The Illinois Fighting Illini and head coach Bruce Weber are being reminded of the law of averages the hard way.
Illinois lost 76-66 to Wisconsin, in Madison on Saturday. The result is far from surprising, considering how difficult it is for any Big Ten team to win at the Kohl Center.
The unsettling number for Weber’s team: 30.2 percent. That was Illinois’ field goal percentage for the game. Just two weeks ago, against the very same Wisconsin team, the Illini shot an impressive 56 percent in a 69-61 win. That game, however, was in Champaign, with the Orange Krush behind them.
The disparity between those two games against the Badgers may be a telling sign of the reality that this Illinois team faces—that their extraordinary shooting during the first two months of the season is unlikely to continue through the next two months of Big Ten play.
One game prior to the first meeting with Wisconsin, Illinois had an even better shooting performance against Iowa, in Iowa City. They shot 67 percent (32-for-48) from the floor, and 13-of-18 from three in a 10-point win over the Hawkeyes. It was certainly a great start to Big Ten play for the Illini, but one that would be tough to match going forward in conference play.
Just two games later, however, that shooting mark would be topped. In a home game against Northwestern, the Illini shot an incredible 70.5 percent (31-for-44) in a 25-point blowout of the Wildcats.
The shooting barrage against Northwestern capped off a remarkable three-game run for Illinois. When combining that game with the Iowa and Wisconsin games, the Illini shot nearly 65 percent from the field. Even more impressive, they shot nearly 64 percent on three-pointers (28-for-44).
The Illini could have beaten Ohio State three straight times with those numbers. Needless to say, they were off to a fast 3-0 start in the Big Ten, and on the cusp of the Top 15 nationally.
Reality has set in this past week, in a big way. The Illini shot 41 percent (19-for-46) in a two-point loss at Penn State on Tuesday night. Not a horrendous percentage, but the Illini have yet to win a game this season where they’ve shot below 43 percent.
Then came their shooting struggles on Saturday in Madison.
Illinois’ outstanding shooting numbers from the previous three games were practically cut in half between the last two games away from Assembly Hall. They combined to shoot just over 35 percent, and just over 34 percent from three for the week’s two games.
Lucky for Weber’s bunch, they are returning home this week for two games at Assembly Hall, where they have shot the ball significantly better. The Illini have shot nearly 53 percent overall in their nine home games this season, while shooting just 43 percent in their nine games away from Assembly Hall.
This home-and-away disparity may be reduced a bit this week however, given the caliber of teams they will face. Illinois’ two home games are against Michigan State and Ohio State, respectively. Getting at least a split of these two games is crucial for the Illini, to avoid having to go back on the road in the midst of a four-game losing streak.
Looking a bit beyond this week, Illinois’ next two road games are winnable: Indiana, then Northwestern. With a home game against Penn State in between those two, it may provide a chance for the Illini to develop some game-to-game consistency in their shooting.
This stretch may also help Illinois build the physical and mental toughness needed to overcome less-than-stellar shooting performances, which will inevitably become more and more frequent as they get deep into Big Ten play.