Bruce Weber’s voice lowered a few decibels when he answered the question, like you do when switching from everyday jabber to life-altering discussion.
The Illinois coach is not yet at a career crossroads. But with his Illini (14-7, 4-4 Big Ten) entering tonight’s 8 p.m. tipoff with Penn State (12-8, 5-4) a few mistakes away from possible missing the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years, Weber is teetering on tenuous times – evidence by his opening statement at Monday’s press conference.
“I don’t feel very well,” Weber said. ”Our team isn’t shooting well. The weather’s not very well. But I guess on a positive note, we didn’t lose this weekend.”
Weber is answering more serious questions today than most would have envisioned for the coach of a preseason top-16 team.
Like, if he considers making drastic changes to his underachieving team.
“It’s been talked about,” Weber said. “I don’t know if we’ll do anything or not, but it has been talked about, there’s no doubt, among our staff.”
Weber’s group thrives by its four seniors. But the Illini (14-7) also dies by its four seniors.
Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis have been mainstays in the starting lineup the last three years, while Bill Cole has evolved into a useful role player.
The Class of 2007 – not a highly touted group out of high school – has driven the program for three years. But since guards Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham graduated in 2009, the end product (a 33-21 record) just hasn’t been good enough.
Following the latest struggles (four losses in five games) and with just 10 games left to improve the NCAA tournament resume, it may be time for Weber to thrust freshman Jereme Richmond and sophomore Brandon Paul into starring roles.
But Weber worries about the consequences.
“It’s that fine line,” Weber said. “Are we going to go destroy somebody, just blow it all up, (and) now can we recover from it? I don’t know. Sometimes, it’s a crapshoot on that.”
While that apprehension may keep Weber from making drastic changes to the lineup, one senior may lose his starting spot to an underclassman.
Richmond asked Weber to keep him out of the starting lineup at Indiana, but the 6-foot-7 versatile freshman may not have a choice after averaging 13.7 points and 8.7 rebounds in three games since sitting out against Wisconsin on Jan. 15 for undisclosed personal reasons.
“That was last week,” Weber said. “We haven’t made any decisions about this week what we’ll do.”
After four years, the seniors are what they are. Why not see what the recent recruiting successes can bring to the floor?
We already know that the current blueprint designs a mediocre Big Ten bunch. We have almost two years of too-serious Bruce Weber press conferences to prove it.
Demetri McCamey took the slow, painful walk to the bench with his shoulders shrugged and palms to the sky after Brandon Paul’s last-second three-point attempt clanked off the rim.
After yet another road loss that spurned a court-rushing from the opposing crowds, Illinois fans may feel compelled to flash similar body language toward their team’s star.
McCamey should not shoulder the entire blame for four Illini losses in five games, including Thursday’s inexcusable 52-49 loss to an inferior, depleted Indiana roster. The head coach takes that responsibility.
“I’ve got to do it,” said Illini coach Bruce Weber, who falls to 30-32 in the Big Ten during McCamey’s four years. “It’s my fault. It’s my program, and I’ve got to get them going.”
Getting the most out of McCamey should be goal No. 1. But that’s already been a three-and-a-half year project.
Since he arrived at Illinois, McCamey has been a tough mind to figure out. While McCamey appeared to make strides during the offseason and looked like an All-America candidate early this season, Weber still struggles to motivate 100-percent effort out of the Bellwood native and recently said he “can’t be nice” to McCamey.
At this point, McCamey should have plenty of personal motivation, including his lasting legacy at Illinois (one NCAA Tournament game) and his future earnings.
Projected as a possible lottery selection in the NBA Draft after a hot start this season, McCamey looks like a borderline first-round draft pick the past few weeks.
Players have bad games. Some have bad weeks and bad months. But stars find a way to lift their team even when their shots aren’t falling.
But McCamey has lost his mojo in the last two weeks, missing 35 of 46 shot attempts over his last four games, including back-to-back 2-for-11 shooting performances against Ohio State and Indiana.
He’s finished with single-digit scoring in back-to-back games for the first time this season and just the second time in the last two years. Michigan’s Darius Morris has passed McCamey as the Big Ten’s assist leader as the Illini shooting struggles persist.
