Illini start strong but falter at end of break games

Illinois basketball was on top of the world on Dec. 21.

After the Illini snapped a four-game losing streak in the 33rd annual Braggin’ Rights game against No. 23 Missouri, how could they not be? They not only knocked off one of their fiercest rivals, but also garnered their best win of the season.

Illinois would win three consecutive games following the narrow victory against the Tigers, none bigger than a 83-80 overtime victory over a feisty Indiana squad on New Year’s Eve. Sitting at 13-2, Illinois even broke into the top 25, debuting at No. 23 in the Associated Press poll. That might be the last time the Illini are ranked all season.

With three consecutive pathetic performances, Illinois crashed down to Earth. The meltdown started with an expected beatdown at the hands of No. 4 Wisconsin on Jan. 8 in Madison. The blowout loss was anticipated, but not the halftime score. The Illini trailed 50-25 at halftime. Wisconsin went on a 20-0 run at one point, proving Illinois just isn’t part of the upper-echelon of the Big Ten.

Illinois’ next game against a 7-9 Northwestern squad seemed like a solid pick-me-up game for the Illini. Instead it turned out to be quite the opposite.

Illinois couldn’t even reach its lowly point total from its previous game in the first half against Northwestern on Jan. 12. Illinois scored 15 — yes, 15 points — in the first 20 minutes in Evanston. A 28-point second half wasn’t enough to bail the Illini out, as they ended up losing by an NBA halftime score of 49-43.

Even the friendly confines of the State Farm Center weren’t enough to snap Illinois out of its funk. Illinois missed six out of their last seven free throws down the stretch in a 66-58 loss to Purdue on Wednesday. A.J. Hammons toyed with Nnanna Egwu on both ends of the floor, finishing with 17 points while holding Egwu scoreless. Illinois is now 13-5 after a three-game free-fall.

Illinois enters the spring semester with far too many questions. What is the identity of this team? Who, other than Rayvonte Rice, is going to step up? Is making the NCAA tournament this year a realistic goal? Perhaps the biggest question is whether this team fits John Groce’s system. I think not.

Groce’s system needs a variety of shooters to go along with aggressive offensive players. Illinois is shooting an abysmal 31.0 percent on 3-pointers this season, ranking 292nd in the nation heading into Wednesday’s game. Illinois attempted just 335 free throws before the matchup against Purdue, ranking 233rd in the country. Those numbers don’t mesh well.

The departure of Brandon Paul has hurt this squad more than expected. Paul was an ideal player for Groce’s system. Paul had the ability to knock down the long ball while excelling at drawing fouls. D.J. Richardson, although he never lived up to his potential, was the perfect role player for Groce’s 3-point dependent offense.

Rice has been a revelation this season, but even he tends to disappear in and out of games as his aggressiveness fluctuates.

Tracy Abrams is by far the most aggressive player on the team, but the pint-sized point guard has struggled at the rim all season long.

The rest of the Illini are an inconsistent bunch. Maybe Jon Ekey will step up with a big performance or even Joseph Bertrand from time to time, but each contest is a guessing game of who’s going to show up.

Maybe this team just doesn’t have the right personnel for Groce’s offense. Or maybe Groce needs to change his style to better fit his team. Either way, something has to change, or the Illini are going to have more brutal games on the horizon.

This wasn’t the right time for Illinois to struggle. Illinois faces four top-14 teams in a five-game stretch. The lone unranked team in that stretch is Indiana, who knocked off No. 3 Wisconsin in Bloomington, Ind., on Tuesday. As ugly as Illinois has ended this break, it’s about to get much uglier quickly.

Michael is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @The_MDubb.