When Brandon Paul's 43-point scoring barrage led Illinois to a memorable upset of Big Ten favorite Ohio State earlier this month, many cautioned not to fully trust the Ilini until they showed the consistency they have lacked in recent years.
True to form, Illinois has since made they naysayers look wise by dropping its next two to fall back to its now-customary spot in the middle of the Big Ten pack.
First came last Thursday's discouraging 54-52 road loss at Penn State, the Big Ten's lone sub-.500 team. Then the Illini followed that up falling at home 67-63 to a Wisconsin team that just two weeks ago looked like it could struggle to finish in the upper half of the league.
"That was kind of a goal of ours not to have highs and lows in the season," center Meyers Leonard told the Chicago Tribune. "That's kind of taken a turn."
Falling to 4-3 in the Big Ten normally wouldn't be cause for alarm, but the league is so deep this season that the penalty for losing home games or winnable road games is unusually high. As proof of that, consider the Illini's upcoming schedule, which begins with a road test at surging Minnesota on Saturday, followed by games with Michigan State, Northwestern, Indiana, Michigan and Purdue.
Where Illinois struggles compared to upper-echelon Big Ten teams this year is on offense. The Illini are 10th in the Big Ten in points per possession (1.03), a problem caused by poor three-point shooting, erratic performances from their top players and a glaring lack of depth.
Illinois has the interior talent (Meyers Leonard) and the athletic slashing wings (Paul, Joseph Bertrand and D.J. Richardson) to offset its lack of perimeter shooting, but getting all of them to consistently contribute has been difficult.
Paul was terrific against Ohio State and Penn State, but he's shooting just 38.9 percent for the season. Richardson had a solid 13-point effort against Wisconsin, but he hadn't scored more than 10 points his previous four games. And while Leonard had been a model of consistency in non-league play, facing taller, stronger Big Ten frontlines seem to have caused his production to dip.
The up-and-down performances from the starters wouldn't be such an issue if Illinois had a bench that could be counted on to pick up the slack. Unfortunately for the Illini, the bench went scoreless in 25 minutes against Wisconsin and contributed a mere combined seven points against Penn State, which is part of the reason coach Bruce Weber has played his starters heavy minutes in close games.
Illinois would be safely in the NCAA tournament if the season ended today, but the Illini doesn't have the look of a team with enough firepower to make much of a run.
If the perimeter shooters get unusually hot like Paul did against Ohio State, they do enough other things well to beat anyone. If they don't knock down enough jump shots and have to feed Leonard or get to the rim against a sturdy, packed-in defense, they're shaky enough to where anyone in the Big Ten can also beat them.
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