Knowing the Illini offense slows to a 1920s pace when McCamey struggles, opposing defenses have ramped up the pressure on the Illini star once he passes the halfcourt line. And McCamey hasn’t responded to the challenge from defenders like Aaron Craft and Jeremiah Rivers, neither of which appear destined for NBA careers.
But most importantly, McCamey hasn’t been the closer for Illinois, which sorely needs a clutch perfomer judging by its 1-7 record in games decided in the final minute (stat via Lindsey Willhite of the Daily Herald) And not to get Jay Cutler on him but when the Illini sorely need a senior leader running the show, McCamey has appeared rattled and insecure.
During the loss Saturday to Ohio State, Bill Cole was the player in the huddle asking for the ball in the closing minute. Against Indiana, D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul took the shots in the final 10 seconds.
Granted, McCamey came open off a Mike Tisdale screen a split second after Cole inbounded to Paul for the Illini’s last-ditch effort. But most stars would demand the ball and let his teammates know it.
Instead, McCamey’s sorrowful shrug to the Illini bench sums up a once-promising, once-hpyed season gone awry.
“Now is the time to wake up and be men and win ballgames,” Demetri McCamey told IlliniHQ.com after the loss to Indiana.
But 126 games have passed for McCamey at Illinois. Can we really expect an epiphany from him with just 10 regular season games remaining in his Illini career?
The usual catcalls and expletives likely will cascade on Illinois coach Bruce Weber when he walks out the tunnel at Indiana’s Assembly Hall for Thursday’s 8 p.m. tipoff.
Hoosiers dislike Illini. It’s just part of the border war.
Following the Eric Gordon saga, however, Indiana fans’ feelings toward the Illini coach became even more animated and fiery. And comments, like these, didn’t help Weber.
But the Illini coach – who has won 10 of 14 games against Indiana during his first seven seasons, including four straight – was respectful of Hoosiers fans during Tuesday’s media teleconference.
“They have unbelievable fans, whether you like them or not,” Weber said. “They have unbelievable fans. … Especially when we come to town, it seems like they’re there and it’s loud.
Weber has coached against the Hoosiers in the Big Ten for 24 seasons, spending 17 seasons as an assistant under Purdue coach Gene Keady, so he knows Hoosiers fans well. He expects them to keep the Assembly Hall full despite three lackluster seasons following NCAA investigations and the subsequent release of Kelvin Sampson in 2008.
“It doesn’t matter what their record is. They love basketball there,” Weber said. “It’s got great tradition. Obviously, everyone wants a winner, and they would like the program to be re-energized and get going.
“I think they just are very supportive fans and great fans. You got to give them credit for how loyal they are.”
Ever since I accepted my job at Stevie Jay Broadcasting, I’ve craved for podcasts. I know not all that would like to listen to our show have the time to tune in on their radio dial or on our live stream at myconnectfm.com. It may have taken a month, but we finally have podcasts available for our listeners.
We won’t podcast the entire three-hour Tay and J Show, but we’ll snip out the highlights, including most of the interviews we do with players, coaches and media with insight into the Illini, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Bears, area preps, etc. All you have to do is go to www.myconnectfm.com/podcasts/ and podcasts of that day’s 3-6 p.m. show will be available by 7 p.m. Click on the link and download the audio file to play on your computer or iPod.
We already have four podcasts up from our last three shows, including interviews with Matt Sylvester and Chester Frazier and reaction from Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
CHAMPAIGN – Illinois coach Bruce Weber kept Friday’s afternoon practice relatively lax because of Saturday’s unusually early 11 a.m. tipoff.
But before the 23rd-ranked Illini took on No. 1-ranked Ohio State, Weber tested his team’s ability to hold onto a lead – one of the Illini’s most glaring weaknesses during the first 19 games.
“I said, ‘OK, seven-point lead you got the ball with six minutes left.’ Because we’ve hit points in the game where we watch the clock, we don’t cut hard, we don’t move hard,” Weber said.
