CHAMPAIGN — For the Illinois basketball team, this disappointing season has become a riddle.
During a six-week stretch, Illinois has lost nine of 10 games that shattered confidence and allowed doubts to take a foothold.
And here’s the riddle: How does a team reverse course and start a winning streak when confidence is shot and doubts are dancing in players’ heads?
The truth is, over the last two games — a 23-point loss at Nebraska and a 16-point loss at Ohio State — Illinois (16-12, 5-10) has looked hopelessly trapped without an answer to that riddle. And that makes Sunday’s home game against Iowa (15-13, 7-8) a scary proposition based on what coach Bruce Weber admits he has seen in the eyes of his struggling players.
Weber recalled the fast start at Nebraska last Saturday, when the Illini jumped out to a 24-16 lead.
But the minute the Cornhuskers fought back, Illinois couldn’t muster a competitive response. Before long, Nebraska completely controlled the game.
“When they punched back, we folded,” Weber said. “Well, I don’t want to say fold, but we didn’t have anyone who would help us make the punch back and go at them.
“Against Ohio State, they’re good against a lot of people at their place. When they hit shots, you could see the doubt in (our) faces.”
Where Weber once said he hoped for a game in which Illinois’ three most productive players — Brandon Paul, Meyers Leonard and D.J. Richardson — would all get rolling at the same time, he’s now willing to settle for just one of them to lead the way.
“Do we have one guy who can make some plays?” Weber asked, rhetorically. “Instead of everyone putting their head down, now he’s doing it and we can all jump on board.”
Iowa has found that one-man gang in senior Matt Gatens, who this past week became the first Big Ten player in 15 years to score 30 or more points in consecutive games against a nationally ranked opponent.
Gatens has done it by turning into a shooting machine. In victories over Indiana and Wisconsin, Gatens nailed 14 of 20 from long distance.
“When you have one guy like Gatens play like that, it eases a lot of pressure on the other people,” Weber said.
“The other keys for them are (Roy Devyn) Marble taking over at the point guard. He can create and do a lot of things for them. And the biggest key is Aaron White, who is just a freshman and kind of a surprise. He was not as highly recruited but he reminds me of (former Illini) James Augustine, a long, lanky kid who plays hard and has some orneriness to him.”
There may be an unusually high number of empty seats at the Assembly Hall this evening but some of those seats will be taken up by the Illini football team. The entire team — all players and all coaches — will be on hand and will be introduced to the Assembly Hall crowd.
Also in attendance will be a large contingent of high school junior recruiting prospects that Beckman has assembled.
Iowa at Illinois
Time: 5 p.m.
Broadcast: BTN, 93.7-FM