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Inconsistent Illini fall in opening round

by Eduardo Martinez
IU Super Bowl Student News Bureau

The Illini were on a never-ending roller coaster this year. They experienced exhilarating highs, as well as demoralizing lows. And Thursday’s 64-61 loss to Iowa in the opening game of the Big Ten Tournament reflected their play of the entire year.  After promising starts, disappointing finishes followed and left lingering questions about the future.

Illinois took a 40-33 lead over Iowa early in the second half and at times looked like the team that earned a national ranking midway through the year. Then that lead slipped away during a 24-10 Hawkeyes run that ended the Illini’s season in familiar fashion and put the program’s future in question.

The next steps for the program could now move to Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas’ desk, where he will assess the Illini’s 17-15 season.

Thomas hasn’t been shy about making changes; he has already made his presence felt at Illinois, relieving head football coach Ron Zook and women’s head basketball coach Jolette Law of their duties.  Coach Bruce Weber’s tone in the post-game press conference was gloomy and his words on Iowa’s run in the second half were revealing.

“You could just see our body language,” Weber said. “We kept trying to be positive, pump them up.  And, again, to our kids’ credit, it’s been a great group.  I just feel bad for them that they haven’t had more success.  And they didn’t quit, down to the last play.”

But Thursday’s game ran a course similar to their season. The Illini started the year 10-0, with a promising win over ranked Gonzaga. Their early losses were respectable, coming against a 25-7 UNLV team at the United Center in Chicago and 27-4 Missouri. They were 13-3 midway through the season, a more than respectable record.  It appeared as if the Illini were headed in the right direction.

It looked that way early against Iowa on Thursday, too. The Illini were the better team in the first half, riding standout center Meyers Leonard and guard D.J. Richardson.  Leonard exerted his massive seven-foot frame on the smaller Iowa team and played aggressively. The Illini routinely looked for their big man, feeding him consistently throughout the first half, which he finished with 10 points, four rebounds and two assists.  He converted on five of the six shots he took.  Richardson provided timely outside shooting, hitting three of five three-pointers.  He drilled a three as the half expired, propelling the Illini to a 31-27 lead.  As a team, the Illini out-rebounded Iowa 18-12 and nailed 50 percent of their shots. They had the momentum.

But that momentum was lost, just as it was lost during the season. After shocking fifth-ranked Ohio State 79-74 behind 43 points from guard Brandon Paul, the Illini were ranked the 25th best team in the country.  But they lost their next game on the road at Penn State, which finished 12-19 this year, and losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota followed. Then it all spiraled out of control.  Illinoia lost their next six games, punctuated by an ugly 80-57 loss at Nebraska and what started off as promising season turned sour. Fast.

It led them to Thursday, a game that proved to be a microcosm of the Illini’s season. They made 7 of 26 three pointers and failed to get to the free throw line.  They were out-rebounded 27-17 in the second half, and Iowa corralled 14 offensive rebounds in the final 20 minutes.  Leonard hit 9 of 11 shots and finished with 18 points, six rebounds and two blocks in 35 minutes. But he didn’t attempt a shot in the final 9:44. That assured their demise.

Now the questions will turn to Weber’s future with the school. If Thomas opts to make a change, he’ll face significant hurdles. Illinois already paid $2.6 million for Zook’s buyout and $620,000 for Law’s.  Weber has three years remaining on a contract that includes a $3.9-million buyout.

And enticing successors have already been suggested, including Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart, who previously worked under Thomas.  Thomas and Smart worked at the University of Akron together, where Thomas was the athletic director and Smart was an assistant basketball coach from 2003-05. The 34-year-old Smart also has ties to the Midwest, having grown up in Wisconsin. Smart and VCU (28-6) have already punched their ticket to this year’s NCAA Tournament by virtue of winning the Colonial Athletic Association tournament a year after its improbable run to the Final Four.

Until Thomas makes that call, though, the Illini will be left wondering how a promising season ended with such a sour taste.

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