But the drill was no cure for the Illini’s late-game apprehension. After claiming an eight-point lead over the Buckeyes with 12:51 remaining at the Assembly Hall on Saturday, the Illini faltered in the clutch – a no-no against an undefeated Ohio State squad with a handful of NBA-caliber players – eventually losing its third of four games 73-68.
The Illini (14-6, 4-3 Big Ten) took a 50-42 lead seven minutes into the second half, but the Buckeyes (20-0, 7-0) picked up the defensive pressure and hit their offensive stride during a 22-4 run, sparked by freshman DeShaun Thomas’ first two three-pointers during Big Ten play.
Mike Tisdale’s step-back three-pointer cut the Buckeyes’ lead to 69-68 with 15 seconds left. But Ohio State won the game at the free-throw line, sinking 24 of 27 attempts including 19 of 21 in the second half.
Ohio State freshman sensation Jared Sullinger pounded the Illini in the post for 27 points – he made 13 of 15 free-throw attempts – and 16 rebounds.
Illinois has squandered a lead with 10 minutes remaining or less in four of its six losses and also lost to Penn State despite holding a tie with 22 seconds left.
“Can’t look at the scoreboard,” Weber said. “You have to keep playing. If you don’t push it, you let the team get their defense set up.
“I don’t think we’re selfish as a team (on offense), but we all try to hit home runs and grand slams and there’s no one on base.”
Added Tisdale: “We just started to play a little tentative. They turned up the pressure. We stop cutting. They made plays. We didn’t, and they ended up winning.”
The Illinois offense often becomes stagnant during the final minutes with players deferring to Demetri McCamey. But pestered by Ohio State freshman Aaron Craft, the Illini’s star guard had his worst scoring performance (five points on 2 of 11 shooting) in 49 games (two points at Clemson on Dec. 2, 2009).
“He just didn’t play well,” Weber said. “He’s been so good for us. He’s our guy. We still found a way to stay close. I think it shows as a team how good we are because he’s been the guy that’s made us go.”
Illinois’ post players came to play. Freshman Jereme Richmond continued his rise with the first double-double (18 points, 10 rebounds) of his career. Tisdale added 15 and didn’t back down against Sullinger, while Mike Davis had 11 points and seven rebounds.
Sustaining leads and winning close games separate good teams from the great ones. The Illini only have one win of eight points or less (Maryland on Nov. 19).
Meanwhile, Ohio State notched its fifth win of five or less points during its last six games.
“We can’t have another lapse,” Davis said. “If we have another lapse, we’re going to be a bubble team and we don’t want that to happen.”
Matt Sylvester knows to steer clear of Champaign.
“I’d probably have a hit on my head or something like that,” Sylvester said. “But, hey, I have my fans here in Columbus, so I know my territory.”
The former Ohio State forward may have been the unlikeliest of Illini killers. It was he – not Alando Tucker (Wisconsin), Maurice Ager (Michigan State), Pierre Piece (Iowa) or Bracey Wright (Indiana) – who put an end to Illinois’ dreams of an unblemished regular season during the 2004-05 finale.
Sylvester, a reserve for the Buckeyes, poured in career-high points 23, 24 and 25 – eight better than his previous career high – from the right wing with 5.1 seconds remaining to lead the Buckeyes to a 65-64 upset of No. 1 Illinois during that fateful March 6, 2005, afternoon at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
“Every dog has his day,” Sylvester said Thursday on the “Tay and Jay Show”on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM. “What can I say? Everyone gets lucky.
“That was obviously the career highlight for me,” added Sylvester, who hit another game-winner against a highly-ranked LSU squad during his senior season. “Numbers-wise, I didn’t have the best career, but I had some great moments.”
Sylvester’s clutch three ended what most thought at that point would be a 30-0 regular season for an Illini team led by Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head. In fact, The (Champaign, Ill.) News-Gazette printed a photo mosaic within the numbers “30-0” as part of a preview story for the Illinois-Ohio State game.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta, a Hoopeston, Ill., native, caught word of the newspaper graphic and posted it as bulletin board motivation for his then 18-12 team, Sylvester said.
