Before the season, Illinois coach Bruce Weber accepted that, somewhere down the line, the Illini would struggle against an inferior opponent.
Weber has been around long enough to understand that’s simply college basketball. But what he also believed, or at least strongly hoped, was that his players had matured enough that, unlike last year, this season they’d find ways to win on nights when they weren’t at their best.
On Saturday, as Illinois-Chicago upset the then No. 14 Illini at the United Center, Weber discovered he was wrong. Illinois still has a ways to go before it completely eliminates last season’s demons.
“You don’t want to lose in Chicago and lose to UIC, who on paper they shouldn’t be the team who beat us,” Weber said after Wednesday’s practice. “I thought we were past what happened to us last year – the inconsistencies, the edge, the will to win, all those type of things.
“That was obviously a setback. It’s just disappointing because we felt had made progress from where it was a year ago.”
Weber did say immediately following Saturday’s game he saw the loss coming. Since pulling off a string of wins over North Carolina and Gonzaga, Weber noticed his players lose their competitive edge in practices over the last few weeks. They started seeing themselves rise in the rankings and stopped putting in the work that got them there.
But since the loss to UIC, Weber witnessed that drive return to the team’s practices Sunday through Wednesday.
“They’ve responded in a positive way,” Weber said. “They’ve been showing up to practice early and staying late. Obviously, it got their attention. It’s just a shame we didn’t have the maturity to have a bad game and still find a way to win on Saturday.
“The pain of regret is something that lingers for a long time. I think we had that pain of regret going back to last spring. What happened was we thought we had arrived as a team mentally, thought we were special and it caught up with us. I had that carrot of “last year”, and I think it wore out. Now I have the carrot of UIC, and hopefully that will linger for a while.”
Outside of being tagged with a bad loss, Saturday’s defeat also brought to light some of Illinois’ potential flaws. For one, the Illini don’t get to the free throw line often. They rank 317th in the country in free throw rate, according to kenpom.com. They also need more scoring production inside, especially from their front court. Mike Davis, Jereme Richmond and Mike Tisdale combined for eight points against the Flames. The only times all three players scored in double figures this season were in back-to-back wins over Western Michigan and North Carolina in late November.
“I think we at times settle for the 3-pointer or give in where we should be more patient to drive the lane and get into the paint and get some guys to free throw line,” Weber said. “We’ve talked about it. This is what happened last year. We have to have a mix. We’re a good shooting team, but we have to get to the basket and the paint and get to the line.”
Facing No. 10 Missouri on Wednesday does provide No. 21 Illinois a quick opportunity to get back on track.
“It’s alarming, no doubt, but a week ago people say we’re a Final Four team,” Weber said. “One game, one week, and people change their minds. A lot of it depends on your response to it.
“I just want to have great energy, great enthusiasm to compete [against Missouri]. If we do those things and it’s still not good enough to win, it’s not that I’m never happy not winning, but I want improvement.”