Just when Illinois' season seemed to be going off the rails, the Illini delivered their best effort of the Big Ten season in a 77-67 victory at Penn State. Some might say it's not a big deal to beat the league's winless team by 10 on the road, but Illinois had lost 4 of its last 6 games against the Nittany Lions.
Moreover, if you're looking for signs the Illini are again a contender for an NCAA Tournament berth, it was crucial for important for players other than Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale to increase their offensive presence.
When Penn State and Illinois met in Champaign on Jan. 12, McCamey and Tisdale combined for 32 of Illinois' 35 points over the last 31 minutes. In Wednesday's rematch, McCamey saved all 6 of his points for the final few minutes while Tisdale scored just 10. In their stead, freshman D.J. Richardson poured in a career-high 20 points and junior forward Bill Cole added a career-high 12 points. Cole, who entered the night averaging 3.3 points since joining the starting lineup six games ago, drilled 4 of 5 3-point tries. He also contributed a career-high 7 rebounds.
The Penn State game marked the second game in a row where five Illini scored in double figures (freshman Brandon Paul added 10 and junior forward Mike Davis came off the bench to score 11). That's a welcome sign that's reminiscent of the pre-conference schedule, when all five Illini starters finished with double-figure averages.
That's significant as Illinois prepares for Saturday's home game with Indiana. When the Illini rallied to beat the Hoosiers 66-60 on Jan. 9, they did it almost exclusively with McCamey and Tisdale. Surely Indiana has worked on ways to defend their pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops -- not to mention McCamey's frequent slashes to the basket -- and the Illini need other ways to put the ball in the hoop.
At the same time, Illinois needs to beware an Indiana club that has made strides in the three weeks since their first meeting. As it was, the Hoosiers succeeded against the Illini when Jeremiah Rivers drove to the basket and created for his teammates. The Illini left freshman Jordan Hulls open in the corner for 3 3-pointers before shutting him down in the second half.
ILLINOIS 77, PENN STATE 67: Seeking an end to their three-game losing streak, the Illini started fast and finished just as fast to knock off the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley. Illinois bolted to a 20-9 lead in the first seven minutes, but lost the lead midway through the second half. The Illini then launched another 20-9 run to earn their second Big Ten road win this season.
Freshman guard D.J. Richardson led five double-figure scorers with a career-high 20 points. Junior forward Bill Cole, voted a co-captain earlier in the week, drilled 4 of 5 3-pointers to finish with a career-high 12 points. Leading scorer Demetri McCamey was cold from the field (1 for 7), but he handed out 5 of his 9 assists during Illinois' initial 20-9 spree.
Another good sign for the Illini? Coach Bruce Weber benched junior forward Mike Davis -- snapping a streak of 54 consecutive starts _ but Davis came off the bench and contributed 11 points and 8 rebounds in 27 minutes.
--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.
Davis didn't start Wednesday at Penn State -- the first time in 55 games he was a sub stead starter -- as his struggles coincided with coach Bruce Weber's desire to give freshman forward Tyler Griffey a reward. Davis adjusted decently to his new role as he piled up 11 points (on 4 for 6 shooting) with eight rebounds in 27 minutes. He entered the night averaging 6.3 points and 6.8 rebounds in his last six games while shooting just 34 percent from the field.
--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."
--Junior PG Demetri McCamey again thought pass-first and the Illini came out the better for it. McCamey scored just 6 points in Illinois' 77-67 win Wednesday night at Penn State -- 9 below his average -- but he handed out a game-high 9 assists with just 2 turnovers. McCamey continues to hold a commanding lead in the Big Ten assists race (his 6.0 per game are well ahead of Minnesota's Al Nolen's 4.6 apg). He also needs just 9 points to crack the 1,000-point barrier for his career.
--Freshman G D.J. Richardson poured in a career-high 20 points as he hit 2 of 4 from 3-point range and all 8 of his free throws. When coupled with his 17-point showing at Northwestern on Saturday, the Peoria native has been the Illini's leading scorer in back-to-back games for the first time. In his last 3 games, Richardson has averaged 16.3 points while shooting 16 of 29 from the field and 8 of 16 on 3-pointers. He's 41 of 92 (44.6 percent) on 3-pointers for the year.
ON THE SPOT: Except for some crazy fouling near the end of the game, Illinois did everything well during Wednesday's win at Penn State. The Illini shot 52 percent from the field, limited Penn State to 40 percent shooting, won the battle of the boards by 8 and committed just 9 turnovers. Here's the catch: The Illini haven't put together strong back-to-back outings since their home wins over Vanderbilt and Western Michigan on Dec. 8 and 13. We'll know whether Illinois' improvement is real if it can bring the same effort in Saturday's home game with Indiana.
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 won at Penn State after dealing with its first three-game losing streak since the 2007-08 season. The Illini also are reeling with six losses in their last 11 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.
Michigan State 73, Illinois 63
Purdue 84, Illinois 78
Northwestern 73, Illinois 68
Illinois 77, Penn State 67
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 precious few games left against the Big Ten's so-called bottom-feeders, and taking down the Penn State's of the league is the only way back into the title chase for Illinois. The Illini need to sweep, but it's not going to be easy. Penn State came to the Assembly Hall on Jan. 12 and lost by just one point, despite getting four shots to win in the last minute. Indiana and Illinois battled to the finish in Bloomington, Ind. on Jan. 9.
--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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