The Buckeyes overcame a 51-39 deficit with 11:34 remaining. Brown, Head and Williams didn’t make a field goal in the final 17:08 of the game and shot a combined 7 of 27 for 27 points.
“That particular game we thought we were going to get our butts kicked, I’ll be honest with you,” Sylvester said. “I think that Illinois team was head and shoulders more talented than we were but on that night Illinois they had an off night, they really did. They had a lot of pressure on them that game, and we didn’t. We played loosey goosey and the stars aligned right and we got the W.”
Now, the roles are reversed.
Ohio State enters the Assembly Hall on Saturday as the top-ranked team in the country, sporting a perfect 19-0 record. The 23rd-ranked Illini (14-5), coming off a 71-62 win over 17th-ranked Michigan State, give Sylvester cause to worry they may revenge his dagger six years after the fact.
“I’m really scared for the Buckeyes,” Sylvester said. “I don’t want to say scared, but I’m nervous because unlike when Illinois came into Ohio State in ’05 and we were an unranked team and no one knew about us. Ohio State knows what they’re walking into and that’s a good Illini team, a very well-coached team. Champaign’s going to be an extremely tough place to play. The Orange Krush will be going nuts. I think it’s going to be a tough game. I really, really like Illinois this year.”
For a Chicago Bears fan like me, it’s odd to think that in late January the offseason isn’t even on my mind. An NFC Championship showdown with Green Bay Packers on Sunday has a way of keeping my focus away from the looming labor strife, free agency, etc.
But for 28 other fan bases, NFL mock draft season is officially underway.
ESPN’s duo of dueling draft wizards released their initial 2011 mock drafts, and they give plenty of fodder for Illini fans.
Veteran analyst Mel Kiper Jr. sent out a mini-surprise when he listed former Illini running back Mikel Leshoure as the 28th overall selection, heading to the recently playoff-vanquished New England Patriots.
“The Patriots, year after year, manage to find solutions at running back. But there are solutions, and there are threats. And the fast-rising Leshoure, a chiseled 6-foot, 227-pound back who ran well in a physical Big Ten this past season, could be the alpha running back the Patriots could use. New England could go a lot of ways with this pick, but remember, the Pats have another pick just a handful of spots down the board and if they want a difference-maker at RB in a draft short on them, this is an option.”
Quick reaction: Is there a better fit? He goes to a loaded team and plays with a future Hall of Fame quarterback so he doesn’t have to be the man.
Meanwhile, Scouts Inc. director of football scouting Todd McShay – a.k.a. Kiper’s nemesis – does not list Leshoure in his first-round mock. But McShay’s early prognostication has the New York Giants selecting Illini defensive tackle Corey Liuget with the 19th overall pick.
And McShay offered high praise for Liuget in the process.
“After studying tape of Liuget we feel he’s not far behind Fairley and Dareus among defensive tackles. The Giants have spent a lot of money on ends and pass-rushers in recent years, and Liuget would help provide a strong presence in the middle as an every-down defensive tackle.”
Quick reaction: Great to finally see Liuget so highly respected. Opposing coaches know the impact Liuget makes on a game. He’d immediately bolster an already fearsome front four for the G-Men.
CBSSports.com also rolled out two mock drafts. Rob Rang had no Illini in the first round, but fellow senior analyst Chad Reuter had both Leshoure and Liuget going in the first round – in back-to-back picks.
He predicts Leshoure to the New Orleans Saints at No. 24 …
“Pierre Thomas is scheduled to be a free agent, Reggie Bush isn’t an every-down back, and the team’s lack of running game prevented QB Drew Brees from being at his best.”
… and Liuget to the Seattle Seahawks at No. 25.
“His Texas Bowl performance should convince scouts to bring his strength and quickness on board early in the draft.”
Quick reaction: OK, maybe the Patriots aren’t the perfect fit for Leshoure. The Champaign native could thrive as the next Illini workhorse for Brees, Colston, Bush, Shockey and company. Liuget would join a young, up-and-coming team and possibly be the anchor for a struggling defense.
So what can Illini fans take from this?
