Illinois may be ranked No. 21, but things are certainly not going according to plan in Champaign.
Picked by almost every preseason publication as the Big Ten favorite, the Fighting Illini (4-5 Big Ten, 15-7 overall) are struggling to stay above water in conference play.
After three straight losses at Indiana, at Ohio State and at home against Michigan State Bill Self”s team is in a must-win situation.
“I drove to work today saying “God, I wish we could replay the last nine or 10 days.” But we can”t,” Self said. “All we can do is worry about today.”
After Illinois notched back-to-back Big Ten losses to open the conference slate, the Illini took their frustrations out on the Wolverines, winning 94-70 in Assembly Hall.
“They”re talented. I think we all know that,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “They were a team that was picked to have an opportunity to win a national championship or be a Final Four team. In my honest opinion that hasn”t changed.”
If Michigan wants to avoid repeating history tonight at 8 p.m. in Crisler, it will have to do a much better job defensively.
Illinois dominated the inside in the teams” matchup earlier this year, executing high-low passes to perfection and shooting nearly 70 percent from the floor.
But Michigan (4-5, 9-10) is coming off a high-energy defensive win against Wisconsin, 64-53. Meanwhile, the Illini are searching for something to spark their on-court effort.
“The highest level of frustration that I have and fans don”t want to hear this is that before you can talk about Xs and Os, the guys (have) to play as hard and unselfish as they can,” Self said. “The frustrating thing to me is that we have not come close to doing any one of those to the capability that we have.”
But Self is quick to take responsibility for his team”s failure in this regard.
“It”s frustrating as a coach because I haven”t gotten them to do or think the way they should when they play and think the game and that all falls on the coach”s shoulders,” Self said.
During Sunday”s loss to Michigan State, CBS commentator Billy Packer attacked Illinois guard Frank Williams, the returning Big Ten Player of the Year, for not playing hard enough.
Self echoed those thoughts.
“I feel the exact same way,” Self said. “I don”t think he”s playing with much emotion or energy, and I think that definitely affects performance.
“He”s playing for (NBA) money, but there doesn”t seem to be that get-up-and-go in him that there should be.”
Amaker is all too familiar with the problems associated with not living up to expectations.
Last season as coach of Seton Hall, Amaker started the season with a team many predicted to reach the Final Four. But soon his young team was broken apart internally, finishing the season in the NIT with a 16-15 record.
“It”s very tough, I”m sure he”s very frustrated,” Amaker said. “But looking at Illinois from the outside, the ingredients are there. Obviously, Bill is a good coach and sometimes its just a matter of hitting your stride. I”m just hoping they do that after (tonight”s game).”