The Illinois Fighting Illini (21-8, 14-5 Big Ten) squeaked out a 60-55 victory over Penn State (12-15, 7-12 Big Ten) on Thursday night in Champaign. While this was unlike many of the Illini’s recent games in which they let a large lead evaporate, this game was frustrating for different reasons.
Illinois just didn’t seem to play with much energy or a sense of urgency — the “flip the switch” mentality that bit them last March is manifesting itself again this year, as well. Kofi Cockburn looked sluggish and was held to 11 points and six rebounds. Most of Kofi’s teammates, including the red-hot Alfonso Plummer, were also quiet offensively.
Thankfully, the super senior standard bearers kept the Illini afloat Thursday.
Trent Frazier — in his 134th career start — put up 10 points, four assists, two steals, a blocked shot, and played his usual stifling defense to keep the Illini in it. If he isn’t Big Ten Defensive POY, the league shouldn’t even hand out the award.
Da’Monte Williams — in his 155th career game — led Illinois in scoring (no, seriously), made a beautiful skip pass to Jacob Grandison to set up a crucial three-pointer with about four minutes left, and snared the rebound on an errant Penn State shot with less than a minute to go to preserve the lead.
The Fighting Illini won five of their first six Big Ten games by 10+ points. They haven’t had another double-digit victory since beating Indiana 74-57 on Feb. 5.
In fairness, blowing out all of your conference opponents is obviously an unrealistic expectation in the Big Ten. But it’s not unreasonable to expect energy, effort, and intensity. It’s not unreasonable to expect Illinois to occasionally make a game look easy. It’s not unreasonable to expect the Illini to not look surprised when an opposing coaching staff actually scouts them.
I do believe a championship-caliber team needs some grit in order to prevail in March. The Illini showed Thursday night that they have some. An ugly win is still a win, and Penn State plays at a very slow pace. But when’s the last time you watched an Illinois basketball game and didn’t tense up at least a little bit?
That’s the conundrum. The Fighting Illini are talented enough to beat anybody, but are inconsistent enough to lose to anybody — especially in a one-and-done format. While most fans were stunned by Illinois’ early exit last March, we seem to be preparing for it this time around. Not a great feeling. And there’s not much time left to break the pattern.
F*** it. Beat Iowa and I’ll forgive all of it.