‘Just didn’t come as ready as we should’: Illini Players Admit to Effort Issue vs. Miami

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- While it was no secret effort was an issue against Miami (Fla.), the Illinois players admitted to this consistent first-half problem Monday night after the loss.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who finished the 81-79 loss to Miami (Fla.) at State Farm Center, said the Illini (6-2) “just didn’t come as ready as we should” and were “not as focused as we should’ve been” in its second game against a Power 5 Conference opponent this season. In their first attempt against quality competition, Illinois took a 90-69 at No. 12 Arizona and in front of an announced crowd of 11,819 in a nationally-televised game against a Miami program coming off back-to-back blowout losses, Illinois was down by as many as 27 points in the first half.

“Not as dialed in,” the sophomore forward said Monday night in the post-game media conference. “You always can go harder and harder. We didn’t go as hard as we could.”

In the last 30 games against Power 5 Conference competition, Illinois is 8-22 and is staring down back-to-back Big Ten Conference games against top-five ranked competition. Illinois will travel to No. 3 Maryland (9-0) to open up league play in a place the Terrapins are 35-6 over the last two-plus seasons. Just four days later, the Illini will face a Michigan team already with wins over No. 7 North Carolina and No. 9 Gonzaga with the second-best defensive efficiency rating according to KenPom.com. 

Illinois head coach Brad Underwood repeatedly took full responsibility and a majority of the blame for the loss Monday night despite using nearly all of his timeouts and all of his rotational lineups in a miserable first half against the Hurricanes.

“Once the ball is thrown up, to be quite honest, there is very little a coach can do,” Underwood said. “The play card was tried. The timeouts were used up. At some point, the competitive spirit has to kick in.”

Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili (15) tries to block out Arizona forward Ira Lee (11) during a NCAA Basketball game between the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Arizona Wildcats at McKale Center.
Illinois sophomore Giorgi Bezhanishvili had just six points while accounting for eight rebounds and five assists in 33 minutes Monday vs. Miami (Fla.).Jacob Snow/USA TODAY Sports

Bezhanishvili, who has struggled in his new role this season as a 4-man in this Illinois offense, had just six points while accounting for eight rebounds and five assists in 33 minutes Monday night. The sophomore who was the only player on the roster to start all 33 games last season, has only the fourth-highest player efficiency rating and win-share ratio of anybody in the Illini’s eight-man rotation.

In the second half against Arizona and the first half against Miami, Illinois allowed its opponent to shoot 58.8 percent (50 of 85) from the field and 56 percent (13 of 23) from 3-point range. In those back-to-back halves of basketball totaling a 60-minute session against Power 5 Conference competition, Illinois has struggled mightily with stomping dribble penetration and ball-screen offense with Nico Mannion getting 10 points along with Miami point guard Chris Lykes getting 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting with the only misses being contested 3-point shots.

“I think everybody has to be accountable,” Underwood said Monday night when asked if a leadership issue exists in his locker room. “I’ll be honest. I structured a couple of really bad practices and it wasn’t enough effort stuff to sustain how we have to play to win. I’m mad at myself and yet guys have to fight with the pride needed.”