The losing streak is over, but the question remains of whether ÂIllinois can salvage the last two weeks of the season after a Âdisastrous ÂFebruary.
Illinois (17-12, 6-10) put its six-game losing streak to bed when it beat Iowa 65-54 on Sunday at Assembly Hall. It was the Illini’s first victory since Jan. 31, when they upset Michigan State 42-41.
“The good thing about the losses were we stuck together and didn’t point any fingers,” guard Brandon Paul said. “If we stick together, we can accomplish anything. Some fans turned, but for the most part we got a lot of love from the fans and we Âappreciate them sticking with us.”
The Illini will close out the regular season with a home game against No. 13 Michigan on Thursday and a trip to Wisconsin on Sunday before the Big Ten tournament begins March 8 in Indianapolis.
Coach Bruce Weber said the big thing with the Wolverines (21-8, 11-5) is that they don’t come at a team all at once. Their attack is more gradual. Weber also pointed to a defensive change coach John Beilein made about a month ago that provided a spark. It was probably why the Wolverines dominated Illinois in a 70-61 victory Feb. 12 in Ann Arbor.
“[Beilein] made a decision in late January and went man-to-man, and they have been a much Âbetter Âdefensive team,” Weber said. “They’re not complicated but very solid, like Wisconsin.”
Weber made a change last week when he instituted competitive drills at practice, weeding out those who had poor performances. Center Meyers Leonard and Paul came off the bench against Iowa, and the strategy worked.
“Meyers played the game the way I envisioned him to play all the time,” Weber said. “He played both ends of the court. And the best thing he did when he got into the game was get in transition and block a few shots and get the crowd involved. He [was] motivated.”
Leonard had a double-double against the Hawkeyes with 22 points and 14 rebounds. Paul added 17 points and three steals.
It might be too late, but Weber acknowledged that the Illini needed to be tougher and more aggressive. Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco was supposed to fill that role, but ankle problems have hobbled the point guard.
“We were hoping that Sam would give us that,” Weber said. “We don’t have an enforcer, and we don’t want anyone to be dirty. [Freshman] Tracy [Abrams] may be that guy.”