Meyers Leonard was almost right.
‘‘Everyone knows we’re better than Northwestern,” the Illinois center recently told the State Journal-Register of Springfield.
Everyone, apparently, except Northwestern.
Leonard uttered those words several days after his team lost to the Wildcats in Champaign, and he surely was frustrated. It’s hard to blame him. You look at Illinois and see talent. You look at Northwestern and see John Shurna, who doesn’t look like much of a basketball player until it dawns on you that he just dropped 24 points on your overrated, underachieving butt.
We have two teams that seem to be going in opposite directions. The Cats, 5-6 in the Big Ten, have won three games in a row. The Illini, 5-6 in the Big Ten, have lost five of their last six.
Does this make any sense?
Illinois is more physically gifted than Northwestern. Maybe that’s what Leonard meant. But watch the Illini play enough times, and you’ll want to bang your head against a wall until unconsciousness blessedly washes over you. They can beat Ohio State as easily as they can lose to Penn State.
Cats can reach NCAA tourney
I look at this team and see nothing. I see the standard Illinois model, with just enough ability to offer hope but with a troubling lack of substance. I see a team in which nothing stands out, a team with no discernible personality, a team lacking in combustible material. Leonard sometimes is the exception to that.
How many versions of this team have we seen since Illinois lost in the national championship game in 2005? In the ensuing six seasons, the Illini failed to get beyond the second round in four trips to the NCAA tournament, went to the National Invitation Tournament one season and didn’t get a postseason bid in another.
Right now, Northwestern looks like a better bet to make the NCAA tournament. I can’t believe I just wrote that.
The Wildcats have Shurna, who looks like Opie Taylor’s cousin and has the ugliest jump shot this side of Joakim Noah. Everything about the 6-9, 215-pound Shurna says he shouldn’t be able to do the things he does, but it’s a credit to him that he does, over and over again. He’s the kid you wouldn’t pick for a pickup game, but he’s the kid who, once he’s on the court, shows you the error of your ways.
Northwestern is a decent team that is playing better than I thought it would. Since November, the story line has been that this might be the season the Cats finally make it to the NCAA tourney. How many times have we heard that before? Given their history, an almost Cubs-like history, the prudent thing would be to bet against them.
But it’s doable this time. They could go 4-3 in what’s left of their Big Ten schedule: road games against Purdue, Indiana, Penn State and Iowa and home games against Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio State. A 9-9 conference record and a decent showing in the Big Ten tournament would do the trick.
Not picking on Illini
Illinois could finish with the same record, and there would be no celebration in Champaign, Urbana or anywhere else with hearts that beat for the state school. That’s because everything about the Illini says they should be better than this. I can’t decide whether coach Bruce Weber has trouble getting through to his players or whether he recruits players who come with earplugs surgically attached. Either way, middling Illinois might want to consider changing its dominant color from orange to a more appropriate beige.
Again, does this make sense?
Illinois usually is in the conversation when the topic is high-level Chicago-area recruiting. Northwestern? Not so much. When I was at the Super Bowl, the Indianapolis Star ran a story about one of those Christian schools with a powerhouse basketball team. NU had commitments from two of the Indiana school’s players, one a Romanian, and was recruiting another who was from Croatia. That’s Northwestern in a nutshell. It has to look for other avenues.
It might look like I’m picking on Illinois. The Wildcats have been no great shakes in the Bill Carmody era – or in anybody’s era, for that matter. But I’m picking on a school that should be better. I’m picking on a purported basketball school.
For some reason, the Illini seem to play when they feel like it. It’s gotten old waiting for the mood to strike.