Column: Illini fall at Xavier

Column: Illini fall at Xavier

By Lucas Deal

CINCINNATI – The Illinois basketball team lost to Xavier 65-59 at the U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati on Friday night.

For the second straight year, the Musketeers jumped out to a double-digit lead in the games opening minutes, but – just like last season’s 65-62 Illini win in Chicago – they couldn’t maintain it and the Illini rallied to make the game close.

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Now, before I give you my opinion on how well the Illini and Musketeers played in the game, I believe it is important that we first remember the circumstances in which the game was being played.

Entering Friday night’s contest Illinois had not played a game in eight days while Xavier had not been on a basketball court in nine. Obviously the Christmas holiday is the reason for the significant time off, and I believe that is a viable excuse for the sluggish offense and shooting performances both teams displayed for most of the game.

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    Second, both Xavier and Illinois have dealt with injury problems through the first two months of the season and are not yet accustomed to playing with a complete roster of players.

    While neither one of these circumstances necessarily exempts the poor play both teams displayed during the game, it does serve as a legitimate reason that the game was not as crisp as possible.

    With that said, Friday night was an ugly game. From the air-balled 15-footers to the abundance of turnovers, it just wasn’t the type of game either team wanted to play in their first contest after Christmas.

    Sure, Xavier started out hot from the three-point line and the Illini used a decent offensive stretch to claw back to 26-25 lead at halftime, but neither offense showed anything impressive enough to mention in this space.

    Now I could attribute that to strong defensive efforts by both teams, but I don’t think that’s the case. Illinois’ on-the-ball defense was decent, but their rebounding was terrible. And Xavier’s rebounding performance overshadowed their defensive laziness in the low post.

    The whole game was like that.

    When one team took a bad shot, the other would race down the court and do the same thing. When one turned the ball over with a bad pass, the other would immediately give it back with a turnover or offensive foul of its own.

    The primary difference between Illinois’ performance and Xavier’s performance was the Musketeers ability to correct it. They cleaned up their act first, and by the time Jamar Smith finally starting hitting some threes, it was too late.

    “We played like we practiced,” disappointed Illini head coach Bruce Weber said after the game. “I’ve never given four days for Christmas before, but I did it this year because we’ve been so buggered up. But we practiced so poorly (this week) and I’ll never (give four days) again.”

    It was a rash decision and it didn’t work out. I guess that’s the breaks sometimes.

    And while losing a game like this is tough, it’s not devastating. At 9-4, Xavier is a good team; they spent time in the Top 25 earlier this season and might spend more time in it again.

    Illinois (12-3) is still a good team; they just might not be quite as good as we’ve all thought they were. I think that can come with time. If the Illini can find someone who can lead this team, who can rally them on the court, then I still think they could make some noise.

    But as for right now, they’ve still got some learning to do. And for that, class starts Jan. 3 at Michigan with the start of the Big Ten season.

    Let’s hope they come prepared.