Illini men’s basketball looking for leader to emerge

Entering the season with just one senior — Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco — and three juniors in Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey, questions of which Illinois men’s basketball player would step up and take over down the stretch emerged.

Maniscalco seemingly took the reins at the start of the year, but after he missed time because of an injury, the team looked to Paul and Richardson.

Lately, however, the team has struggled in close games and is just 7-5 in games decided by five or fewer points.

“I think Brandon is trying to be a leader, D.J. is, but we don’t have that right now,” head coach Bruce Weber said. “They’re trying, they’re doing their best.”

Since returning from his injury, Maniscalco has struggled to return to form. In his last five games, he has just four points on 1-of-14 shooting.

“We had hoped Sam would have given us a little more,” Weber said. “Not only the veteran leadership, toughness, but obviously he’s struggled.”

*Illini defense falters down stretch, fails to keep up*

When Illinois most needed defensive stops to keep up with Northwestern, it faltered. Weber said assistant Gary Nottingham kept possession charts and that the Wildcats had scored on 16 of their final 20 possessions.

“We gave up layups,” Weber said. “They made some shots, but then they got layups.”

It wasn’t just one player who carved up the Illini defense. In the final two minutes alone, Drew Crawford, John Shurna, Dave Sobolewski, Reggie Hearn and Davide Curletti all scored for Northwestern.

“Just a lot of big plays,” Weber said.

Paul said the blame for the defensive woes falls directly on the Illinois players’ shoulders.

“We beat (Northwestern) the first time because we guarded, we beat Michigan State because we guarded,” Paul said. “We came out here and we let them do whatever they wanted, so the blame is on us.”

Sophomore center Meyers Leonard added that a more sound defense would have likely led to an advantage rebounding.

“If we would have played better defense and not had as many breakdowns, we would have had more rebounding opportunities and probably would have won the boards,” Leonard said.

*Young Illini still maturing*

After losing at home to the Wildcats, Weber said he had stressed the importance of the game to his team beforehand.

“I called it Maturity Game No. 2 — a no-regret game,” Weber said.

“We had been through this against Penn State and we barely won up there (in Evanston, Ill., against Northwestern); we had a blocked shot. So you knew it wasn’t gonna be easy.”

The rest of the Big Ten schedule doesn’t prove any easier the rest of the way through the season, with five of Illinois’ remaining eight games being away from the Assembly Hall, including four of the next five.

“I hate to say it’s a wake-up call now, but you gotta have a sense of urgency and come to play,” Weber said.