Illinois looking to get over hump against Hawkeyes

While the Iowa men’s basketball team pulled out a 67-66 upset win over No. 16 Wisconsin on Thursday night, the Illinois team was enjoying pizza and wings.

The team gathered at Meyers Leonard’s home on campus while watching Sunday’s opponent, who will travel to the Assembly Hall at 5 p.m. for the team’s first and only matchup this season.

“We had a good time, kind of scouted them, just watched the game,” Leonard said. “We just had a good time and it just relaxes the team.”

Junior Brandon Paul said that despite Illinois’ current six-game losing streak, its longest under head coach Bruce Weber, it is important to stick together.

“If we fall apart, then there’s no hope for the season, no hope for anybody,” Paul said. “We stay together, we’re all good friends, we had a good time last night, watched a lot of basketball.”

The Hawkeyes are led by Matt Gatens, who recorded 33 points and seven 3-pointers in the Wisconsin game and leads the team with 15.5 points per game. Iowa also leads the conference in steals, averaging 7.9 a game.

The Hawkeyes (15-13, 7-8 Big Ten) are in seventh place in the conference, while the Illini (16-12, 5-10) are tied with Minnesota for ninth.

“They’re a good team, they’re capable as anybody else,” Paul said. “Obviously they’ve got a great player in Gatens, and offensively they’re really skilled.”

Illinois’ struggles still come from the offensive end of the court, allowing the highest percentage of 3-pointers in a game and shooting last in 3-point percentage in the Big Ten.

“I know part of the reason we’re struggling is myself, and I just want to get back to guarding,” Paul said. “I feel like if I’m guarding, then my offense will come.”

The defense in the last six games has allowed opponents to average 54 percent shooting and 47 percent from 3-point range. The Illini have also given up an average of 76.3 points in the last six games, compared to 63.3 points in the first nine conference games.

Weber said the energy in each game needs to improve and the work in practice needs to translate into games.

“I think energy and a competitive spirit is the main thing we’re focusing on,” Leonard said. “We’ve been having a lot of energy in the last couple practices and a lot more focus.”

The Illini have also struggled with crumbling at the end of games when opponents make runs. Competitiveness and resilience in the final minutes is something junior D.J. Richardson said needs to improve.

“We’ve got to do a better job of getting back,” Richardson said. “Teams get runs on us, but we don’t too often get runs on other teams.”

Paul said he still thinks the Illini have a chance even if others may write the season off. Richardson agreed, saying the Illini need to gain momentum to make some noise in the Big Ten Tournament.

Leonard said he is doing his best to help get the win just to get Illinois over the hump.

“I’ve never been something quite like this,” Leonard said. “It’s been tough, no doubt about it. Especially being one of the more notable players, it’s tough. I’m just trying to lead these guys and get everyone together.”