WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Illini killers JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore are gone and the third musketeer, Robbie Hummel, wasn't himself Saturday.
But that didn't prevent Purdue from spanking Bruce Weber's Illini for the sixth straight time, 75-60, at newly revamped Mackey Arena. Purdue reserves scored 36 points for the third consecutive game, and no Boilermaker recorded more than four field goals. Hummel had two on six shots.
What we've seeing are smoke signals warning of dire times for Illinois in the next two months. Somebody set the emergency brakes on early-season savior Sam Maniscalco, his ankle slowing him to a zero-production walk. And for all of Meyers Leonard's potential, the Illini encounter stretches when they can't get the ball to him in scoring position (four field attempts, two baskets) and he was never a factor in Mackey.
Worst yet, the Illini are developing a turnover tendency that releases rivals for breakaways. These are the baskets that enliven rival fans and turn close games into thunderous stampedes.
Lightning struck the herd shortly after halftime Saturday as Leonard sat down with three fouls, the Illini essentially playing without a center or a point guard.
Emerging from an early 21-14 deficit, Purdue erupted for a 41-8 blitz that began with three unanswered treys and reached a crescendo with a string of layups off Illini turnovers. In a riotous two-minute period from 14:12 to 12:08, the Boilermakers capitalized on miscues by Tyler Griffey, Tracy Abrams, Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson twice to run the score up to 52-29. Somebody brought out the smelling salts and the Illini started to revive after it reached 56-31.
But the defense never recovered, Purdue shooting 71.4 percent in the second half.
What is Weber to do? Where can he find the punch to help D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul? How can he bolster this inept defense?
The coach moved Joe Bertrand into the lineup Saturday but the redshirt sophomore contributed four turnovers to the team total of 17. Tracy Abrams got 24 minutes subbing for Maniscalco, but was no threat (he missed his only shot).
Illinois has a shortage of ballhandlers and setup passers. When Purdue used weakside help to double on Leonard, quick reversal passes weren't forthcoming. The game loosened up in the last nine minutes, the Illini garnering 29 points to make it respectable.
"It's Groundhog Day, the same old story," Weber said. "Purdue took it to us in the second half again. They only missed six shots after the break (15 of 21, including seven layups in the first 11 minutes). We didn't take care of the ball. We can't guard layups off turnovers.
"Purdue came from the weak side and pinched Meyers, and we didn't look to the corner."
The 82-75 win against Gonzaga at home is now a distant memory. In seven games since, Illini fans have found themselves disappointed in three losses and grumbling about shaky wins against St. Bonaventure (48-43), Cornell (64-60) and Minnesota (81-72 in 2OT). That amounts to too many unacceptable performances to think it can be turned overnight.
And yet, in looking ahead, Illinois' only January road games are at Northwestern (Wednesday), Penn State and Minnesota, a trio of likely second-division teams. But don't expect anything positive until the Illini quit handing the ball over for easy layups.
— In an incredibly balanced effort, none of Purdue's nine scorers attempted more than eight shots, or made more than four field goals. It was a faceless offense. And no Boilermaker had more than three assists or more than two turnovers. In another oddity, there wasn't a single blocked shot in the game.
— Whenever you hear about a stunning upset, check the three-point shooting. Wisconsin went 3-for-28 in losing at home to Iowa. Nuff said.
— You knew this already but, yes, Simeon's Jabari Parker is clearly a one-and-done collegian, and would probably go straight to the NBA if allowed. He was just named MVP at Pontiac. And his 6-2 junior classmate, lefty Kendrick Nunn, would be an excellent pickup if Weber can land him.
— Mike Tisdale has been waived by the Maine Red Claws in the Development League. Another former Illini, Gene Cross, is an assistant coach with the Iowa Energy in the NBA's 16-team minor league.
— Everyone links the success (13-0) of Missouri with its four-guard lineup, but center Ricardo Ratliffe made key baskets in a 78-74 battle with Illinois, and did it again in Friday's 75-68 win over Old Dominion. Ratliffe tied the game at 65-65 and 67-67 before Marcus Denmon carried the Tigers to victory in the final minute.
Why I Feel OLD ...
What’s this? My 41st trip to West Lafayette for an Illini basketball game, and the Illini have lost 30 of them. They’ve lost on a questionable officiating call, a failure to foul with a three-point lead, by blowouts and blown leads (like last year). This routine is getting old.
Why I Feel YOUNG ...
Simeon’s 48-47 defeat of Peoria Manual on Friday at Pontiac was one of the year’s most exciting high school games. Jabari Parker was great (21 points) and yet Manual had two good chances at the end to win it. It brought back positive memories of great games I’ve seen.
Loren Tate writes for The News- Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.