Illini playing up, and down, to the competition
Bruce Weber kept waiting for it to happen.
That defensive stop. That layup. That something - anything - that lets a good team survive a bad game.
That something never happened against Illinois-Chicago on Saturday, leaving the Illini with a 57-54 loss against a lower-tier Horizon League team and a question mark on their resume. They fell from 12th to 21st in the rankings with a game looming Wednesday against No. 10 Missouri.
Even though the Illini (10-2) have lost just twice this season, Weber sounded like a coach overseeing a three-game skid. In a sense, he is.
Before Saturday's loss, the Illini won back-to-back games over Northern Colorado and Oakland that were too close for any sort of celebration, a clear letdown after wins over North Carolina and Gonzaga.
''I thought we slipped a little bit in practice, our sense of urgency,' Weber said Monday, noting that the memory of last year's NCAA Tournament snub had motivated his players early on. ''A week ago people are saying, 'Oh, you're a Final Four team.' Now we're about as low as you can be.''
Weber's seen his Illini do all this before. Playing up or down to the competition, getting healthy and fattening their record against name-brand opposition only to fall down against an Illinois-Chicago or, two seasons ago in the NCAA first round, Western Kentucky.
If that form holds, Illinois might be just fine when they face Missouri (10-1) in the annual Braggin' Rights Game in St. Louis, the last nonconference game before opening Big Ten play at Iowa on Dec. 29.
''The big question is how we respond to (the loss),'' Weber said, adding that he didn't even need to see a win. ''My biggest thing is I'd like an effort. We have to have a great effort on Wednesday night and compete.''
Against Illinois-Chicago, the Illini ran into their limitations and, as Weber noted, it wasn't just the effort that was lacking.
The Illini hit just 32.7 percent of their shots, 15 percentage points below their season average.
Weber looked for his team - which includes 7-1 Mike Tisdale, 7-0 Meyers Leonard, 6-9 forwards Mike Davis and Bill Cole, and a confident, penetrating dribbler in guard Demetri McCamey - to try to play inside and either get easy, short baskets or draw fouls.
Instead, Illinois kept shooting from the outside. Weber said he chewed out McCamey at one point for shooting and missing a three-pointer when it was clear that not much was falling for the Illini.
''He said, 'Well, I make that all the time.' Well, you're not making it today,'' Weber said. ''That's basketball, and you've got to understand it. Get to the paint.''
Davis averages 6.6 rebounds and 10.3 points a game but had just one board and four points at Illinois-Chicago. Tisdale - who averages seven boards and 10.3 points a game - had just two points to go with five rebounds.
''I hope Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale play better, but if they don't you've got to give other guys some minutes,'' Weber said.
Weber said his team responded well to the first test after Saturday's loss - arriving early and staying late for practice the next day. He had to push them out of the gym to make the team's annual Christmas party at his house, where the mood, he said, was mixed.
''We didn't sit there and throw snowballs at each other,'' he said. ''Are we happy? No. But you gotta' go on. You gotta' move on with life. You've got to play the next game.''