Not much, because we still don’t know how NFL scouts and general managers grade these players out. But these analysts are highly respected and – especially Kiper and McShay – have some influence during the draft process.
Most Illini fans already knew Liuget was a monster, but many around the country know little about the defensive tackle since he was on a mediocre Big Ten team with a struggling defense. But last season’s film, especially the Texas Bowl like Reuter alluded to, and workouts should help solidify Liuget as a top-40 pick.
Leshoure made the right decision in turning pro because this draft lacks complete running backs, with only Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram receiving an initial higher grade. Leshoure’s 40-yard dash time will undoubtedly heavily factor – for better or worse – into when he is selected … more than three months from now.
I’m sure we’ll see Liuget, Leshoure and linebacker Martez Wilson slide up and down in mock drafts. In the meantime, we still have the Super Bowl, spring training, Opening Day, the NCAA basketball tournament and the first round of the NBA and NHL playoffs to keep us busy.
CHAMPAIGN – Jereme Richmond arrived to Illinois with higher expectations than any prospect of the Bruce Weber-era. Against 17th-ranked Michigan State on Tuesday, the 6-foot-7 freshman showed why.
The McDonald’s All-American showed he already is the second most complete player on the Illini – behind senior and future NBA point guard Demetri McCamey – by leaping for key rebounds and attacking the rim against a springy Michigan State and by making the highlight pass or simply the extra pass in a 71-62 win at the Assembly Hall.
“I thought he was great,” Weber said. “I’m happy for him. I think a little bit of the monkey off the back.”
Richmond’s filled box score of 14 points (on 6 of 8 shooting), five rebounds and three assists put an end to a rough week for the talented freshman. Richmond missed two practices last week to return home to Waukegan to deal with a “personal issue.” He was benched for Saturday’s loss at Wisconsin.
Internet speculation swirled about Richmond’s situation, fueled by Big Ten Network analyst Jim Jackson’s irresponsible tweet that Richmond would transfer. Just hours after the tweet, Jackson retracted and apologized for the post, which he backed citing “rumors.”
“It wasn’t really much to it,” said Richmond, just a day after he released a statement that he would be an “Illini for life.” “I just had to go home and touch base with my family for a short period of time. My teammates and coaches did a good job of supporting me. I wanted to come back with a better focus and give something to the team.
“For me to help my team win with rebounds and some key buckets off assists, it was just a great feeling all around.”
Richmond’s role was growing at the beginning of Big Ten play, and he even earned starts against Missouri (five points, seven rebounds) and Iowa (12 points, five rebounds). An Achilles injury limited his minutes after the holidays. He totaled 16 points and seven rebounds in a combined 39 minutes against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Penn State.
His growth could’ve been stunted by last week’s circumstances. Weber feared it, so he called in the big guns.
“(Utah Jazz star) Deron Williams talked to him and he said, ‘I know you’re a player, but you can’t be a robot on the court.’ …I think tonight he was a lot more aggressive and he wasn’t a robot,” Weber said.
Richmond stepped onto the court with 12:51 left in the first half to applause from an Illini fanbase eager to see its long-awaited prospect blossom. After glimpses of greatness earlier in the year, the Waukegan prospect proved he’ll be the straw that stirs Illinois once McCamey fulfills his eligibility.
Richmond played so well that Weber should again contemplate starting the freshman (Who knows? If he hadn’t had his personal issues, he may have started Tuesday after Mike Davis’ one-rebound performance against Wisconsin).
Richmond is a match-up nightmare for opponents. Four years of playing power forward in high school developed a low-post repertoire that smaller defenders can’t contain. But he also handles the ball like a point guard and only McCamey is a better passer and initiator of the offense. He has Evan Turner-like versatility.
Most importantly, he’s the Illini’s toughest competitor.
After grabbing a key rebound late in the second half to seal Illinois’ win, the freshman smiled toward the Orange Krush student section as he jogged down the court. After a turnover, he clapped his hands and shook his head before clamping down on his man. He wore a bag of ice on his elbow during the postgame press conference, a sign that he banged bodies with the older, beefier Michigan State post players.
An Illini team that lacks toughness needs his emotion.
