UI-Northwestern notebook: These Illini are hard to figure
As good as the Illini defense was against Michigan State on Tuesday, it was equally bad against Northwestern on Sunday.
The Spartans shot a season-low 24.1 percent. The Wildcats shot 60.4 percent.
Go ahead, math majors. Figure that one out.
Illinois beat No. 9 Michigan State 42-41 in a UFC fight that doubled as a basketball game. Northwestern beat Illinois 74-70 in a Pac-12 game that posed as a Big Ten game.
"I think they always had us on their heels," coach Bruce Weber said after the Illini were upset at the Assembly Hall on Sunday. "And they made shots. They shoot 60 percent. They just always seemed to be a step ahead of us and making the right play."
Perhaps the Illini should schedule Parkland College for a midweek scrimmage. Longer breaks between games seem to be their Kryptonite.
Illinois had an eight-day hiatus before its loss at Penn State and a five-day break before its loss at Minnesota. There were four days of preparation for Northwestern.
Yet the Illini had only two days to prepare for a win against Michigan State.
Go ahead, psychologists. Figure that one out.
The one constant in Weber's eight-plus seasons has been sound defense. But the Wildcats scored on 16 of their final 20 possessions in mocking the Illini's attempt to stop them.
"We know what they do better than anybody," Weber said. "And we've stopped it."
The instigator was Reggie Hearn, who accounted for a career-high 20 points. Just eight minutes in he had 13 points — double his seasonal scoring average. The closer was John Shurna, who had 24 points after scoring 20 in their first meeting.
"If we run through our offense and wait for a good shot to come, then things will open and good shots will come," said Shurna, who likely will finish his career with a respectable 3-4 record against the Illini.
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There's an underlying frustration with these Illini. It involves sophomore center Meyers Leonard, who made another (offensive) statement with 21 points and nine boards.
This, in all likelihood, is his final season at Illinois. So there's a shrinking window in which to take advantage of his once-in-a-recruiting-generation talents. The buzz in NBA circles: Leonard's stock has done nothing but rise through the course of his second year.
His defense has been suspect of late. That, however, doesn't faze pro scouts. They see a 7-footer that touched the top of the white square in warmups and was one rebound shy of his eighth double-double. He made his first nine shots from the field.
On paper, the Illini would return everyone on the playing roster except for graduate student Sam Maniscalco. But this season — with a possible lottery pick in the paint — was the season with the higher ceiling.
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Northwestern coach Bill Carmody joked that Shurna had been "asking for the ball" in the huddle in recent games. The unconventional forward made 11 of 14 field goals and had a game-high 24 points in what probably will be his final game against Illinois.
"He's a pretty good player," Carmody understated.
Illini guard Brandon Paul, who has been active and sometimes brilliant on defense this Big Ten season, took the blame. But there was little help defense to give Paul a cushion.
"I didn't do my job as a defensive stopper," he said.
Shurna topped 20 points for the 11th time this season.
"We rely on John a lot. He's our leader, and that's what leaders do," Northwestern athletic director and Illinois alum Jim Phillips said in a hallway after the game.
"And John is a great kid. That's what I would tell you more than anything. Sure, he's a good basketball player. But he's a better kid. And his class is going to leave the university as the all-time winningest class in Northwestern's history."
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Former Illini football star Whitney Mercilus accepted another award Sunday. He was honored during a timeout in the first half at the Assembly Hall.
Mercilus is training in Arizona as he prepares for the upcoming NFL combine in Indianapolis.
"I have no doubt I'm going to blow up at this combine," Mercilus said, adding, "It's the biggest test of my life."
If the NBA grades on character, the defensive end would be a first-round pick. He was all class, as usual, and the junior said he would finish his degree during his first NFL offseason.
"I didn't spend four years in college for nothing," Mercilus said.
Of his decision to leave early, he said, "It's an opportunity that opened up for me to benefit my family, which is a big thing for me. I didn't come from a home that had a lot of money or anything like that. Money was tight around our home, with my parents being Haitian immigrants, struggling through life and all that. It's just a way for giving back to my parents and give them the life that they deserve."
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Illinois sophomore Joseph Bertrand hit his first career three-pointer (with 13:10 left in the first half) and second career three-pointer (11:45 in the second) in Sunday's game.
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The Illinois Wolves club program was well-represented at the Assembly Hall.
The respective starting lineups included four Wolves alums — Northwestern's David Sobolewski and Shurna and Illinois' Bertrand and Tracy Abrams. And there were two more coming off the Illini bench: Maniscalco and Nnanna Egwu.
Further, Northwestern's Drew Crawford and Illinois' D.J. Richardson were teammates with Illinois Warriors.
"It's always good to play against him. I'd rather play with him, though," Crawford said with a laugh. "He's a great competitor."
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The Assembly Hall MVPs were the hard-working employees that transformed the arena from a country music concert to a basketball gym.
The Hall hosted more than 16,000 Jason Aldean fans on Saturday night. Then on Sunday there was an announced crowd of 15,461, though the actual attendance was less than that.
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Northwestern had a rotation of six players. Illinois had a rotation of, well, six players.
Off the bench, Maniscalco played 12 minutes. Myke Henry made a cameo appearance of about one minute, and Egwu subbed in for Leonard when the starting center was rattled on a blow to the head.
"(In) hindisght, of course, (you want to) use your bench, use your other guys, see what happens," Weber said.
The Illinois players said fatigue wasn't a factor.
"They don't sub much, either," Paul said. "They outplayed us."
Illinois fell to 39-5 against Northwestern at the Assembly Hall.
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If there was a silver lining to this weekend for Illinois, it was Saturday's game at Mackey Arena. Indiana beat Purdue 78-61. That put the Hoosiers at 6-6 in the Big Ten.
A loss would've put the Hoosiers at 5-7 and all but playing for its season. Instead, Indiana (18-6, 6-6) and Illinois (16-7, 5-5) will clash with .500 conference records at Bloomington on Thursday (7, BTN).
"We've got to keep believing," Paul said. "We can't come down on our ourselves. We can't hang our heads low after this."
Thursday's matchup is the rivals' only meeting this regular season.
"All you can do is get ready for Indiana," Weber added. "You've got to go and get ready for the next one."