Okay, so when I wrote a recent article explaining how I thought that the Illinois Fighting Illini looked like an NCAA tournament team, I may have jumped the gun just a bit.
What I really meant to say is that this year is just a building block for next year's team, which will no doubt make the tournament and be a legitimate contender in the Big Ten. Or at least at this point it appears that's what I should have said.
The Illini dropped their third straight game in the Big Ten on Wednesday with a 66-58 loss to Purdue in Champaign to fall to 13-5 and 2-3 in the Big Ten. It's a loss that leaves head coach John Groce and his players suddenly wondering what has gone wrong. Less than 10 days ago, the Illini were 13-2 (2-0 in Big Ten) and had just cracked the Top 25 as the 23rd ranked team in the country.
Since that time (and coincidentally since I wrote my previous article about how well they were playing), the Illini are 0-3 and have looked nothing like the team that started 13-2. A team that was playing together and grinding their way to wins suddenly looks like a team with no identity and no answers. Of course, the fact that they can't shoot the ball doesn't help either.
During the three game skid the Illini are shooting just over 32 percent from the field and 27 percent from beyond the arc, which in case you were wondering, is not good. Actually it is just downright awful. Now to be fair, they weren't setting the nets on fire prior to the losing streak, but they certainly weren't this bad.
However it hasn't just been the bad shooting that has doomed the Illini, the team also hasn't been as crisp defensively or on the boards, two areas where it had excelled early in the season. It gave up 95 points in the loss to Wisconsin, who is no doubt a great team, but Illinois did nothing to slow them down. Against Northwestern the defensive effort was better, but it couldn't generate any offense, and against Purdue it got beat on the boards and uncharacteristically turned the ball over.
Groce seemed to remain upbeat after the losses to Wisconsin and Northwestern, saying that the team just needed to regroup and get their shooting touch back, but after the loss to Purdue his message was a little different. In the post-game press conference, he stated that it was pretty simple: They lost the possession battle by getting out-rebounded and having more turnovers, and therefore they lost the game.
He especially wasn't pleased with the effort on the boards and addressed the topic several times during the post-game. He said, "It’s just unacceptable, they (Purdue) were tougher than us physically and they threw us around like a bunch of rag dolls. Our guys better figure out very quickly the physical toughness that’s required on the backboard."
And this is coming from a coach who has talked many times about how he believes he has a tough team, but as they may be finding out, the Big Ten is another level of tough.
Groce went on to say the following:
Give them (Purdue) the credit because they got the job done, but we were absolutely awful on the backboard. It’s absolutely unacceptable to get beat up like that in the second half. You’re kidding yourself if you think you can win like that. You can’t let them throw you around like rag dolls. That’s ridiculous. We got abused on the backboard.
And they did get abused on the backboard, particularly in the second half, when they were out-rebounded 23-7 (9-2 offensive). The Illini looked a step slow all night and they paid for it.
What Groce didn't mention was the abysmal free-throw shooting down the stretch. They missed three straight front-ends in the last eight minutes (Joe Bertrand, Ray Rice and Jon Ekey) and then Bertrand only made one of three attempts when the Illini were down only five with 32 seconds left. So if you're counting, that's one point they got out of a possible nine at the line in the final eight minutes. That's what you call not stepping up, which is especially bad when it's coming from two seniors and a junior.
Now, it certainly doesn't help that their leading scorer and the second-leading scorer in the conference, Rayvonte Rice, has been hobbled by a bad hip the past two games, but the truth is that Illinois hasn't played well as a team during this stretch. Rice has proven he is a scorer and a big time competitor, but the Illini need to get more production elsewhere.
Their lack of anything resembling an inside presence is catching up to them yet again, as Nnanna Egwu just isn't polished offensively in the post and prefers to step back and shoot the three, although I don't even remember the last time he made one. Tracy Abrams is capable of taking over a game at any time, but still makes costly turnovers and has questionable shot selection.
Jon Ekey has the best outside shot on the team, but has disappeared in Big Ten play, and while Joe Bertrand has been pretty consistent, he still makes some mistakes that a fifth-year senior shouldn't make.
And on top of all of this, the Illini bring five freshmen off the bench, which is almost unheard of. There is some definite talent there and they are making strides, but they are still freshmen in the Big Ten that just lack experience.
The reality now is a brutal one for the Illini as they carry their three-game losing streak into the toughest part of their schedule. Their next five games are as follows: home against No. 4 Michigan State, at No. 11 Ohio State, at Indiana, home against No. 14 Iowa and home against No. 3 Wisconsin. So yeah, that's probably not going to end well, based on their recent struggles.
It's certainly going to be a rough stretch over the next few weeks, and it will probably determine whether or not this team makes the tournament. I said recently that I thought they looked like a tournament team. After watching the past three games it would appear that assessment was premature. The days of being a Top 25 team are probably gone for this year, now it's just about finding enough wins in the Big Ten to get them back to the dance.
Next up is a date with the fourth-ranked Spartans in Champaign on Saturday night and yours truly will be in attendance for the first time in a long time. I will either be watching a team pull off a huge upset to spark a turnaround or a team continuing a downward spiral to the bottom of the Big Ten.
Time to step it up fellas, the season is on the line.