NEWS

Illini extend losing streak against Wisconsin

John Supinie

The last two weeks in the college basketball season have been anything but enjoyable for Illinois, and a 70-60 loss to No. 21 Wisconsin in a Big Ten Conference game Thursday at the Kohl Center gave the Illini their first four-game losing streak in the Bruce Weber Era.

But as Illinois heads deeper into a stretch of four on the road in a five-game span, the Illini must grin and bear it, even though it will likely get worse before it gets better.

"All I can do is help the kids,'' Weber said. "Obviously, it's no fun. It was the worst a couple weeks ago. To lose here is not a big deal. The problem is when we lost at home to Miami of Ohio and Tennessee State. We shouldn't be in this dilemma.

"If we played this hard at that point, we wouldn't be at this point, and it wouldn't be a major catastrophe.''

The winning has come to a halt for the Illini, who fell to 8-8 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten. The start is Illinois' worst in the league since losing seven to begin Big Ten play in the 1998-99 season, when the Illini were dealing with a youthful lineup.

Illinois is the only Big Ten team to beat the Badgers here since coach Bo Ryan took over, but the Illini saw their two-game winning streak in this building come to an end. Times have changed for the Illini. Weber and his team face rough times.

"We'll try to keep it fun, and we'll be competitive in practice,'' senior Brian Randle said earlier this week. "You can't go play for a team and other guys if you don't enjoy it. Although we're here to win, it's still a game.''

It doesn't get any easier when Illinois plays at No. 10 Indiana on Sunday (3:30 p.m., CBS). If anyone is wondering if high-scoring Indiana and guard Eric Gordon want to make a statement against Illinois, don't worry. The Hoosiers and coach Kelvin Sampson aren't expected to take it easy on their border rival.

After starting fast by winning three of four during a tour through Hawaii, the Illini sputtered into January. Illinois has lost five of its last seven games. But even the Illini are hearing the criticism of Weber, no matter if it's off base.

"We've got to come out and do this for coach,'' said Illini guard Chester Frazier, who played despite cartilage damage in his rib cage that kept him from practicing. "All the rumors about he's going to lose his job, nobody wants that for coach. He's done great things here. He'll continue to do great things. We just have to come out and give him wins.''

Despite losing its two stars from a record-setting season a year ago, Wisconsin improved to 13-2 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten by winning its seventh straight game.

Illinois stayed within 42-39 on a 3-pointer by guard Trent Meacham with 10 minutes 15 seconds left. Moments later, Wisconsin hit two 3-pointers and another jumper in a span of 1:07 for a 50-41 lead. The advantage grew to 14 points later in the half.

Meacham and Calvin Brock had 14 points apiece to lead Illinois. Brock played despite 16 stitches in the bridge of his nose after taking an elbow in practice here Wednesday.

Illini freshman guard Demetri McCamey earned his first starting assignment, but he reminded everyone about a learning curve as a Big Ten rookie. He had trouble defending Wisconsin guard Trevon Hughes and struggled to create offense. McCamey had one assist and three turnovers in the first half. He finished with nine points, four assists and four turnovers.

Illinois didn't get much from seniors Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle. Pruitt played through foul trouble, and Randle missed three point-blank attempts. Pruitt scored nine points while Randle had four.

"The locker room has been tough, practice has been tough,'' Frazier said. "We just need one win to get this losing feeling off our backs.''

Hughes and Wisconsin senior Brian Butch carried the Badgers. The athletic Hughes, considered the next star at Wisconsin, had 22 points, mainly from the perimeter. Butch, a fifth-year senior and a McDonald's All-America from Appleton, worked over the Illini inside. He scored 16 points, 10 of them coming in the first half.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. For more coverage, read Illini Talk blog at www.sj-r.com and www.pjstar.com.

Illinois report card

Front court: D-

Foul trouble hampered Shaun Pruitt, and Brian Randle fouled out to end a dismal night when even point-blank shots wouldn't go in the basket. Once again, the seniors did little to help the Illini.

Back court: B

While Demetri McCamey suffered through growing pains in his first collegiate start, Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock carried the Illini. Brock should get a purple heart after playing with 16 stitches in his forehead and the bridge of his nose after taking an elbow here in practice Wednesday.

Bench: C

Chester Frazier came off the bench to provide a spark with his intensity. Despite a painful injury suffered in the Penn State loss, he gutted through a respectable game nwith seven assists and one turnover. Otherwise, there was little help.

Overall: C

Two guards can't carry the Illini. If Illinois wants to truly compete for wins, the Illini must get more from their seniors and more from the bench. The challenge gets much greater Sunday at Indiana, where the Hoosiers will smell the blood in the water.