CHAMPAIGN — A wildly energized Illini basketball turnout — most fever-pitched in a decade of hapless wandering — evolved into the disarray of an Iowa caucus Friday night ... except that we know the result.
It was every Illinois fan’s dream for 11 minutes: Two technicals on the Maryland bench, two treys by “0-for-January” Da’Monte Williams and the flourish of four layup drives by senior Andres Feliz.
But when it reached 31-17, Terp coach Mark Turgeon embarked on the plan he disliked, but one that had worked for Iowa. He called for the dreaded zone defense and, like mummies placed back in their crypts, the Illini stiffened. Without an antidote, unable to penetrate or strike from distance, they lost their rhythm and the game.
The Illini team that shot 75 percent in the last 20 minutes at Purdue, struggled through a mid-game stretch of 17 minutes with four field goals. The second half began with a horrid 1-for-17 run.
Causes for concern
Game stats tell a different story. The Illini had a whopping 14 offensive rebounds, launched five more shots than Maryland and attempted nine more free throws. But repeated misfires included 10 blown free throws, and they managed just three fast-break points. Stuck in the mud, they fell behind 53-44 before a late rally petered out, the score settling at 75-66. Maryland has won three straight road games in a conference where the top 11 teams entered Saturday with a 53-9 record at home (21-43 away).
Crowding the UI locker room are three huge elephants.
(1) Freshman Kofi Cockburn, who managed one basket and one defensive rebound in 27-plus minutes, is showing the strain of dealing with superior Big Ten centers game after game;
(2) Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who peaked with 35 points against Rutgers last February, missed all four of his free throws and has now scored in single digits 13 of the last 16 games ... making it an out-of-position struggle after turning over his post position to Cockburn;
(3) Tenacious guarding continues to slow deadeye Trent Frazier as he lacks the dribble-drive skills of partners Feliz and Ayo Dosunmu.
Kofi, Giorgi and Trent, all first-name popular on campus, produced one basket apiece Friday night, in part because of lengthy stretches on the bench. It doesn’t take an analytical study to conclude that Underwood must re-evaluate his tendency to give fouls too much weight in determining playing time.
Nor is it second-guessing to say that leaving Frazier on the bench for more than 13 minutes in the first half (with two fouls) contributed to Maryland’s comeback. Just move him off Anthony Cowan to a less clever dribbler. He is too critical to the team to let him languish on the sideline.
Miami’s Kendrick Nunn averaged 16.8 points in January and was named NBA East Rookie of the Month for the third straight time.
Which raises the thought: Had the rapidly-improving Illini guard not been dismissed (domestic battery), how much better would a 20-15 team in 2016-17 have been with him alongside Malcolm Hill, Leron Black, Tracy Abrams and Maverick Morgan? Would he have saved John Groce’s job?
Similar questions reverberate through the years.
Imagine Lou Henson’s 26-5 Big Ten champs in 1983-84, with Derek Harper delaying his NBA quest and joining Efrem Winters, Bruce Douglas and Doug Altenberger that season. Or Nick Anderson remaining with Kendall Gill, Marcus Liberty and Stephen Bardo in 1989-90. Or Frank Williams, the Big Ten Player of the Year as a junior, back with a loaded Bill Self squad of Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head, James Augustine, Roger Powell and Luther Head in 2002-03. Imagine that!
Deron Williams left early after the 37-2 run in 2005, when other key members returned. And of course there’s Meyers Leonard, who departed after his sophomore season in 2012, just as he began to develop.
But that’s basketball in the 2000s. Players leave. Penn State is excelling because Lamar Stevens stuck around. Michigan and Purdue are erratic because key non-seniors left. After last season, 80-plus collegiate players dropped early even though a mere half of them were drafted by the NBA. This explains, more than anything, why you hear “college basketball is down” from every town crier.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org