Believe it or not, there are silver linings to this season for the Illini

There’s no sugar coating it: This season has been downright ugly for the Illini.

Illinois is currently in the midst of a six-game losing streak spanning three weeks. The Illini’s highest point total during this streak was 70 in a game they lost by 25 points to Wisconsin. Yeah, it’s been that bad.

As odd as it may sound, there have been silver linings to this down season for the Illini. You just have to dig deeper. 

The success of Rayvonte Rice

Rayvonte Rice shouldn’t be penalized for the play of his teammates; he’s been sensational this season. The Drake transfer has been remarkably consistent except for his zero-point dud against Ohio State, one of the best defenses in the country.

Barring that performance and one other against Northwestern in which the Illini totaled 43 points, Rice has scored in double digits every game. Rice is the go-to player of this team and there isn’t a close second. When Illinois needs a bucket, the ball is in Rice’s hands and he’s more than comfortable taking the big shot.

Rice has put up numbers almost identical to his sophomore season at Drake, but this year he’s maintained that production in a much better conference. His stat line of 16.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game can be matched by only nine other qualified guards in Division I this season. This speaks to Rice’s versatility and unique skill set.

Don’t forget Rice is only a junior, so he’ll be back next season with a year of Big Ten experience under his belt. Expect many more muscle-flexing and-1s  in the future.

The solid freshman class

While everyone was waiting for the 2014 class to pan out, the class of 2013 has been just fine.

John Groce hasn’t been afraid to play freshmen this year and with good reason. 

Malcolm Hill and the Simeon duo of Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate have all played more than 10 minutes per game this season. Their numbers won’t wow anyone, but they all have interesting facets to their games.

Hill’s shot has been off all season long, as he’s shooting only 33.3 percent from the floor, but his athleticism has been on full display. Hill has an uncanny ability of drawing fouls. His free-throw attempts of 5.8 per 40 minutes are second on the team. He’s also an outstanding rebounder for a player who’s only 6-foot-6, leading the team with a 17.8 defensive rebound percentage, which illustrates the rate a particular player comes down with available rebounds.

Nunn is arguably the most athletic player on the roster. His left-handed dunks on the break have been some of the high points of an otherwise dreadful season. Nunn is also struggling with his stroke, shooting 39.3 percent from the floor, but he’s already ahead of the curve defensively. He leads the team with a steal percentage of 2.8, meaning 2.8 percent of possessions end with Nunn stealing the ball while he’s out there. 

Tate is the future table setter for the Illini offense. He’s a heady player who already leads Illinois with a 30.5 percent assist rate. If he qualified, that number would rank third in the Big Ten. Tate can’t really do much else offensively, but playmakers are sorely needed on this Illini squad. He’s also an outstanding lob-thrower, quite possibly leading the nation — if that stat was tracked.

Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert haven’t got much playing time this season, but the duo provides necessary size in the future. Morgan has been playing more lately and projects to be a bruiser inside.

The surprisingly stout defense

Illinois is a train wreck offensively, but this team can defend.

Illinois ranks 34th in the nation in opponents points per game at 63.3. Though Illinois has averaged only 55.7 points per game during this losing skid, they’ve allowed only 67.7 points per game in that stretch. Illinois plays exceedingly slow to reach that low point total, but even when adjusting for pace the Illini have been above average defensively.

Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency measures the points a team allows per 100 possessions against an average Division I offense, neutralizing the pace a team plays at. Illinois ranks 41st in the country with an adjusted defensive efficiency of 96.3. Illinois is held back by its 183rd ranked adjusted offensive efficiency.

It’s not hard to see why Illinois has been so solid defensively this season. Nnanna Egwu, despite his struggles offensively, is blocking 2.1 shots a game. Jon Ekey has also arguably been the best pick-and-roll defender on the team and is constantly diving after loose balls.  

The guards can’t shoot the ball into an ocean right now, but Rice, Joseph Bertrand and Tracy Abrams usually do a good job of staying in front of their man. You also can’t blame their lack of hustle; they’re always competing on the defensive end. Illinois’ strong defense has made this losing streak even more mind-boggling. If Illinois’ offense can just turn it around, the defense is there.

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