The good news for No. 14 Illinois on Monday night was that preseason Big Ten Conference Player of the Year Kofi Cockburn made his season debut and scored a team-high 18 points.
The bad news was, well, everything else.
In a performance that no one saw coming, the Fighting Illini established a 23-8 lead eight minutes into its Hall of Fame Classic semifinal against Cincinnati and then trailed by 23 with under seven minutes left on the way to a 71-51 loss.
Illinois (2-2) will try to get back over .500 on Tuesday night when it plays Kansas State for third place in Kansas City, Mo.
Cockburn’s return didn’t solve the Illini’s major problem so far — turnovers. They committed 14 against the Bearcats and didn’t run much offense over the last 30 minutes. While a team always looks worse when it can’t make shots, there was no way anyone could slap a happy face on that outcome.
Illinois coach Brad Underwood didn’t even make the attempt.
“We’re not playing with any confidence,” he said. “We’re fumbling the ball, we’re not screening, our ability to be assignment-sound is not very good. Give Cincinnati a ton of credit. They played harder than we did, which is very unacceptable for me to stomach.
“We’re not connected, we’re not spraying the ball off dribble-drives, we’re not spraying the ball and moving it offensively. Everybody’s got to do their job.”
No one did in this game. Even Cockburn’s numbers were somewhat deceiving because 13 of his points came in the first 8:04. He was a non-entity the rest of the game as the Bearcats collapsed on him and his teammates missed 18 consecutive 3-point attempts.
Add the continuing issue of turnovers and it’s a team that looks sloppy and plays like it. Illinois is coughing the ball up 18 times per game, with point guard Andre Curbelo averaging one every five minutes.
Meanwhile, Kansas State (2-1) toppled from the ranks of the unbeaten Monday night with a 72-64 loss to No. 13 Arkansas in the second semifinal. But at least the Wildcats could take a little pride in chopping an 18-point halftime deficit all the way down to six in the last minute before the Razorbacks sealed the game at the foul line.
Nijel Pack and Selton Miguel each scored 14 points to pace Kansas State, which connected on just 3 of 22 3-point attempts.
“At halftime, you take a deep breath, figure it out and just attack them,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said of his team’s improvement in the second half. “I don’t think we went at the hoop in the first half.”
Weber’s presence in this game provides another storyline. He coached Illinois from 2003-12, guiding the Illini to the national championship game in 2005 before a bitter loss to North Carolina in St. Louis.
This will mark the first time he’s coached against Illinois since his departure. The Illini have won eight of the 10 meetings between the schools, including a 76-56 decision when they last played in 2000.
–Field Level Media