After Illinois' blazing start out of the gates, highlighted by wins over Butler and Gonzaga, Illini nation became the most excited they have been in years. Even after a loss at Purdue, the Fighting Illini came home and easily handled Ohio State, restoring fans' faith in John Groce and this Illini program.
Following consecutive double-figure losses last week, however, panic time may be setting in for this year's team. Minnesota and Wisconsin were the two opponents that defeated the Illini, which in itself is nothing to hang your head over.
Illinois hung around with Minnesota before losing by a score that really wasn't indicative of the game. Wisconsin, on the other hand, jumped out on the Illini early and often in Madison. With upcoming games against Northwestern and Nebraska, Illinois needs to get back to its winning ways and fast.
If the Illini can get back to 3-3 in conference play and play .500 basketball the rest of the season, they should be confident that they will hear their name called on Selection Sunday. In order for that to happen though, some changes need to be made.
As was the case a year ago, Tyler Griffey has seemingly disappeared at the beginning of conference play yet again. The senior forward is known for his outside shooting, rather than his physical game. He's never been a strong defender, so with Griffey's shot not falling, where does that leave him in the Illinois rotation?
Griffey has continued to start every game, though Sam McLaurin got the nod to start the second half of the Saturday meltdown at Wisconsin. Neither Griffey nor McLaurin were effective though, leaving an opportunity for Mike Shaw to see extended minutes.
Shaw saw 19 minutes of action and scored two points, grabbed three rebounds and recorded one assist and one steal. This comes after only seeing 20 minutes of playing time the entire season prior to Saturday. Though his statistics were not overwhelming, Shaw brought energy to Illinois' full-court press by guarding the inbounds passer. Is Shaw the answer at power forward? One thing that's for sure is he'll break into the rotation Thursday night.
Aside from D.J. Richardson, it could be said that no single member of the Fighting Illini played well against Wisconsin. The game was essentially over when it began, as Illinois only had a shot spurt in the second half where it looked like an NCAA Tournament contender.
Illinois' frontcourt struggles reached a new low against Wisconsin, however, as the forwards and centers on the roster combined for only four points, six rebounds and nine fouls on two-of-12 shooting. Nnanna Egwu was limited to 11 minutes as he picked up four fouls, Tyler Griffey's confidence seemed to be gone and Sam McLaurin could not contain Wisconsin bigs Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz.
Prior to Saturday, Egwu had been playing the best basketball of his collegiate career by averaging 12 points and 8.5 rebounds in 32 minutes in the two previous games. Getting Egwu involved on the offensive end of the court should fire him up on defense, where Egwu has been blocking 1.4 shots per game.
Four years ago with a backcourt of Chester Frazier and Demetri McCamey, each of whom was near the top of the list of the Big Ten assist leaders, Illinois was near the top of the nation in assists per basket made. On Saturday, the Illini compiled a meager two assists on 18 made baskets, which is good for just 11.1 percent.
Joseph Bertrand and Sam McLaurin were the two players who delivered a pass that led to a basket, leaving the entire starting lineup without an assist. Many of Illinois' baskets came off isolation plays and the Illini were unable to score off the fast break against the tortoise-paced Badgers, but there is no excuse for the selfish brand of basketball they played.
Brandon Paul leads the Illini in assists, but he only made one of his 11 shot attempts against the Badgers and rarely looked to pass. Point guard Tracy Abrams has never been a top assist guy, but he needs to improve in that area while still looking to score points on his own.
Early on in the 2012-13 campaign, Illinois was leading the nation in made three-pointers per game. Since defeating Gonzaga, however, the rim has not looked as big for Illinois' deep threats. For a team as guard-oriented as Illinois, those long distance bombs are going to need to start dropping again.
Illinois shot two-for-14 from three-point range against Wisconsin, three-for-24 against Minnesota and five-for-19 against Missouri in three of the team's four losses. Needless to say, the Illini need to be hitting from deep in order to win. Credit opposing defenses for responding to their scouting reports, but also realize the quality of looks Illinois getting has gotten worse.
Illinois' offense has gone stale, with little movement compared to how much there was during the last few seasons of Bruce Weber's tenure. Having Brandon Paul chuck up deep and contested three-pointers early in the shot clock won't cut it in the Big Ten. The Illini have the shooters they need to get back to their hot shooting from three-point land, they just need better ball movement and guards that can free up those shooters.
Assembly Hall in Champaign used to be one of the most raucous environments in both the Big Ten and entire collegiate nation. Opponents rarely came into Champaign and left with a win. That has not been the case as of late. Most recently, Illinois suffered a 17-point home loss to a good Minnesota team.
Illinois' remaining home schedule contains Northwestern, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue, Penn State and Nebraska. At worst, Illinois will need a 5-2 record in those contests. It may take wins in six or even all seven of those games though to make this team more than just a bubble squad on Selection Sunday.
The Big Ten is as hard a conference as there is when it comes to winning on the road. So since Illinois will struggle to beat any Big Ten teams on the road (see Purdue), that makes each home appearance that much more important. Since their team has four seniors in the rotation, Illini fans deserve to see high quality basketball as sellouts at Assembly Hall are once again becoming the norm.