Illini men’s basketball looking for spark in final stretch

Illinois men’s basketball center Meyers Leonard has put up big numbers this season, ranking among the top of the conference in blocked shots (first), field goal percentage (third) and rebounds (third).

But after Purdue handed Illinois (16-10, 5-8 Big Ten) its fourth consecutive loss Wednesday, head coach Bruce Weber called out the sophomore.

“Meyers can’t have horrible body language,” Weber said. “First half he walked around. You know, this is our desperate game, and he walked up and down the court. And it can’t happen, he’s got to change. And we’re not doing him any justice if we don’t make him change.”

Weber said he blames himself for not benching Leonard as long as two months ago to give the player perspective.

“He gets frustrated,” Weber said. “But it’s been 26 games. They’re gonna double him and they’re gonna bop him, but you’ve got to play. You got to play with life and energy and with a smile. And enjoy each other and help each other, but we’re not at that point yet.”

In the first half, Leonard recorded two points, three rebounds and only three shot attempts in 18 minutes of play. He ended the game with nine points, 12 rebounds and two blocks.

“He was an animal in the second half, but that’s how he should play all the time,” Weber said. “He should have 20 rebounds. I told him (at halftime against Purdue), we’re not going to play him if he doesn’t get going. It’s not fair to him, it’s not fair to us, it’s not fair to his teammates.”

The Illini have five regular season games left, three on the road, until the Big Ten Tournament starts March 8.

Freshman Tracy Abrams, who had a career-high 22 points against Purdue, said the team has to remain optimistic for its next game, Saturday at Nebraska (11-13, 3-10).

“We need to stay positive. Six-game season, play each game one at a time,” Abrams said after Wednesday’s game. “Come out, go to Nebraska, just got to give it our all.”

Sophomore Joe Bertrand agreed with Abrams, saying it is important to stick together in the last part of the season.

“We’re not giving up,” Bertrand said. “It’s not over yet. Keeping our heads up, staying positive. It’s a really tough stretch for us right now, but everybody’s staying together. We think we can get a run going pretty soon, starting with this next game. We just really have to lock in and focus. It’s the last plays that are really losing it for us.”

Weber said he was proud of his team for not giving up against Purdue after the Boilermakers had a 13-point lead in the first half.

“At least we didn’t quit. We kept battling, I got to give them credit,” Weber said.

The Illini now are focused on battling to stay in NCAA tournament contention. They have gone from first in the Big Ten with a 4-1 record four weeks ago to now tied for eighth.

“It’s never too late, and we’ll see what happens,” Weber said.