Tate: Victory is a deep breath of frosh air

UI-Penn State game notes

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Would Illini Nation accept 7-3? After all the moaning and groaning, would you settle for a 7-3 Big Ten start?

This looms as possible, even likely, after Illinois, now 5-3, handed Penn State its eight straight loss, 77-67, Wednesday ahead of Saturday's home game with Indiana (the Illini are 10-1 at home) and a date at Iowa next Wednesday.

With the conference schedule toughening in February, these Illini need all the cushion they can create.

Improvement is evolving via the progress of freshmen D.J. Richardson (20 points) and Brandon Paul (10), those two adding a point to the 29 they garnered at Northwestern. At the same time, Bill Cole stepped up with four treys, and junior Mike Davis, blanked in Evanston, added 11 as the Illini shot 57 percent in the first half and 52 percent overall. Cole's last trey put Illinois ahead for good at 53-51 and Davis followed with two jumpers ahead of two huge goals by McCamey and Dominique Keller.

This was a drastic change from recent UI-Penn State tug-of-wars, four of the last five ending in one-point decisions.

Reverse course

In a turnaround from earlier this season, and echoing the losses to Purdue (ahead 26-18) and Northwestern (22-15 and 37-32), the Illini performed impressively during the first half.

Three straight 20-minute openings provide a glimpse of what can be. Red-hot, the Illini sank seven of their first 11 treys. McCamey was cold from the field but doled out eight of his nine assists before the break, serving three straight on a lob to Mike Tisdale, a layup for first-time starter Tyler Griffey and a trey by Cole when the spread reached 20-9.

Weber subbed four players at that juncture and the game leveled off with Talor Battle, who didn't take a shot in the first 10 minutes, meshing his first four tries, three of them from the arc.

A buzzer-beater by Davis sent Illinois dancing into the locker room with a 40-33 lead. Then, as in the last two games, the momentum evaporated in the first five minutes after the break. It didn't look like the same team as the Nittany Lions racked 13 of the first 15 points.

But this was different. Whereas Purdue and Northwestern each scored on all but one of their last dozen possessions (think about that!), Illinois produced a series of stops down the stretch. In fact, the Lions managed just two rebound goals (plus four free throws) in a 13-minute stretch that allowed Illinois to enter the last two minutes with a 64-54 lead.

The foul-marred last two minutes offered conclusive evidence that rules makers can't find an appropriate way to end these games. Illinois made 13 of 18 free throws in the last two minutes.

Football tidbits

– Joe Paterno, at age 83, is enjoying one of his best recruiting campaigns even though he no longer travels to see Penn State prospects. First it was knee surgery in the offseason, then hip replacement last year, and now he says it is simply "too much of a circus" when he enters a high school. So he lets the assistants handle the travel workload, and they had 20 stars lined up by November ... only to discover recently, like some others, that two prizes changed their minds.

– According to Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, there is agreement between him, his board, the UI's Ron Guenther and the Chicago Cubs to play next year's game at Wrigley Field if – and this is a big if – they can work out the financial and operational questions. The field has been measured and will handle a game, just like it did years ago for the Bears. It'll be a costly ticket but a cinch sellout. People in Chicago would go to Wrigley to watch a hot dog eating contest.

– With a week to go before signing day, the Illini have 14 high school commitments but only seven hailing from six Midwest states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. SuperPrep Magazine's Bill Kurelic lists 136 quality players from these states, and the Illini have three: Proviso East defensive back Corey Cooper (16, a soft verbal), Downers Grove QB Chandler Whitmer (29) and Niles West tackle Shawn Afryl (80). Latest of a half-dozen to decommit is Houston tackle Zach Bolton.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

Comments

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TotalIlliniFan wrote on January 28, 2010 at 9:01 am

Liked the Griffey start over Davis. Not much analysis and commentary about it yet. Sends several good messages and may be part of a new trend that works.

PeoriaIllini wrote on January 28, 2010 at 9:01 am

TotalIlliniFan,

I would tend to agree with you. Seemed like dialing back some of the pressure Davis puts on his shoulders by having him come off the bench helped him (he had 11 points). One of the things I like about Weber is that he will put the 5 people on the court who have been working the hardest in practice (like Griffey). Sometimes people don't like the 5 he puts out there, but atleast he lets them earn it on the practice court and not through internet public opinion, or recruiting rankings.

PeoriaIllini wrote on January 28, 2010 at 9:01 am

Also, if all a person did was scroll to the bottom of these articles he/she could tell Illinois won because more people seem to post when we lose, rather then when we win.

myattitude wrote on January 28, 2010 at 10:01 am

I would say this game said little or nothing. It was against the worst team in the Big Ten at this point (no wins) and we struggled against them. Benching Davis was probably good and supposedly he has been sick but maybe he is healing.

This team will be lucky (or maybe not) to make the NIT.

ax474 wrote on January 28, 2010 at 10:01 am

This team is definitely a work in progress, but they have made some huge strides over the last couple of weeks. Even though Penn State is in last place in the Big Ten, they are a very good, very sound basketball team, and they are gonig to win some games. Illinois has shown alot of grit and mental toughness, which needs to be applauded.

illiniphil85 wrote on January 28, 2010 at 12:01 pm

I've been waiting to see an effort like this for over a month. No, It wasn't great. Plenty of work to do, but it was more a team effort, the players didn't look uptight, the motion looked good in the first half and they closed the deal with some clutch plays down the stretch. I'll take it, a nice road win, a confidence builder and a stepping stone for further improvement.

vreato wrote on January 28, 2010 at 2:01 pm

If you can't beat Penn State, you don't deserve to be in the IHSA playoffs, let alone hope to play in the NCAAs. And, I don't understand why Griffey doesn't play more. Let him play; we're not going anywhere special, you might as well get Griffey ready for 2011 and beyond!

bernies wrote on January 28, 2010 at 4:01 pm

vreato said:

"If you can't beat Penn State, you don't deserve to be in the IHSA playoffs, let alone hope to play in the NCAAs."

Making the IHSA playoffs is no big deal. EVERYBODY makes the IHSA playoffs.

Anonymous User wrote on January 28, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Please people, beating Penn State (a high school power) is getting you excited. NIT is their destiny.

illiniphil85 wrote on January 28, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Excited, nothing even close. It's just enough to keep me from going ballistic. I agree with the Grif suggestion, get him some PT. Let's build something for next year.

CecilColeman wrote on January 28, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Loren should tell us where Paterno's "...twenty stars lined up by November..." are from! Not a one from Illinois, I'll wager, because JoePa has so much talent to choose from in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that he has no need to recruit from Illinois. Just like Ohio State, Alabama, Texas, the California schools. They all deem high school football talent in Illinois to be inferior. And they are RIGHT!! I can only hope that Zook and his staff keep looking out of state for studs.

Illinigrad wrote on January 28, 2010 at 8:01 pm

So the NW AD has a board to report to and RG does not?! That says it all.

TotalIlliniFan wrote on January 29, 2010 at 5:01 am

RG reports to a DIA oversight group. They are appointed not to question anything. It is inbred.

jgrout wrote on January 30, 2010 at 4:01 am

For most purposes, RG is accountable to the University President and the Board of Trustees, which set athletic policy and are involved in major hires and fires. For all the negative comments over the years about Michael Aiken vis a vi the Chief, he understood who was in charge of campus athletics: Nancy Cantor clearly did not.