Slow starts on the road costly for Illini
Illinois has more than its share of issues with four weeks left in the regular season, but here's one solution that requires nothing more than emergency NCAA legislation:
Erase the first five minutes from each of Illinois' last four road games.
Suddenly the 2-point loss Jan. 11 at Penn State turns into a 5-point win. The 3-point loss Jan. 27 at Indiana turns into a 3-point win.
The 71-70 loss Saturday afternoon at Northwestern becomes a 6-point win.
While this conceit doesn't quite fix Illinois' 10-point loss Jan. 15 at Wisconsin, it's important to note the Badgers owned a 7-point lead seven minutes into that game.
Notice the trend? Senior forward Bill Cole offered a cure in Illinois' downcast postgame locker room.
"Billy just said it: 'We've got to start the game with shutouts,'" said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "That's what we've got to do. We've got to be determined. We can't let a team, especially on the road, jump on us."
For a team that leads the Big Ten and ranks among the nation's best in field-goal-percentage defense (.385) and 3-point-percentage defense (.302), Illinois surrenders a lot of open looks at the outset of road games.
Indiana drilled 2 uncontested 3-pointers from the top of the key in the opening 40 seconds.
Northwestern hit 7 of its first 8 shots -- including 4 of 5 on 3-pointers -- to race to an 18-7 lead in the first 7:11.
"It seems like every time we play away games, we start out with a deficit and we have to fight our way back," Cole said. "Whether it was Penn State, Indiana, here ... for some reason it's different on the road."
Sophomore guard Brandon Paul said the Illini tried to pretend they played at Assembly Hall on Saturday by focusing on the thousands of orange-clad fans at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Clearly that didn't effect a change.
"People (on the team) get mad and say we keep talking about it, but actions speak louder than words," Paul said. "We've got to step up and do something about it."
Weber tried to do something Saturday. After the Illini coughed up 6 points in the final 52 seconds of the first half, he began the second half with Cole and freshman Meyers Leonard in for Jereme Richmond and Mike Tisdale.
"He's going to keep making changes to see how we get a good start off," Paul said. "And it's up to us as well."