Conference play continues for Illinois this weekend as they head to Purdue on Saturday. Though Purdue has taken a bit of a hit with the loss of JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore, they are still a solid team. And, playing in West Lafayette is never easy.
Though conference play has just begun, the Illini are in that stretch where we will be able to determine if the team is actually going to make a statement this year, or drift back into the same mediocre fugue they’ve inhabited since finishing on such a high note after the 2004-2005 season.
Right now, the Illini are 12-2, which is by no means a bad record. When you consider the fact that the two losses came from teams that are now ranked (UNLV and Missouri), then really the young team should be quite proud of their efforts. However (there is always a “however” with me), whenever I complain about the rankings I gripe about the fact that certain teams (ahem Memphis) remained ranked when they only had numerous losses, even if those losses were to ranked teams. Just because the ranked team can beat up on cruddy teams doesn’t mean that they are talented. Therefore, the Illini fall into that category that I have described, and so it still remains to be seen as to whether they are as good as we would like them to be.
True, Illinois has beaten all the cruddy teams, but hardly in a convincing fashion. They survived home scares against Minnesota, Cornell and St. Bonaventure, and the only notable wins are home against an unproven Gonzaga and on the road against a transitional 8-3 Maryland. Now that conference play has started, there is no more messing around. Illinois needs to win games that they are supposed to win (Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State), protect the home court and then steal a few road wins against teams that matter, such as Purdue.
Unlike Tuesday’s game against Minnesota, Saturday’s game is by no means a must-win. A loss wouldn’t be a big deal, but it would be a pretty solid indication that Illinois is on the path to sneak into the tournament atop a bubble and then lose in the first round – again. How much longer can fans take this kind of mediocrity? Yes, we are a young team and can’t expect miracles, but last year we had four seniors and the only feather in our cap was winning one Tournament game. When do we consider that something may need to change? If you ask anyone who knows me, it’s clear that I am a wholehearted Bruce Weber supporter. I love everything about him, except the fact that we haven’t seen results in quite a while.
Now is the time to break out of the mold and shine. Just like no one on the current team has beaten Missouri in their entire careers, no one has beaten Purdue, either. Weber made a comment in today’s teleconference how every year someone on the Boilermakers magically has a standout game, such as John Hart last year who wasn’t even on the roster and then helped lead Purdue to victory. But isn’t that more a reflection of what’s going on at Illinois than what’s happening with Purdue? No one should be having a standout game against us, whether it’s a star or not.
On Saturday, the Illini game will be at 3pm, at the same time as the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. I can’t imagine many Illini fans will make the trip, though perhaps Mackey Arena will be a little less hostile without the students around. Purdue is 11-3 so far with all three losses occurring on the road. Even if they’re not quite as tough as they have been the past few years, they are still Purdue. Robbie Hummel is back on the team, and Weber commented that while he might be a tad slower, he is still “so smart and he knows how to play so well; he can do a lot of different things.” He is also good at shooting 3’s, which we haven’t been so great at defending as of late.
When discussing the Minnesota double overtime game from Tuesday, Weber noted that the team played about 28 minutes of good basketball. He acknowledged the careless passing and the unforced turnovers, and that these things need to change. These things have needed to change for years, and I’m still waiting patiently.
Purdue is going to go small, while we’ve got a lot of big lugs on the court. Weber hopes that Joe Bertrand will continue playing well and ride high on his newfound confidence. Meyers Leonard may have a little trouble with the little guys, but he is still going to be integral to the team. I hope they have confidence, because mine is starting to wane. A win on Saturday would be a welcome surprise, but I am not holding my breath.
I’m not ready to throw out an ultimatum for the guys just yet, but I just wanted them to be aware that they are just a couple games away from heading down the wrong path to mediocrity yet again. Let’s continue to push forward this season with a win at Purdue, and then use that momentum to just keep winning.
The game will be on Saturday at 3pm.