Apparently, the Illini were unable to beat the curse of the United Center. With last night’s 64-48 loss to UNLV, they have now lost at the United Center three years in a row to teams that they really should have beaten. Not to take anything away from UNLV – who made noise earlier this season by beating a No. 1 UNC – but it’s not like they were playing amazing basketball yesterday; Illinois just played worse.
Fans knew that there were some chinks in the Illini armor, but we filled those with hopes, denial and Meyers Leonard dunks. With Leonard playing like crap, those holes were revealed and Illinois lost. The offense was anemic, and just like last year we couldn’t win with Demetri McCamey the only one playing – this year we can’t win with DJ Richardson the only one playing.
Richardson, who has been solid all year, had 19 points and a career-best 8 rebounds (5 was his previous best). He also had 2 assists, but Richardson can’t do all the work, nor should he have to. Brandon Paul tried to do his part with 5 steals, but what good is a steal if no one can shoot the ball? He also ended up fouling out with just 7 points. Sam Maniscalco and Leonard couldn’t get going, and thus the Illini failed. Leonard had 7 points, 6 rebounds and no blocks, while Maniscalco had just 6 points and 2 assists. Leonard actually had more assists with 3 total.
What we’ve learned is that when Leonard is ineffective, the team has a tough time. Honestly, Leonard looked like he was playing through sludge. I don’t know if he was hungover or just didn’t care that he was in front of thousands of fans who really really wanted a win. He just furthered my point that he is not ready for the NBA. Normally reliable even from the free throw line, he was 1-6!! Again, what’s the point of getting fouled if you’re just going to waste that chance. Word is that according to Weber, Leonard let the NBA go to his head, while my husband thinks that he’s spending too much time with his girlfriend. Either way, get it together or you’ll watch your NBA dreams go up in a puff of smoke ala McCamey.
Here are some ugly stats: The Illini shot 22% for the game, and 28.6% from behind the arc. They were also 50% at the free throw line, which is really appalling. My golden child Richardson was 2-2, btw. Also icky is that UNLV blocked 9 or our shots, while Paul was the only one on the team to get a single block.
UNLV was up 33-22 at the half, and pretty much held onto that lead the entire game. Illinois got about as close as 8 points, and then would do something stupid to let UNLV get that lead back into double digits. Then, in the end, Illinois just gave up. They threw up their hands to the curse of the United Center and let UNLV score even more so that the loss could look even worse than it did while watching the game.
This isn’t the worst loss that could happen, but it’s a blow to the Illini ego at the beginning of what will be a tough week. Tomorrow night they’ll have Cornell at home, which isn’t going to be a cake walk. Then, on Thursday they will head to St. Louis and play an undefeated Missouri, a game that I can almost assure you will be a loss. As long as they can beat Cornell at home, then Illinois will be 11-2 going into conference play (Minnesota comes to town on 12/27). This isn’t a terrible record by any means, but the Illini have to make sure to avoid a downward spiral and beat Cornell tomorrow. They also need to give Missouri an actual game, which based on yesterday’s performance might not happen.
I’m a tad worried about the team’s future now, as we saw what happens when Meyers Leonard can’t get going, and we have to be able to bounce back when Leonard isn’t able to produce. Just like it’s not fair to make Richardson do all the work, it’s not fair to force Leonard to be good every night. There was a lot of standing around looking confused yesterday, and then lots of missed shots. The first part can definitely be fixed, and then perhaps it will lead to the solution to the second part.
Again, this wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to Illinois, but it is disappointing to see them lose at the United Center AGAIN. Next year, I might do Illinois a favor and stay home. The fact that I was sitting by a 10-year old boy who was eating the entire game and had no idea what was happening (He didn’t understand the concept of a jump ball) and then switched in the second half to sit by a know-it-all Santa clone did not help my mood. Oh, and to add insult to yesterday’s injury, the volleyball team lost to UCLA in the national championship, so that happened.
Up next, the Illini need to bounce back and beat Cornell on Monday at 7.