CHAMPAIGN — As Illinois slumped to the locker room after a 74-70 loss to Northwestern, the repercussions seemed to extend beyond the Big Ten standings and the Illini's NCAA tournament prospects.
In terms of Selection Sunday, this wasn't a devastating loss. No, really. The 'Cats are a top-50 RPI opponent and probably won't count as a bad loss on Selection Sunday. Hate to tell you this, but these Illini (16-7, 5-5) weren't going to win the Big Ten, either.
This was worse than those things. This was another loss in the realm of public perception. Illinois, you know, never loses at the Assembly Hall to the purple team from up north.
Well, it didn't used to. But as the crowd began funneling to the exits — with over 2 minutes left, no less — it again became clear the disenchantment among the fanbase is growing thicker by the day.
"It would be an understatement to say it's a disappointing loss," coach Bruce Weber said afterward, quietly.
Sunday's loss indicated Illinois is headed back to its usual status — on the bubble and in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. Its conference record A.D. (After Dee) is now 49-49, and, with three home games remaining, the Illini must steal a road game to finish .500 this season.
"Illinois remains a No. 9 seed (in his mock bracket), but the brutal road ahead could force it to take up residency in Bubbleland," said Yahoo! Sports bracketologist Brad Evans.
"To say the week ahead is huge would be a gross understatement."
But fans weren't looking forward to road games at No. 20 Indiana and No. 23 Michigan, who happen to be 26-1 at home. They simply wanted to see Illinois beat Northwestern for the 29th time in their past 30 matchups at the Hall.
For myriad reasons — the most critical of those being the Illini's shoddy defense — that didn't happen. John Shurna scored 24 points, and the slow-starting Illini didn't hold a lead until 15:57 was left in regulation. Illinois' biggest lead was four points.
It was telling that the loudest cheers erupted during the halftime show. (No, not Madonna's). A group of tiny rope-jumpers — nicknamed the Firecrackers — earned a standing ovation.
The Illini were in the locker room and unable to watch the awesome display. And most of the crowd (listed at 15,461 but noticeably smaller than that) didn't stick around to see the Illini lose to the Wildcats at home for the first time since 1999 and for just the second time since 1979.
"We lost a tough one last time (to Illinois, 57-56 on Jan. 4). And it's turned into a pretty decent rivalry," said 12th-year coach Bill Carmody, who won for the first time at the Hall. "So I think our guys feel like that's one that got away."
"I think there was definitely a little rivalry to it. They came in and beat us at our place," said Reggie Hearn (career-high 20 points). "As soon as we lost that game we're saying, 'When we come back down there we've got to get it back.' "
Several Northwestern players posed for pictures on the Assembly Hall court after the game. Meanwhile, the Illini were left to wonder how it's possible to beat No. 9 Michigan State on a Tuesday and give Northwestern (14-8, 4-6) its first road win of 2012 on the following Sunday.
"I hate to say it's a wake-up call," Weber said. "But you've got to have a sense of urgency and you've got to come and play."
"It's on us," said sophomore Meyers Leonard (21 points, nine rebounds). "We've got to keep playing."
In the Illini's 42-41 upset of Michigan State, freshman Tracy Abrams hit a critical three-pointer to save the day. On Sunday it was another freshman from the Chicago area — Benet Academy product David Sobolewski — burying a three-pointer that gave the 'Cats the lead (56-54) for good.
"That time we didn't do what we were taught," Weber said of the play.
Was it a lack of effort? Northwestern did prevail on the Matto chart (25-19) but coaches didn't feel effort was the issue. Like several other losses — the blown lead at Minnesota, the collapse at Penn State — it seemed to be a basketball I.Q. issue, among other things.
The shot chart revealed Northwestern made 15 field goals in the second half. Nine were layups, most a product of the back-cuts and patience that trademarks the Princeton-style offense. The Illini never seemed to figure out how they were getting beat on defense.
"Coach had us prepared for it," said Brandon Paul, who had 22 points. "But we didn't come out and do what we needed to do to win the game."
As Northwestern raced to a 21-13 lead, the coaches panicked and ignored the same reserves that keyed a 57-56 win at Evanston. Only one reserve — Sam Maniscalco — played more than one minute. Myke Henry, who had six points and three rebounds in their first matchup, played one minute in the second. The Illini's greatest advantage over the 'Cats — depth — was a moot point.
"I'll be honest, in practice, they couldn't guard us running their stuff," Weber said in explaining his shortest bench this season. "So you're a little leery (of using the reserves in the game), there's no doubt."