Illinois lost another winnable game late Saturday night/early Sunday morning, this time to the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, 89-82, to fall to a record of 7-4.
Here are some top takeaways.
1. Fouls, oh my god, the fouls
Illinois tied the program record in fouls tonight with 36. This ties a mark set in 2001 against Arizona where six Fighting Illini players fouled out.
Fouls have been a huge problem for Illinois, and in this game it cost the Illini a chance at winning. UNLV shot 48 free throws and made 33 of them, while Illinois only went 11-of-15 from the line in a game they lost by seven points. Illinois was called for twice the number of fouls that UNLV was.
The refs can be blamed for some of these fouls, sure. The new rules changes aren’t doing them any favors, and officiating has been poor across the country. But if you take away say ten fouls because of a poorly called game, Illinois still has 26.
Illinois may have won in that case, but 26 fouls would still be unacceptable.
Brad Underwood’s aggressive style of defense naturally leads to more fouls, but Illinois frequently flits with the line between aggressive and reckless, and quite often crosses the line. Illinois also shows no ability to dial back its aggressiveness based on how the other team is playing or how the game is being called.
Mark Alstork fouled out after only playing in eleven minutes. No matter how the referees are calling the game, that should not happen, especially with a senior.
The players and coaches need to find a way to try and fix this problem, or they will lose even more games at the free throw line.
2. Another slow start
The Illini had another slow start to the game, and found themselves in an early 14-4 hole. Illinois also had a slow start in a loss against Maryland.
The bench was able to come in and provide a spark to get the Illini back in it. Trent Frazier scored seven straight points to tie the game at 29. Frazier would finish the night with 16 points.
Again this is an issue along with fouls that has come up in multiple contests. A shakeup in the starting lineup may be need. Illinois rolled with the usual starting five of Te’Jon Lucas, Mark Alstork, Mark Smith, Leron Black and Michael Finke.
Underwood runs a deep bench, and he has said in the past it doesn’t matter who starts, which is true in a way. Most of the bench players get plenty of minutes — except Kipper Nichols! — to make an impact on the game. On the other hand, this starting five has put Illinois in double-digit deficits early in games that Illinois lost by single digits multiple times.
They may not have a choice but to shake up the starters, however, because...
3. Leron Black may be out long term
Black didn’t play in the second half after injuring his left elbow in the first half. After trying to play through it, the Illinois staff took him off the court to evaluate him. He didn’t come out with the team at halftime, and when he finally returned to the bench, he had his left arm in a sling.
In his post-game radio interview Underwood mentioned it was a hyperextension, but no word on the severity.
Losing Leron Black long term would be a tremendous loss. He has been one of the more consistent performers and he is Illinois’ best inside scoring threat and defender.