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Illinois basketball continues to bubble

Welcome back to the bubble, Illinois.

A 71-70 loss to Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston on Saturday may not mark the low-point of the Illini’s 15-8 start – losses to UIC and an undermanned Indiana squad still stain the resume – but yet another road loss to an opponent that shouldn’t match up physically in a game of five-on-five further establishes Illinois as just another mediocre BCS conference team.

Not quite the Sweet 16 (or higher) expectations of the preseason.

Another slow start away from the friendly orange backdrop of Assembly Hall doomed the Illini. In its last four road games, Bruce Weber’s squad has dug holes deeper than the snowdrifts lining the Chicago expressways following last week’s blizzard.

The Illini trailed Penn State 11-2, Wisconsin 12-5, Indiana 11-4 and Northwestern 9-0.

Illinois never led Northwestern. Brandon Paul (21 points) split a pair of free thows to complete a 12-0 run and reset the game with 6:39 remaining.

Yet again, the Illini failed in the closing minutes.

Northwestern’s senior point guard Juice Thompson played the way Demetri McCamey is expected to play. Thompson single-handedly willed Northwester to victory in the second half when the Wildcats shooting cooled (5 of 16 from three after a 4-for-5 start from beyond the arc), hitting three daggers from beyond the arc in the final five minutes.

Meanwhile, McCamey turned the ball over on an offensive foul with 10.4 seconds remaining and the Illini down two and missed the front end of a one-and-one with the Illini down three with seven seconds remaining. McCamey finished in double-digits (14 points) for the first time in four games. But the senior didn’t take a shot until 10 minutes remained in the first half and was limited to 27 minutes because of foul trouble.

His classmates in the starting lineup weren’t much help to the Illini either. Mike Tisdale had four points, four blocks and four rebounds. Mike Davis made three of his 11 shot attempts and had three turnovers.

The underclassmen played young but tough. Paul sparked the Illini, D.J. Richardson was sloppy (three turnovers) but more confident (3-for-6 shooting), Leonard stayed aggressive despite a pop in the mouth from Luka Mirkovic and Richmond was efficient (six points, four rebounds, four assists and zero turnovers).

The Illini and Bruce Weber look like a group suffering an identity crisis. Weber sat starters Tisdale and Richmond in favor of Bill Cole and Meyers Leonard. The switch failed to form a spark as Northwestern outscored Illinois 18-12 to start the second half.

Illinois won’t win when McCamey, Davis and Tisdale struggle. But in 28 Big Ten games as starters, the three never have clicked at the same time. Bruce Weber has delayed drastic changes to this squad, fearing the destructing of his players’ confidence.

But after losing five of seven – including four by five points or less – how much confidence do Weber’s players actually have?

Enough to maybe win 19 or 20 regular-season games and yet again sweat out Selection Sunday – neither positive for Weber.

Jeremy Werner is the co-host of the “Tay and J Show,” which airs on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM and on www.myconnectfm.com. Post your comments below or e-mail Jeremy at jeremy@myconnectfm.com.

Categories: Illinois basketball
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