And if Illinois really is to bounce back from lackadaisical efforts and make a run at the Big Ten championship, Jereme Richmond will need to be unleashed.
“Hopefully, he’s through his things because we could use him,” Weber said.
No. 17 Michigan State (12-5, 4-1 Big Ten) at No. 23 Illinois (13-5, 3-2 Big Ten)
6 p.m. – ESPN
When Michigan State comes to Champaign, it’s kind of a big deal. How do you know? The ESPN cameras follow. The Worldwide Leader will broadcast the Illini-Spartans matchup from the Assembly Hall for the second consecutive season and for the fifth time in six seasons (CBS televised the game in 2009). The Illini have won three of their last five against Michigan State at home, including an upset the No. 5 Spartans last February with a 78-73 win with the ESPN College GameDay crew at the Hall.
“Honestly, I remember it was one of the coolest moments of my college career so far, the crowd storming the court and being part of that, College Gameday and the students amped up,” Illinois sophomore forward Tyler Griffey said. “I’m sure they’re going to be amped up again.”
With classes at the U of I resuming for the winter semester today, expect the students to give the Illini a boost.
“It does feel good to get back home, get on your home court here, get the fans back, the students back, everbody’s back,” Illinois senior Mike Davis said.
“There’s a lot of excitement around the town. I went to the store (Monday) and a lot of people were talking to me saying, ‘Come to the game tomorrow, be ready, get some rebounds, get back to playing well because we need you.’ I think everybody’s excited.”
Richmond back with team
Speculation swirled about Jereme Richmond sitting out Illinois’ game at Wisconsin on Saturday. Citing “rumors,” Big Ten Network analyst Jim Jackson tweeted that the Illini freshman would transfer, only to renege his post and apologize for the tweet hours later. But the rumors spread on Internet message boards, prompting Richmond – who practiced on Monday but did not talk to the media – to issue a statement through the University.
“I dealt with some personal issues last week that caused me to miss two practices while I was home with my family in Waukegan,” Richmond said. “With the help of Coach Weber and my family, I have worked through this situation. I appreciate their support and the support of my teammates for getting me through a difficult time. Unfortunately, my absence led to some false rumors that I want to put to rest. I have been and always will be 100 percent committed to the Illinois basketball program. My coaches and teammates are my family, and I’m looking forward to helping our team achieve our goals. I am an Illini for life.”
Richmond did not travel with the team to Wisconsin but arrived in Madison with his parents. Hew was dressed for the game but did not play.
“Hopefully he’ll be a valuable member of our team down the stretch run,” Illini coach Bruce Weber said. “We can use him, there’s no doubt.”
The situation comes at a bad time for Illinois. The Illini could’ve used Richmond’s rebounding and versatility against Wisconsin, and Davis’ current struggles could’ve opened the door for more playing time for the freshman.
“To me, the sad part is that I thought he was really starting to figure it out, starting to play well, feel comfortable and starting to help our team,” Weber said. “Now, a little bit of a setback for himself, but hopefully we can get him back here and he can definitely add a lot to our team. He gives us a lot of versatility, especially when you talk about Michigan State playing small-ball. He can guard a lot of people.”
Matchup to watch: Mike Davis vs. Draymond Green
Davis continues his mood swings. After four straight double-digit scoring nights and a 14-rebound performance in a home win against Wisconsin, Davis has 14 points and five rebounds over the past two games. Say it again, five rebounds in 63 minutes for a guy who led the Big Ten in rebounding as a junior and finished second in rebounding as a sophomore. He currently ranks 10th in the Big Ten with 6.4 rebounds per game.
“I just got to be active and be everywhere,” Davis said. “When I’m active and everywhere, I’m a good player. When I’m talking around, not screening, getting down on myself or doing things not active that’s when I’m not good.”
Davis also has hurt the Illini with his defensive effort, or lack thereof. Jon Leuer posted 26 points on 9 of 16 shooting with Davis shadowing the NBA prospect most of the game. Davis’ task won’t get any easier with the assignment on 6-foot-6, 250-pound Michigan State power forward Draymond Green tonight.
