CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — You wondered if Illinois’ fans thought they were coming to a funeral Sunday instead of a potentially enjoyable basketball outing.
It felt like Assembly Pall early in the Iowa-Illinois game. The arena had noticeable splotches of empty seats. Its normally vocal fans — especially when Iowa is the guest — weren’t anything resembling loud in the spaceship-shaped gym. And, the Illini’s two top scorers were withheld from the starting lineup.
Those things atop a 6-game losing streak screamed it was a decent chance for the Hawkeyes to capture their first win here this millennium.
But this is college basketball, where Iowa can own four victories over ranked Big Ten teams but has stumbled against the league’s dregs: Penn State, Nebraska, and now an Illinois club that is 6-10 in the league.
Iowa zipped to a 5-0 lead as guard Brandon Paul and center Meyers Leonard watched from the bench, and it looked like that rocket the Hawkeyes rode last week at home against Indiana and Wisconsin was about to soar even further upward.
But this was the road, where the Hawkeyes have six straight losses. These were college players, who don’t always know when they’re supposed to fall apart or when they should be preying on those who seem to be coming unglued.
Usual starters Brandon Paul and Meyers Leonard entered the game at the first TV timeout, with Iowa up 5-2. Suddenly, the Hawkeyes were feeble and the Illini were fired up, and Illinois led, 13-5. The fans fed off that, and it was an 11th-straight Hawkeyes loss here.
Illinois won 65-54 to avoid going 0-for-February for the first time since 1907. The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, returned to looking as young as they are, with the exception of a senior guard who made five of his six 3-pointers in scoring 22 points.
That’s 19-of-26 from 3-point range over the last three games, and 85 points scored. That’s sensational.
If Matt Gatens isn’t the Big Ten’s Player of the Week this week, as my colleague Scott Dochterman suggested during the game, Iowa should secede.
“He’s a pro,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said during his brief, tight-lipped postgame press conference.
McCaffery was clearly unhappy his men took a step back. Hawkeyes not named “Gatens” had a measly eight points in the first-half as Iowa fell behind, 34-23.
These weren’t the guys who knocked off two straight Top 20 teams last week. These were the guys who played like mostly freshmen and sophomores at Penn State, and at Northwestern, and at Indiana, and at Michigan State.
Those promoting the fantasy of Iowa possibly working its way onto the NCAA tournament bubble didn’t check with the 7-foot-1 sophomore Leonard.
Some players mired in a 6-game losing streak and yanked from the starting lineup would have become an all-conference mope. Leonard acted like it was a new lease on life. Of course, not having anyone his own size to combat made things really fun.
“We don’t have a big team,” McCaffery said, “and he took advantage of it.”
Leonard, with 22 points and 14 rebounds, was Dwight Howard. Iowa’s “bigs” were Dwight Schrute.
Are you Hawkeye fans looking forward to seeing Adam Woodbury of Sioux City ride in to the rescue next winter to take a shot at providing seven feet of ballplayer? And if not, why?
Leonard and guard Paul (17 points) didn’t start because Weber, trying to inject competitiveness in a squad that gone flat, used a point system in practice based on drills and games. His two primary scorers didn’t ring up as many points as the five players who got the start.
“I think me and Brandon came in and did a nice job,” Leonard said. “The guys who started did a nice job of getting the game going.”
And the Hawkeyes did a nice job of, well, not much. Not shooting. Not rebounding. Not taking care of the ball. Not toughness.
The Hawkeyes’ recent successes were uplifting to the fan base with good reason. But this remains a bridge of a season, a positive step from the horrors of the previous four years toward presumed better days.
“No one gives you anything,” Weber said. “No one cares, no one feels sorry for you. You’ve got to earn it.”
Wisconsin loses at Iowa, then wins at Ohio State three days later. Iowa beats Indiana and Wisconsin, but can’t come within 10 points of an Illinois team that was outscored by an average of 11.7 in its previous six games.
If you don’t like the weather in Big Ten basketball, wait five minutes. It’ll change.