the Illini scored just three points over nearly eight minutes down the stretch. Since Northwestern had such success, Weber figures Illinois' next opponents (at Penn State on Wednesday and home vs. Indiana on Saturday) to try the same gambit.

"They just ran at him just to get the ball out of his hands," Weber said. "It's smart. I'm sure some other people will start to do it. They do it to (Ohio State's) Evan Turner. But then (Demetri) has got to keep his poise. It's something we haven't faced all year. It's like a press. Now you back it up, move the ball, now get into your offense. But we didn't do that."

When Illinois doesn't score, then its late-game defensive breakdowns become even more glaring. Northwestern trailed 51-44 at the media timeout with 7:26 to go, but scored on its final 14 possessions. During Illinois' 84-78 home loss to No. 13 Purdue earlier in the week, the Illini allowed a ridiculous 56 second-half points as the Boilers scored on 27 of 38 possessions. To Weber, that suggests a lack of effort. He complimented junior forward Bill Cole while exposing most of the other Illini.

"Billy plays hard as he can play. He gives his all," Weber said. "I don't think all the other guys play as hard as they need to play for us to be successful."

NOTES, QUOTES

--Junior F Mike Davis looked like he shed his slump during the second half of Illinois' 84-78 loss to No. 13 Purdue on Jan. 19. With teammate Mike Tisdale in foul trouble and everyone else but Demetri McCamey struggling to score, Davis started to assert himself and finished with 17 points and 15 rebounds.

Since Illinois' next game was against Northwestern -- a team that Davis shredded for 20 points and 17 rebounds four weeks before -- chances looked good that Davis could stay on his roll. Instead, he failed to score and grabbed just two rebounds in 23 minutes. After missing his first shot, Davis looked painfully unconfident when he tried an open 15-footer shortly thereafter. Last year, when Davis earned second-team all-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches, that 15-footer was Davis' bread-and-butter. Despite his recent struggles, Davis' season numbers (11.0 points, 9.3 rebounds per game) aren't dissimilar to last year's 11.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.

--Illinois coach Bruce Weber believes freshman swingman Brandon Paul holds a key to the team's fortunes the rest of the way. Paul, the team's most versatile athlete, averages 9.1 points per game but doesn't always take shots that Weber appreciates. After a fast start, Paul's shooting percentage is down to 35.1 percent for the year.

"Brandon gives us so many other things that we can use -- from passing to defense to a chance to get to the boards and get an offensive rebound -- but he's got to slow down," Weber said in the Daily Herald. "Think the game. Learn the game. So that he can make some strides and then we can make some strides."

ON THE SPOT: Illinois' season is on the line in the next 10 days. Illinois' next three Big Ten games (at Penn State, Indiana, at Iowa) are against teams they've already beaten this year -- and teams they must beat again because the losses would look terrible on their NCAA Tournament resume. If they somehow turn their three-game losing streak into a three-game winning streak, then the Illini play host to Michigan State on Feb. 6. Maybe the Illini build enough momentum to pick off the Spartans and put themselves back in the NCAA hunt.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I said that before the season I was worried about (everyone playing hard). Leadership. Toughness. Playing hard. Defense. And I'm saying right now. I told you, you can write the same story you wrote way back when. It hasn't changed. Somewhere it's got to change. I wrote it on the board the other day: Improvement. Changing. Striving for something ... we just can't do it. We just always have something missing, somebody missing, to have the consistency we need." -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber after his team's 73-68 loss at Northwestern on Saturday.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

SEASON RECAP: Illinois is dealing with its first three-game losing streak since the 2007-08 season. The Illini also are reeling with six losses in their last 10 games and haven't beaten an NCAA Tournament-quality team since Vanderbilt on Dec. 8.

PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Mike Davis, F Bill Cole, C Mike Tisdale, G Demetri McCamey, G D.J. Richardson. Key Subs - G Brandon Paul, G Jeff Jordan, F Dominique Keller.

GAME REVIEW:

Michigan State 73, Illinois 63

Purdue 84, Illinois 78

Northwestern 73, Illinois 68

GAME PREVIEW:

at Penn State, Wednesday, Jan. 27

vs. Indiana, Saturday, Jan. 30

at Iowa, Wednesday, Feb. 3

vs. Michigan State, Saturday, Feb. 6

at Wisconsin, Tuesday, Feb. 9

IN FOCUS: Illinois has just three games left against the Big Ten's so-called bottom-feeders and they're all coming up now. The Illini need to sweep all three, but it's not going to be easy. Penn State came to the Assembly Hall on Jan. 12 and lost by just 1 point, despite getting four shots to win in the last minute. Indiana and Illinois battled to the finish in Bloomington, Ind. on Jan. 9.

ROSTER REPORT:

--Junior PG Demetri McCamey entered Saturday's game at Northwestern as the Big Ten's leader in assists (7.2 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2-to-1) during conference games. McCamey committed an uncharacteristic five turnovers in the second half at Northwestern and finished with more turnovers (six) than assists (four) for the first time since the Dec. 8 win over Vanderbilt. McCamey continues to lead the Illini in scoring with 15.4 points per game.

--Junior C Mike Tisdale finally shed his foul troubles at Northwestern, but teammates couldn't get him the ball enough to make his time worthwhile. After sitting out half of the Purdue and Michigan State losses with fouls, Tisdale played 37 minutes against NU but took just six field-goal attempts and five free throws. He finished with 14 points, including his first 3-pointer of the year and fourth of his career.

--Freshman G D.J. Richardson's two-game shooting slump is gone. He went 0-for-8 at Michigan State and didn't hit anything for a long time against Purdue, but he hit four late 3-pointers against the Boilers and added a team-high 17 points against Northwestern. Richardson is shooting 17 for 40 (.425) on 3-pointers in Big Ten play and 39 for 88 (.443) for the year.

--Freshman G Joseph Bertrand, who already seemed on track to redshirt after requiring preseason knee surgery, now assuredly will redshirt after tearing a calf muscle in practice. He'll give the Illini four freshmen, from a eligibility standpoint, on the 2010-11 team.

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