Column | Stupid mistakes continue to bring down Illinois men’s basketball against lesser opposition

By Theo Gary, Staff Writer

It was at the end of the second half, when Northwestern was up 11 and there were 42 seconds left on the clock, when Coleman Hawkins drove to the elbow, stopped, pivoted, looked, saw a man, didn’t pass and threw up fadeaway that was destined – absolutely destined – to clang off the front iron. Illinois is 9-5, 0-3 in the Big Ten, and even though Hawkins’ shot didn’t matter, it illustrates the Illini’s general problem which can be summed up in the phrase 

“Why the hell are you doing that!” Something I said out loud about 10 times Wednesday night, bellowing at my TV “Close out! Switch! Why! No!” as if I’m the coach, and I understand the schemes and assignments. Still, the mistakes Illinois makes are silly and obvious enough that even a casual notices them.

Illinois can run, they really can. This team is so fast, so full of freaks and monsters, that you would think that a team who can best be described as gritty and tough would not be able to hang with the Illini. Northwestern has never, not in the whole tragic history of the program, had a player as talented as Coleman Hawkins. And they never will. 

Illinois is in basketball, and has recently not been in football, the perpetual Big Brother. How did the Illini lose to these guys? How?

But give Northwestern their plaudits. They deserve them. This is a good team, a mix of good defense and guard play that tends toward success in March. They have about two guys who can score consistently in Chase Audige and Boo Buie, a big bearded center and an anonymous point guard who makes shots when they’re needed. 

If I didn’t go to Illinois and I didn’t have a pathological dislike for Evanston the city, I might even enjoy Northwestern basketball. As it stands now, though, Illinois needs to get better because Northwestern needs to be stomped.    

How to get better? Well, how were you beat? Mistakes mainly, continually, over and over, a ridiculous number of times actually. Illinois threw skip passes that never actually made it across the court. Other times, bad shots; indecision giving up a good look for a bad pass. Sometimes they don’t rotate right on defense, or they switch off – Mathew Mayer’s truly lazy steal attempt with 10:02 left in the second half, comes to mind. It’s truly baffling. These are the sorts of things that get coached out of you in middle school. Don’t gamble if you can’t get there!

That’s what so confuses me about this team. I know Mayer understands what was wrong there. I know he’s defended that pass beautifully a million times. He’s too high level a player to not have. He won a national championship. And yet…

It’s just mistakes, stupid, piddly stuff that adds up and makes good teams lose. When you look at the fundamentals – their size, strength, physicality and skill – Illinois is a top-ten team. The record says otherwise, but numbers often lie. Here is a fork in the road, two paths the Illini are capable of treading. Either they turn left, collapse into a disaster of hurt egos and transfer portal players (Ala the Brooklyn Nets), or they turn right, figure it out, and make a tremendous late season run (Also, ala the Brooklyn Nets). 

As Terrence Shannon declared postgame about the Wisconsin Badgers:

“We’re gonna knock ’em off.”

Well, I sure hope they go and prove that right. 

 

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