John Groce's Illinois Fighting Illini battled back from a 21-point first half deficit on Saturday night at home against Iowa, only to falter in the game's final minutes. The Illini started the run toward the end of the first half, entering intermission only down by four points.
The offense continued to surge in the second stanza as the orange and blue took a five-point lead late in the contest, only to see the visiting Hawkeyes seize control and steal a road win. With the loss, the Illini have now dropped seven straight games and sit in last place in the Big Ten standings at 2-7.
Coming into the season the Big Ten was certainly regarded as the nation's top conference. While only three of the league's members are ranked in Top 25 polls, the league has shown time and time again that it is the nation's deepest. For example, Northwestern was pegged to finish in last place in the league but now sits in fourth place behind only Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa in the B1G standings.
Illinois has lost seven straight games and there really is no way to sugarcoat that fact. It's played decent basketball in some of those losses and horrendously in others. The most noticeable difference in Saturday's loss to Iowa was the effort that the team exerted in overcoming a huge deficit, even if the end result was a negative one.
Illinois has nine games remaining on its schedule and, as mentioned before, is in 12th place with a 2-7 league mark. Amazingly, it is only two games out of fifth place, which happens to be a four-way tie among 4-5 squads. Illinois' next six games come against teams with losing records in the league, before closing out with the trio of Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa to conclude the regular season.
With only 10 scholarship players available, five of whom are freshmen, Groce does not have a ton of depth at his disposal. Freshman point guard Jaylon Tate was the most ready for college basketball at the beginning of the season despite being the lowest rated of the five freshmen. Tate takes care of the ball and is the team's best distributor but struggles creating his own offense.
Austin Colbert's minutes have dwindled as the season has gone on, as he has yet to prove that he is anything more than just a dunker. Maverick Morgan has played better as the season has worn on, as he is willing to play physically in the paint. The 6'10" center takes up space defensively, rebounds and can even step out and hit the mid-range jumper.
Malcolm Hill has played the majority of his freshman campaign out of position, being slotted at power forward instead of his natural small forward position. Hill played some SF on Saturday night, though, and was successful doing so, scoring seven points in 11 minutes of action.
Guard Kendrick Nunn has been one of Illinois' most consistent players in Big Ten play. Nunn also added seven points against Iowa. Nunn is a smooth-stroking lefty who is also capable of attacking the rack. Nunn is one of the team's top defenders and, as a fearless freshman, could be one of the league's top players in the near future.
Currently ranked 269th in the nation in scoring offense, it has been no secret that the Fighting Illini have struggled putting the ball through the hoop, averaging only 67.8 points per game. During the middle-five losses in this current losing streak, the team has only averaged 52.8 points, including 43-point and 46-point performances at Northwestern and Indiana, respectively.
The 74-point effort against Iowa was encouraging, though it still resulted in a loss. Tonight, Illinois takes on a Wisconsin team that it saw nearly four weeks ago in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin won that contest 95-70, but since then the Badgers have been in a free-fall. If Illinois can score at the same rate on Tuesday as it did on Saturday, the team's seven-game skid could come to a close.
Illinois has three players averaging double-figure scoring: Rayvonte Rice (16.5), Tracy Abrams (12.0) and Joseph Bertrand (11.0). Rice has struggled in Big Ten play, as league foes took notice of his outstanding nonconference performance, while also being hampered with a strained adductor. Abrams and Bertrand rarely play well on the same night. Nnanna Egwu and Jon Ekey also need to develop more consistency, while freshmen Nunn and Hill are capable of hitting double figures if given the chance.
At this point last season, Illinois' Big Ten record was 2-7. Then, Tyler Griffey made an uncontested layup and the Illini's season changed. After Illinois' amazing buzzer-beating win over Indiana last February, the Illini got hot and finished Big Ten play with an 8-10 record. It then went on to beat Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament on another buzzer-beater, this time by Brandon Paul, before making the NCAA tournament.
While Illinois lost two nonconference games this season, compared to only one last season, winning eight or nine league games would get it into the conversation to rejoin March Madness. That is certainly easier said than done, but last year's team proved it is attainable. In fact, the Illini were safely in last year's field of 68 despite a sub-.500 league mark, as they received a No. 7 seed in the tournament.
So what will it take for another miraculous turnaround? First things first, Illinois probably needs to defeat a reeling Wisconsin team on Tuesday. Games at Michigan State and Iowa are probably the only remaining games that are not winnable, though none of the others are gimmes as every team in the Big Ten is capable of getting hot on any given night. At the minimum, Illinois will need an 8-10 Big Ten record, coupled with a win or two in Indianapolis at the Big Ten tournament. Possible? Yes. Probable? No.
Regardless of how the remainder of the 2013-14 season plays out, Illinois should be a more competitive team in 2014-15. Only Bertrand and Ekey graduate from this year's roster, while five newcomers will be ready to take the court. Despite Quentin Snider's decommittment and Cliff Alexander's snubbing of Illinois, Groce was able to land a pair of forwards in Leron Black and Michael Finke who will provide much-needed size up front.
The team also adds a trio of transfers who are currently a part of the Illinois program but must redshirt this season. Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall), Darius Paul (Western Michigan) and Ahmad Starks (Oregon State) are those players, all of whom will see immediate playing time next season. Each were double-figure scorers at their previous schools and could compete for starting positions next winter.
Illinois will also bring back five sophomores who gained valuable playing experience as freshmen, even if sometimes those minutes came as a necessity. Finally, Egwu, Abrams and Rice will return to campus for their senior seasons in their last go-around as collegiate players. The ups and downs of this season should help push them this coming offseason, in pursuit of getting Illinois basketball back amongst the nation's elite.