Illini can’t afford to pile up too many losses as Chattanooga visits Springfield

By Alex Roux

It seemed like a good idea in theory.

Illinois basketball has generally played weak opponents in early season games during John Groce’s tenure, but the 2015-16 schedule took the toughness up a notch.

The Illini are the only team in the country to have faced three straight teams coming off NCAA tournament berths in 2015 to open the season, and it wasn’t by accident. Groce wanted his team to be tested early on, as his flawless November record up until this season at Illinois was more a product of soft scheduling than immediate dominance.

Plus, playing strong opponents would boost the Illini’s RPI and better prepare them for a brutal Big Ten gauntlet. But no one could foresee the rash of injuries that would strike this team like a preseason plague.

We’ll never know if Illinois would have beaten North Florida and Providence with a healthy roster, but at 1-2, the Illini’s record is what it is. And with teams like Notre Dame and Iowa State still looming on the nonconference slate, the Illini can’t afford to pick up too many more losses before plunging into a Big Ten that looks to be as deep as its been in years.

Saturday’s game against Chattanooga at Prairie Capital Convention Center was never a game Illinois could afford to lose, but a couple bad bounces at the end of the Providence game puts even more pressure on the Illini to avoid consecutive defeats.

Chattanooga is the third team to visit the PC3 in as many games that is low on name recognition but very capable of handing Illinois an L on the way to a possible NCAA tournament berth in 2016. The Mocs already dispatched one high major opponent, beating Georgia 92-90 at home in both teams’ season opener.

“(It’s) very much like the first weekend with those two teams that we played,” Groce said Friday. “We knew when we scheduled we were scheduling a veteran team, a team that’s predicted to win their league. A team that’s very athletic, they shoot the ball well from multiple positions, they rebound the ball well. It will be very similar to the opening weekend from a challenge standpoint.”

Chattanooga scored over 90 points in both of its first two games, and will fire a large number of threes Saturday night. Illinois will need to lock down on the perimeter and contain Casey Jones, who is averaging 15.5 points and seven rebounds through two games.

Building on what was their best ball movement of the season Wednesday against Providence would be an encouraging sign that Groce’s young players are continuing to grow and improve. But if the Illinois offense stagnates like it did in the last five minutes against the Friars, it could be tough to keep up with Chattanooga.

Losing a couple more games this nonconference isn’t a death sentence for Illinois; in fact, it should probably be expected. But falling to the Mocs Saturday would put the Illini in a hole that will be extremely difficult to dig out of.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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