For Illini, it’s ‘a different problem each game’

John Supinie

The college basketball season has become a futile attempt by Illinois to plug the hole in the dam.

One day, it's bad offense. On Sunday, it was a lack of rebounding in the Illini's 68-64 loss to Penn State in a Big Ten Conference game. It's going from bad to worse for the Illini, who suffered their first three-game home-court losing streak since the 1998-99 season -- when they finished last in the Big Ten.

Penn State, which hasn't enjoyed a winning season in seven years, grabbed a 49-24 rebounding advantage against the Illini.

"We get more field goals,'' said Illini coach Bruce Weber. "We have less turnovers. We shoot a better percentage. Today, we're not a good rebounding team. We're not great at attacking the zone. It seems like a different problem each game.''

Since Rich South sophomore guard Crandall Head gave the Illini a verbal commitment, and former Kentucky guard Alex Legion sat the bench after officially transferring, the future appears brighter. The present … is not so good.

"We've had some pretty good times here,'' Weber said. "We've got some bad times. Now we have to deal with it.''

Life gets tougher for the Illini, who fell to 8-7 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten before road games against No. 25 Wisconsin on Thursday (8 p.m., ESPN) and No. 11 Indiana on Sunday (3:30 p.m., CBS). Weber's only experience with a losing season in his first 27 years of coaching came in 1988-89, when he was a Purdue assistant.

"I'm not going to quit,'' he said. "I'm going to keep battling.''

Illinois never led in the second half against Penn State, but freshman guard Demetri McCamey had a chance to tie the game with less the 5 seconds left. Going the length of the court after a missed Penn State free throw, McCamey's shot bounced off the rim. Penn State grabbed the rebound and hit two free throws with 0.8 seconds left to clinch the victory.

The pressure is already weighing on the Illini. One player broke down in the huddle and cried in the middle of the game, Weber said. Illinois has a string of eight consecutive seasons with NCAA appearances and last failed to play in postseason nine years ago, when the Illini also couldn't protect the homecourt.

"It's tough,'' said Illini guard Calvin Brock. "It gives a lot of opposing teams confidence. They know they can come in here and come out with a win. It hurts. We just have to go into our next practice with a positive attitude.''

McCamey scored a career-high 18 points off the bench to lead the Illini. He was 4-for-6 from the 3-point line and had five assists in a performance that earned him a starting spot, Weber said. Even if his practice habits don't impress Weber, McCamey's results on game day can't be ignored.

"The assistant coaches told me they wouldn't show up if I didn't (start) him,'' Weber said. "He's more of a gamer than a practice guy.''

Brock had 15 points, but the rest of the starting five (seniors Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle, point guard Chester Frazier and guard Trent Meacham) had 17 points and 17 rebounds. Had it not been for Frazier's eight rebounds, those totals would have been much worse.

Pruitt had nine points and two rebounds, once again becoming ineffective against a zone defense. Randle logged just 14 minutes because of foul trouble.

Brock's four-point play pulled Illinois within 56-54 with 5:41 left. Penn State led 64-58 before McCamey hit two 3-pointers to pull the Illini within 65-64 with 10.1 seconds left. After Penn State made one more free throw, McCamey's aggressive drive came up empty.

Penn State (10-4, 2-0) opened with a man-to-man defense "to get our feet moving,'' said Nittany Lions coach Ed DeChellis, because the Nittany Lions didn't return home after beating Northwestern on Wednesday. Illinois jumped to a 6-0 lead, then struggled when Penn State went to a zone.

Penn State won its first two conference road games for the first time in 12 years.

"When you haven't won, and I've been through it, kids lose confidence,'' DeChellis said. "They're kids. They're young people. One shot can turn it around. One free throw can turn it around. You've got to make a play to do that. Somebody has to step up to make that play, and things will feel a lot better.''

Junior forward Jamelle Cornley had 18 points and 12 rebounds to lead Penn State. Senior forward Geary Claxton finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

NOTES: Illinois honored its 1997-98 Big Ten championship team at halftime, including a video on the scoreboard from former coach Lon Kruger. … Illinois' eight turnovers was a season low.

John Supinie can be reached at For more coverage, read Illini Talk blog at and