CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Figuring out Illinois this season has been like determining the answer to a complicated algebraic formula.
Just when you think you have it deciphered, the Illini baffle you again and you’re back to the drawing board.
Let’s walk the past month back.
Illinois defeats No. 5 Ohio State, the top team in the Big Ten, and then falls at Penn State, which has won just twice in conference play. Illinois drops three in a row and then upsets No. 10 Michigan State, the second best team in the Big Ten.
And now you can add Sunday to the confusion. Coming off its 42-41 win over Michigan State, which had people praising the Illini’s defense and condemning their offense, Illinois scored 70 regulation points for only the second time in conference play, but still lost to Northwestern because it allowed 74 points.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber is as bewildered as anyone.
“It would be an understatement to say it’s a disappointing loss,” Weber said. “Not to discredit [Northwestern,] they played their butts off and shot the ball so well, but I thought the last couple games we did what we needed to do as far as playing hard and as far as defending, taking some pride in that; obviously, that wasn’t the case tonight.”
One of Weber’s concerns heading into the season was leadership. He had only one senior, Sam Maniscalco, and he had only arrived to Illinois over the summer after transferring from Bradley. It wasn’t naturally Maniscalco’s team to take ownership of. Weber’s hope was to take advantage of using an overseas trip, which can be done every four years, and use it to work on building leadership.
That hasn’t worked out. Maniscalco showed early signs of being Illinois’ vocal leader, but he’s been less of one as his playing time has diminished due ongoing ankle problems. Weber has said Brandon Paul has attempted to be that guy, but he isn’t exactly there yet.
Where other Big Ten teams are turning to their senior leaders -- Northwestern to John Shurna, Michigan State to Draymond Green, Wisconsin to Jordan Taylor, Ohio State to William Buford, etc. -- the Illini just haven’t had that someone to lift them up.
“I’ve talked since the beginning about our maturity,” Weber said. “I think Brandon is trying to be a leader. D.J. [Richardson] is, but we don’t have that right now. They’re trying. They’re doing their best. We were hoping Sam would give us a little more, a little more with the veteran leadership. Obviously, he’s struggled.”
Illinois now approaches a dangerous stretch, playing four out of its next five games on the road. The Illini’s next two games could especially be difficult with them going to Indiana and then to Michigan. Illinois should hope for splitting the pair, but there’s a chance it could drop both and fall to 5-7 in the Big Ten.
Weber wasn’t thinking that far ahead, though.
“All you can do is get ready for Indiana and give that a go and then worry about the next one,” Weber said. “I hate to say it’s a wake-up call now. Obviously, you got to have a sense of urgency. You got to come to play. Minnesota went [to Indiana] and won. We’ll see.”
We will. You just don’t ever know with this team.