Tate: Illini continue to take on water

Tate: Illini continue to take on water

Michigan was vulnerable at home Saturday. Even against the UI’s 0-4 Big Ten basketball tailenders.

Forced into 12 first-half turnovers by Illini pressure, the Wolverines’ veteran trio of Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman and foul-troubled Charles Matthews combined for three points in those 20 minutes.

But the Illini were in a giving mood. Even as they spurted to a 19-11 lead, erratic decision-making allowed John Beilein’s Wolverines to hang close. Enigmatic Kipper Nichols, en route to 17 points, let mistakes spoil his best outing. Freshman Mark Smith, who scored eight points in the UI’s 11-7 jump, encountered backfires.

And then, resuming the second half with a nervous 34-31 lead, Illinois unraveled with two Smith turnovers while allowing Michigan five straight scores on a dunk and four layups. Yes, Michigan boosted its shooting percentage to .510 for the game, but this was the result of 12 second-half layups and dunks as, among other mistakes, Te’Jon Lucas got caught guarding the 6-11 Wagner. 

In what ended as a second 10-point loss for the Illini on the road — 79-69 —Wagner and his two aforementioned mates combined for 34 second-half points.

“We don’t sustain,” said a beleaguered coach Brad Underwood. “Michigan made a simple change offensively and we didn’t respond. I’m frustrated.”

A down year for Big Ten

This would be a good year to have a quality Big Ten basketball team. More than half of the 14 league members don’t.

As of today, a conference that put 21 teams into the last three NCAA tournaments (seven per year), is projected at four ... just four, according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi and others.

Michigan State and Purdue stand as the only members in the Top 25, and the only Big Ten teams in the RPI’s mysterious but seemingly meaningful Top 40. 

Michigan belongs in the 68-team field, although trouble awaits in the next three against Purdue, Michigan State and Maryland. Minnesota seemed destined to advance, only to learn that a troubled 6-10 Reggie Lynch must join 6-9 Eric Curry on the sidelines (and 6-8 Amir Coffey has a shoulder problem). 

Meanwhile, Maryland is riding the bubble without Justin Jackson. And we’ll watch to see if Ohio State holds up or Penn State wakes up.

Victim of upsets

There are two major problems. 

First, Big Ten teams have been unseated in too many tune-up games against the Riders of the world. Northwestern has misplaced its mojo. Iowa fell to Louisiana Lafayette, South Dakota State and Illinois State. Indiana lost by 21 to Indiana State, by 26 to Seton Hall and by 20 to Fort Wayne. Wisconsin has eight losses. EIGHT! Nebraska has one quality win — over Minnesota at home — against five setbacks. And Rutgers is Rutgers.

Add Illinois, and that’s half the league mostly down the drain by early January.

Second, of the 68 teams, 32 receive automatic bids by conference. That leaves 36. The ever-loaded ACC, an improved SEC, the Big East and Big 12 each deserve more at-large bids than the Big Ten. My current count finds 39 teams for 36 slots without Maryland, which forges ahead without its top two power forwards (thereby necessitating more time for 6-10 IMG product Bruno Fernando, which could be a benefit). 

A deficit in talent 

Rodney Dangerfield gets more respect than 10-7 Illinois, and that’s probably appropriate.

Consider that fourth-year junior Leron Black is the team’s best player. He has had a rough week but he’s been a solid performer. 

However, The Athletic, with its on-line lineup of sports experts, overlooks Black in its national list of the top 30 power forwards. It includes three sidelined by injuries — No. 1 Michael Porter of Missouri, No. 11 Justin Jackson of Maryland and No. 14 Bonzie Colson of Notre Dame. The list also has MSU’s Miles Bridges at No. 2, OSU’s Keita Bates-Diop at No. 6 and Purdue’s Vince Edwards at No. 15.

Furthermore, an on-line selection of the top 15 Big Ten players at midseason does not include Black.

Point is, for all their battle-back qualities, the Illini are far behind in talent. When the other team blocks 10 shots, as happened at Minnesota last Wednesday, that tells you something. On that night, Underwood continued to sub in search of a combination while Richard Pitino played his five starters between 30 and 37 minutes.

Black is good but not All-Big Ten good. Michael Finke held his own against Missouri but is generally outmanned. We’re seeing why Simeon’s quickness slowed Mark Smith in the IHSA tourney last season, and how difficult it can be without a face-up jumper.  And how, please explain, did Mark Alstork average 19 points at Wright State last year?

Game after game, the athleticism of UI opponents has been superior. Post problems were assured the day Jeremiah Tilmon flipped to Missouri. And three-point shooting, bound to dip when Jalen Coleman-Lands transferred to DePaul, was below par even before opponents figured out Aaron Jordan (eight treys in the last eight games).

Bring on Iowa Thursday. The Hawkeyes are riding the same leaky boat as Illinois.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can the reached at ltate@news-gazette.com

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rory373@aol.com wrote on January 07, 2018 at 8:01 am

Smith, Nichols and Alstork are not ready for prime time. Finke looks like he is overmatched and doesn't add any value to the team. Smh

Moonpie wrote on January 07, 2018 at 9:01 am

Start thinking about those Illini NIT t-shirts. Maybe.

It's a team of mediocre players and mediocre coaching. Can we somehow blame it all on fans just one more time?

MasterOfTheObvious wrote on January 07, 2018 at 10:01 am

TATE QUESTION: And how, please explain, did Mark Alstork average 19 points at Wright State last year?


OBVIOUS ANSWER:  He was playing in the Horizon League.

OrlandoIllini wrote on January 07, 2018 at 10:01 am

Look at physiques. Opponents' have muscular, substantial bodies. Most of the Illini do not. Michael Finke in particular might benefit from the 6,000-calories-per-day diet of... who was that, Myers Leonard?

Yes, the Illini need a couple of Bigs. They have a Long in Finke, and a Strong in Black, but no real Big. It continues to be a chronic deficit that is fatal to any season's record.

A hard-nosed defensive disrupter (a la Lucas Johnson) would be a great help also.


Bear8287 wrote on January 07, 2018 at 1:01 pm

Brad Underwood's team was 11-8 and 0-6 in the Big 12 last year and I wonder how many of the posters here would have picked them then to be in the NCAA tourney that season.

It will be interesting to see what people are saying here if BU manages to lead this Illini team to the NCAA tourney.

It sounds like maybe more Michigan fans (https://t.co/yCptx6BKwy) think that the Illini's future is bright under BU than the "fans" posting here.  How messed up is that?