Green is heating up after a slow start. He earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors after averaged 21.0 points and 8.5 rebounds in a pair of overtime wins over Wisconsin and Northwestern last week. Known for disliking contact, Davis will have to toughen up to slow down the bulldozing Green.
“I got to do a better job,” Davis said, “because if Draymond goes for 26, we’re going to lose.”
Ball in the bucket
We media can analyze and overanalyze all the intangible faults of this Illinois team. But a simple box score highlights Illinois’ downfall in back-to-back Big Ten losses. Illinois made 35 of 99 field goals (35.4 percent) last week. That shooting performance won’t equate to many wins for a team that plays mediocre defense and is 291st in the country in free throw attempts. A percentage or two better and Illinois probably beats Penn State and would’ve had a chance to pull off a tough road win at Wisconsin.
But the same Illini offense that shot 64.7 percent through its first three Big Ten games is getting stagnant. Bill Cole is cooling (though still 5 of 10 from the field in last week’s losses), D.J. Richardson has hit the same slump he suffered last year at this time (0 for 8 last week) and Demetri McCamey (6-for-21 last week) has received little help from his teammates during a short slump.
“I think our offense is a little bit stagnant,” Davis said. “I think we just watch Demetri too much. I think we stand around and wait for him to make a play, wait for him to make a cut and get someone else open. I think we have to move. We have to help him out. …I think too much load is on him now.”
Added McCamey: “We just got to get more in the floor, more spaced and more crisp in our offense.”
Illinois 73, Michigan 69
Luckily for Illinois, Michigan State isn’t exactly shooting the lights out either. The Spartans are 31.3 percent from three over their last six games. But Tom Izzo’s squad still takes care of the ball and is plus-5.0 in rebounding advantage in Big Ten play. Still, Illinois has a length advantage and has shot 52.8 percent from the field, including 44.4 percent from three, in a 9-0 start at the Assembly Hall this season. This Illini team can lose to anybody, but it can also beat anybody – especially at home. Here’s guessing the Illini get up for another big game and find an offensive rhythm.
Rashard Mendenhall didn’t leave the Illinois football program on the best of terms, but the Pittsburgh Steelers running back said he keeps tabs on Illini athletics, including the football team.
“My relationship with the school is cool. My relationship with the school has always been cool,” Mendenhall said on the “Tay and J Show” on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM on Wednesday. “I don’t have any problems with (Illinois coach Ron) Zook or nothing like that. It was just the way things were run around there it was just tough and coming out. As far as right now, they just won their bowl game. I hope everything’s good and going well with them, but I still love the University of Illinois.”
After entering the NFL Draft after his junior season in 2008, Mendenhall and Zook – who recently completed his sixth season at Illinois -experienced a falling out when Mendenhall decided to enter the NFL Draft. He was selected by the Steelers with the 23rd overall pick.
“To tell you the truth, as long as Ron Zook is there it will be hard for me to support the University of Illinois football team,” Mendenhall said in a quote to The News-Gazette in 2008.
But Mendenhall said he keeps up with the Illini football team “a little bit.”
“That being my alma mater, you like to see things and catch some of the games, not just with football but other sports and people you went to school with it,” Mendenhall said Wednesday. “It’s cool to keep an eye or ear or two on it a little bit.”
Former Illini running back Mikel Leshoure received a text message from Mendenhall after the junior broke Mendenhall’s single-season rushing record during the Illini’s 38-14 Texas Bowl win over Baylor on Dec. 29.
“Records were made to be broken,” Mendenhall said. “I was glad to see him get it. That’s something he can cherish. He’s going to be in the same position when someone breaks his (record).”
Mendenhall, a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher in the NFL, supported Leshoure’s decision to enter the NFL Draft with a year of eligibility remaining.
“I think he made the right decision,” Mendenhall said. “I feel like he did everything he can at that level to step out and test the waters. His dream’s right in front of him, so I think it makes sense for him to go out and get it.
“He’s a downhill runner. He’s just a natural runner. He’s got a good feel for the game and just where to fit things. So I think whatever system he’s in he can figure it out because he’s a natural runner and he’s instinctive.”