Sunday was not quite the same story as the game we saw on Jan. 31 game at Michigan State.
But playing for the second time in this great state, there were similarities.
On Sunday, Illinois played hard, chased down rebounds and built a 31-28 halftime lead on 7th-ranked Michigan.
On Jan. 31, Illinois played hard, was excellent offensively, and built a 10-point halftime lead on Michigan State (ranked No. 9 in the coaches’ poll at the time).
On Sunday, Illinois was guilty of what D.J. Richardson called “bonehead” mental mistakes, especially some ugly, costly turnovers that helped fuel a Michigan run that took charge of the game. The Wolverines won 71-58 and in the process showed why their point guard, Trey Burke, is a legitimate national Player of the Year candidate.
Back on Jan. 31, Illinois got blitzed 14-0 to open the second half and couldn’t overcome that lapse.
Coach John Groce was not happy after this one, mainly because he warned his team to expect at Michigan surge and he felt – for the first time in a long time – that his team was out-smarted and out-toughed. He readily agreed that Illinois made some dumb plays.
“Unacceptable,” Groce called it. “I thought we were soft as a group in the second half.”
Maybe it means that when playing Top 10 teams on the road, Illinois is good enough to chase the upset through one half but not good enough to stay on point through the second half.
This one got a little ugly in the second half when Tyler Griffey was the only Illini player to score a basket in a period of nine minutes. And no one else looked confident enough to go get a basket.
For as well as he has played this season – and Richardson has been Illinois’ MVP – I thought the second half was some of his worst basketball of the year. It’s about the only time I can recall that he didn’t look confident.
Maybe Michigan’s defense got into his head. They were great at hedging out aggressively and trapping the Illini guards.
Maybe there was something else going on. I just thought Richardson looked a step slower in the second half. In truth, everyone did, which could explain how the rebounding switched dramatically in Michigan’s favor.
“We had eight offensive rebounds in the first half and in the second half we had zero,” Groce said, incredulously. “There’s 20 minutes in the half. You’d think we’d be able to fall into one.”
I have no good explanation for Brandon Paul, who did not attempt a field goal in the second half.
“Teams are trying to take him away,” Groce said. “I’m not so concerned about his scoring as I am about our team’s scoring. Other guys have to step up.
“We had a dunk attempt and a layup attempt and missed them both. You have to execute at a high level against a team like Michigan.”
Michigan is a very nice team. Burke is a flat-out stud (26 points Sunday) and they have nice pieces around him. So I’m not surprised the Wolverines won here.
I am disappointed, however, in Illinois’ play in the second half. I know they’re disappointed, too.
The good news is that Illinois has the week off and will return to action Saturday against Nebraska. That’s going to be the final home game of the season and the final home game in the careers of seniors Richardson, Paul, Griffey and Sam McLaurin.
Final note: I watched Joe Bertrand walk out of the arena. He was moving slow but looked OK after landing on his hip in a scary tumble while going in for a dunk. He left the game but did return.
I’m guessing he’ll be fine by Saturday.