Tate: Illini size deficiency now evident

Tate: Illini size deficiency now evident

   When coach Lon Kruger talks of "a small margin to work on" at Indiana today, what he''s really saying is Illinois is generally undermanned for the tasks ahead in the last 10 games.

   Yes, as we saw in the 96-90 upset of Minnesota, the Illini still can win games by combining an inspirational effort with magical three-point shooting.

   But the two home losses to Purdue and Wisconsin pointed out the difficulty of trying to survive in the Big Ten with an overemphasis on perimeter shooting, rebounding that only can be described as mediocre (minus five a conference game), and a defense that, between putbacks and penetrations, permits too many uncontested shots.

   The facts are right there in the stats.

   After eight games, Illinois is 11th in the Big Ten in field goal shooting and 11th in field goal defense. That''s a bad combination, and the latter figure has jumped to an out-of-control plus-50 percent by the opposition. Face it, if you have problems rebounding and the other folks are making half their shots, you have trouble that won''t go away.

Numbers indicate UI overmatched

   Wednesday''s 82-65 loss at Iowa provides a telltale box score. You must assume a team is overmatched when the numbers run as follows:

    Iowa, boosting its national rebound lead, whipped Illinois 36-21 on the boards. This wasn''t the work of a dominant individual, but rather a dominant personality. No Hawkeye grabbed more than six. As a result of second opportunities, the Hawkeyes contributed 15 points to their total.

    Iowa shot 58 percent from the field. It wasn''t a case of the Hawkeyes being remarkably hot but rather an ability to shatter the Illini defense with 22 field goals inside of 10 feet, including 14 layups, dunks and putbacks. In the second half, Iowa junior Ryan Bowen had five layups, a spin move and a short hook as he finished 8 for 8.

    Scoring one first-half point at the free throw line reveals the Illini weren''t breaking down the Iowa defense and placing it in stress as they did in defeating Minnesota. This is another indicator of being overmatched.

    The UI defense didn''t come close to its primary objective, which was to limit Andre Woolridge. He had 25 points and nine assists, and appeared capable of moving in for a medium jumper at any time. Illinois had no one who could match up with the Hawkeye star defensively.

    Illinois was leading the Big Ten in turnover margin and hadn''t committed more than 14 turnovers in seven league games before making 21 at Iowa. Failure to handle full-court pressure before halftime lifted the Hawkeyes psychologically for their 15-0 burst. Subs Brian Johnson, Bryant Notree and Halim Abdullah were responsible for nine turnovers.

   Johnson has tailed off since offering to step aside for Jerry Gee after 15 straight starts. Increasingly reluctant to shoot, Johnson has taken one shot in the last two games, and he shows 21 turnovers against six field goals in the last seven games. After doing "all those little things" during the December run, he doesn''t have more than two field goals in any of the last 10 games.

   Johnson''s replacement, Gee, showed promise with 6-for-7 shooting in the Minnesota win, but his five starts have brought 14 rebounds, fewer than three a game. This meager statistic, coupled with his 25 fouls in the last six games, provides a further sign Gee is bucking up against superior opposition on the block.

Playing for the future

   Where do they go from here?

   That answer hasn''t changed. Illinois is trying to wage war without the required soldiers. Kruger has installed a system geared to the long term, the success of it being determined not by the number of victories in February but by the number of signees from the quality junior class in November.

   What happened at Iowa Wednesday is something that must be endured as the Illini make yet another attempt to climb back out of the hole that recruiting complaints originating with Iowa coaches put them in at the start of this decade. Recruiting has been sporadic ever since, the lone freshman in last year''s class (Ryan Blackwell) transferring to Syracuse, and Springfield''s Victor Chukwudebe standing as the only freshman in the current class. That''s one scholarship player in two classes.

   Until that changes  until the Illini attract some quality prospects from the Chicago area  the team must continue an underdog, uphill climb in Big Ten competition.

   Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette.

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