Twenty turnovers later, John Groce’s Illini completed their schedule of midmajor opponents unscathed.
From here on, it’s two SEC foes and then the Big Ten. Opposing defenses will stiffen. Weaknesses will be exploited.
And the 15,029 who attended Sunday — biggest crowd yet — witnessed yet another stretch of shoddy, careless basketball ... one game too many to think this will continue without repercussions.
Yes, Eastern Kentucky was 9-0 prior to Sunday’s 66-53 demise. And yes, Gonzaga deserves consideration as a full major even if the Bulldogs are listed No. 3 behind Wichita State and Creighton in the midmajor Top 25.
And before you bring up Butler — what a game Saturday, huh! — that was back in Maui when it looked like the Illini would hold at 40 percent on treys and average 80 points a game.
The UI’s last five home games indicate something different. The home report, which will hold until Ohio State arrives Jan. 5, is that Illinois prevailed (and reached 12-0) without impressing.
That’s not all bad. The greatest trait a team can have is the capacity to respond in the clutch. In each case, the Illini did exactly that with a diverse group of contributors ... cashing treys precisely when they were needed, making stops when it mattered, responding aggressively in pressure situations.
If Sunday’s score turned out as predicted, the numbers got there in a roundabout way.
The nation’s leading three-point team hit just three in the first 30 minutes and finished 6 of 23 (26 percent) for the second straight game. But the Illini made 19 of 27 two-pointers (70 percent). Interior play, which had been a major concern, peaked with a 42-23 advantage on rebounds and a 9-1 edge in blocked shots.
The latter caused Groce to rave about the effort of Nnanna Egwu, who dug in defensively and also hit his first three shots.
“We didn’t play well offensively, and we weren’t hitting our threes, but we showed a lot of energy and toughness,” Groce said. “Our defense was about as good as it has been, and Egwu was terrific in making switches and blocking (four) shots. He was locked in on both ends, and he had no turnovers.”
Illinois was blessed in that the Colonels’ two leading scorers, guards Glenn Cosey and Mike DiNunno — two of six transfers on the squad — missed 21 of 26 shots with many of them far off the mark. Sub Corey Walden compensated (9 of 13), but his teammates shot 12 for 45.
Get a grip
Brandon Paul continues to be the UI bellwether.
After Eastern Kentucky clung within 45-40, the senior guard cashed eight points in the 21-13 finish. He leads the Big Ten in treys (33) and free throw attempts with 75, and he is atop the Illini in points (226), rebounds (61) and assists (42). He has scored in double figures all 12 games.
With him drawing early attention with two national Player of the Week awards, these across-the-board numbers will draw All-America consideration if both he and the Illini keep it up.
But, oh, those turnovers. Faulty ballhandling could be the bugaboo, and this has been Paul’s Achilles heel in years past. Both he and Tracy Abrams had five miscues Sunday.
It was noted that EKU has forced an average of 19.6 turnovers this season, but most Illini miscues were more the result of their own rashness and indifference to the importance of ball security. Groce needs to send out a reminder — and he definitely will — that possession is worth roughly a half point. Eastern Kentucky’s 20-10 advantage in turnovers kept the visitors alive.
These words aren’t meant to discredit the victory. It was hard-earned and deserved. But this team has too much talent to make 18 miscues against Gardner-Webb and to hit the 20 mark twice. This may work in the midmajor segment, but there are no more midmajors on the schedule.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.