Yes, the Illinois-Chicago Flames beat the Illinois Fighting Illini. This happened Saturday. It's pretty hard to believe, all things considered, but it's right there, 57-54, etched in pixels forever, and no matter how hard you rub your eyes, that scoreline doesn't change.
How did it happen? How did a team with losses to Akron, Valparaiso, Central Michigan, Charleston, Illinois State, and Northern Illinois beat a loaded Illini machine expected to compete for the Big Ten title and a spot in the Final Four? According to coach Bruce Weber and guard Demetri McCamey, it's because the Illini haven't been practicing hard lately. From the Chicago Trib's Chris Hine:
The Illini skirted by Oakland and Northern Colorado before the house of cards crumbled Saturday in a stunning 57-54 defeat to Illinois-Chicago at the United Center.
"I have been alarmed by last week, after the Gonzaga game, how we played and our approach to practice," Weber said. "It caught up with us."
"We just lost our sense of urgency as far as how practice was," senior guard Demetri McCamey said. "Guys were earning minutes, pushing each other and going at it. Now it's a little bit soft and relaxed."
To be sure, practices are important, and lackadaisical practices can often lead to lackadaisical games. But a team as talented and experienced as Illinois shouldn't need good practices to beat a team like UIC. The Illini should be able to spend practice time playing NBA2K11 and still roll vastly inferior programs at the United Center.
The reason they didn't is far more disconcerting, at least if I'm an Illinois fan. It has less to do with nebulous concepts like "intensity" and much more to do with how Illinois approaches scoring on the offensive end: The Illini take way, way too many mid-range jump shots.
Despite the constant punditized bleating over the "lost art" of mid-range play, statistically, you're much better off taking interior shots and 3-pointers; those shots are either higher percentage attempts (layups, dunks, etc.) or reward you proportionately for the difficulty of the shot (3-pointers). This is something most coaches have by now figured out. (Speaking of NBA2K11, there's even a little piece in the game from digital Doris Burke, which quotes Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, who says this exact thing. Man, NBA2K11 is awesome.) The Illini, running Bruce Weber's old-school screen motion offense, end up taking a lot of 18-foot catch-and-shoot jumpers. Those should either be 3s, or the beginnings of dribble penetration. Far too often, those possessions end with jump shots.
This does two things. It robs the Illini of more attempts at the free throw line; Illinois ranks No. 317 in the nation in free throw rate. It also wastes points. Illinois shoots 40.6 percent from beyond the arc, the 19th-best mark in the country. But Weber's team only shoots 3s about 30 percent of the time the ball goes in the air, which is 245th-best. The calculus is simple: Shoot more 3s, score more points. Those shots are going to go in.
This is all somewhat worrisome, of course, but the good news is that this would seem relatively easy to change, at least as easy as demanding more intensity and competition from your players during practices. Illinois has loads of talent, but until they start to maximize it intelligently on the court -- and, yes, some stronger interior play from Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale wouldn't hurt, either -- the Illini are going to live and die by the least statistically accurate shot on the basketball court. That's suicide by a thousand cuts. This team is too talented, and its coach too smart, to let this go on much longer.