As hype around Illini hoops fades, Illinois must use softer December slate to improve

By Alex Roux

A lot of eyes were on Illinois basketball Wednesday night.

State Farm Center’s makeover was revealed, Lou Henson was honored and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge showcased the Illini against Notre Dame in primetime.

A win would have injected some life into the beleaguered Illini fan base and given John Groce’s team a notable nonconference win. When Illinois vanished in the second half, so did its hopes of a decent nonconference resume.

Now a lot of the people that gave Illinois basketball two hours of their time Wednesday night will have moved on, uninspired by the team’s 3-5 start to the season. The average fan can sympathize with the Illini’s ridiculous injury situation, but won’t invest much energy into following the program until it proves it’s worth watching.

Still, thousands of die-hard fans will tune in for every game like they always do, even as the Illini navigate the sleepiest portion of their schedule over the next three weeks. Before playing a bad Missouri team in the Braggin’ Rights game Dec. 23, they’ll face South Dakota, UIC at United Center, Yale and Western Carolina.

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It’s not a particularly thrilling slate, and it’s a high-cost, little-reward situation if you’re going by potential wins and losses. Illinois shouldn’t lose to any of these teams, and simply can’t if it wants to keep hope of an at-large NCAA berth still flickering. Wins won’t do much to change fans’ level of interest.

Which is why, starting Saturday against Western Carolina at State Farm Center, it’s time for Groce and his guys to put their heads down and go to work. Try to find some continuity for a full 40 minutes of basketball while preparing lineups for Big Ten play. Get some wins under their belts and try to get rolling.

This season has been anything but consistent for the Illini so far. They’ve played about three halves with their full available roster this season, at that was at a small Florida gym broadcasted on an obscure cable network. Mike Thorne Jr. isn’t coming back from a torn meniscus anytime soon, and Kendrick Nunn and Leron Black are clearly still getting their legs under them on the court in their respective returns from injury.

These next five games provide the opportunity for things to stabilize for Groce’s team. The defense has been the source of most of Groce’s exasperation thus far and absolutely must be shored up if the Illini want to compete in conference play. And everyone—coaches and players alike—will be responsible for making sure Malcolm Hill gets an even distribution of shots throughout the game and doesn’t disappear like he did down the stretch against Iowa State and Notre Dame.

About half of the 15,000 who arrived at State Farm Center with wide eyes Wednesday night will show up Saturday to the Western Carolina game. Many eyes that are usually fixated on Illinois basketball this time of year have already glazed over. Illinois should beat a 3-4 Western Carolina team, but a lot of fans’ attention will likely be diverted to other things on a Saturday afternoon, like holiday shopping and college football.

That’s okay If the Illini are going to salvage this season, it’s going to be because they capitalized on their strengths, minimized their weaknesses and improved as a team. Not because fans who are rightfully frustrated rallied around them.

If Illinois emerges from this five-game stretch with five straight wins, then maybe NCAA tourney dreams can creep back into the picture. Purdue started 8-5 last year, made the tournament and is ranked No. 11 right now.

But until then, the Illini just need to use these games to get better.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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