Its time to stop talking about Illinois and Michigan State as contenders.
Prior to the season, the Illini’s prospects were a bit up in the air. There were some that thought this team was simply near the top of the Big Ten, and there were others that believed this was a squad with the talent to make a Final Four. But after their ugly 52-49 loss to the Hoosiers, the better question to ask seems to be whether or not this team can actually win a game or two come March.
Illinois has lost four of their last five games. They are 14-7 on the season having lost four of their last five, including games against Penn State and now Indiana. And don’t forget their debacle against Illinois-Chicago, a team that hasn’t beaten anyone other than the Illini since a November 28th win over Toledo.
There was no debate about Michigan State in the preseason beyond whether they were the second or the third best team in the country. That seems like such a long time ago. After losing 61-57 to Michigan at home — the Spartans first loss to the Wolverines at the Breslin Center since 1996-1997 — Michigan State is just 12-8 on the season and 4-4 overall. They have played a brutal schedule and have notched enough solid wins that, barring a collapse, they should be able to make the tournament, but the fact that we are talking about Michigan State simply “making the tournament” should tell you all you need to know about the way this season has gone.
I have no doubt that both teams have the talent to be able to turn this thing around.
Whether they are going to be able to is an entirely different question.
Illinois’ biggest problem is the same problem they have had since Deron Williams and Luther Head left. This team is terribly inconsistent. For all the hype that Demetri McCamey had coming into the season, his performance against Indiana was a disgrace. He finished with just six points on 2-11 shooting to go with three assists and five turnovers. He was coming off of another 2-11 game against Ohio State on Tuesday, when he finished with five points, five assists, and five turnovers. In those two games combined, McCamey took a single free throw. In the Illini’s loss to Penn State, McCamey was 3-8 from the floor, and while he had 10 points, five assists, and five more turnovers, he once again managed just two free throws. For a guy whose name was in the conversation as the best point guard in the country, that is unacceptable.
Illinois has other issues. They rely too heavily on the three. Their role players are inconsistent. Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis are about as strong in the paint as a pipe cleaner.
But it all starts with McCamey. He’s the star, but he’s not being aggressive, he’s turning the ball over too much, and he’s settling for too many jumpers that he isn’t making. Simply put, McCamey is not playing like a star.
The issue is a little bit different for Michigan State.
Either we overvalued this team in the preseason, or the worst case scenario in every situation has occurred.
Korie Lucious got booted off the team. Kalin Lucas seems to finally be nearing 100% after rupturing his achilles in March. Durrell Summers hasn’t blossomed into a guy that can be a dominant player like we expected him too. Neither has Derrick Nix or Delvon Roe. What’s returned is a team that settles for far too many threes pointers and gets way too few offensive rebounds.
We all got so caught up in Tom Izzo’s second straight Final Four and the talent that returned to East Lansing that we all forgot that this was, in fact, a team that was nothing more than a five seed that got hot at the right time in a region where the No. 1, 2, and 3 teams lost during the first weekend.
It may be time to face reality.
Illinois and Michigan State may have some talented individuals, but there is more that goes into being a quality team than having talent on a roster.
Maybe these two teams are, in fact, only decent basketball teams.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.