Klee: Not tough enough
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — If there was a light at the end of the crimson-lined tunnel late Thursday, the Illini had to squint their weary eyes to see it.
But this proverbial tunnel — unlike the one inside Indiana's Assembly Hall — seems to stretch along without an end. It just seems repetitive, the same ol' same ol', game after game.
"You're playing against a Top 20 team on the road. You played your butt off. We've done it all year. We're close," coach Bruce Weber said after No. 23 Indiana beat Illinois 84-71.
Close, however, isn't cutting it in A) the Big Ten standings B) a fan base running on fumes. After starting 4-1 in conference, Illinois (16-8, 5-6) is in a freefall without a parachute. Thursday's was its fifth loss in six games — with three of the next four on the road.
"Gotta win games. But these are not easy games to win," Weber said. "The regret should be two weeks ago (a loss at Penn State) and Sunday (Northwestern). That's where the regret should be. Not today."
The Indiana (19-6, 7-6) crowd wasn't as loud as some years, though it seemed to be as influential as ever. Assembly Hall was sold out with 17,472 fans, most of them participating in a "White Out." A security detail of seven officers — campus police, hired hands, etc. — stood watch over the Crimson Guard student section for the final four minutes.
And the hosts ridiculed the visitors with chants of "Er-ic Gor-don" and "Shut-up-Bruce!" as the Hoosiers took the lead in the all-time series 84-83. Thursday's result marked Indiana's largest margin of victory in the series since an 88-57 win in 2002.
The crowd, however, wasn't what got under the skin of the Illini coaching staff.
The foul count did. Weber emphasized the free throw discrepancy: Indiana shot 42 (and made 35) while Illinois shot 15 (and made 12). Star big man Meyers Leonard had 15 points at halftime but eventually fouled out — even while playing the role of tackling dummy throughout.
Hey, but it's the Big Ten, right?
"He got bopped a little bit. You just wish he would get a couple calls when people bop him," Weber said. "But they don't seem to want to call that. They just call the hand-checks on the perimeter."
"We're going to keep that to us," Indiana coach Tom Crean said of their game plan against Leonard. "We could see them in the conference tournament."
At one point during the first half, when Brandon Paul earned his second personal foul, Weber turned to the bench and said, "Joseph!" An assistant coach reminded Weber that Bertrand already had a pair of fouls, too.
"The fouls in the first half, they probably were legit," Weber said. "I'm not sure about the fouls in the second half, to be honest."
In rekindling at least some of its tradition, IU has forced its way to the line. The Hoosiers entered the game fourth among power conference teams with 17.9 free throws per game.
"It's the same thing we did against Minnesota," said D.J. Richardson, who led Illinois with 19 points. "We kept sending them to the line."
And what has been the staple of Weber's teams — sound defense — has broken down in the past two games. Northwestern formed a layup line in Sunday's 74-70 win in Champaign. And Indiana became just the fifth opponent in Weber's 303 games at Illinois to score 84 points in regulation.
"We've got to get better on D," Tracy Abrams said. "We can't trade baskets."
All of those stats and complaints mean little in the end, however. There's been no rhyme or reason to these unpredictable Illini, who own a better record against ranked teams (3-2) than the 10th-, 11th- and 12th-place teams in the Big Ten (2-2). But at least one thing's true at this point, for any number of reasons: "Gotta win games," as Weber put it.
"Go home, get on the bus, get ready for Michigan," he said. "I told them I'm not mad at them. I'm mad because of Sunday and a couple weeks ago. That's all I'm mad at."