Illinois men’s basketball isn’t good enough — again

The Illinois men’s basketball team should be 15-8 with consecutive wins against some of the top teams in the conference. Instead, the team is sitting at 13-10 amid an eight-game losing streak with only themselves to blame.

I predicted Illinois to pull off the upset against Wisconsin on Tuesday. Despite the 75-63 loss, the Illini nearly did.

The final score doesn’t look pretty, but Illinois had this game in its hands. The Illini trailed by just two points with 7:21 left in the game after Joseph Bertrand hit a shot-clock beating 3-pointer. The crowd erupted, Illinois’ intensity noticeably picked up, but the team still faltered down the stretch.

Bertrand, after helping Illinois comeback from down double digits, didn’t score the rest of the way. Wisconsin ended the game on a 24-14 run, but this time the defense, not the offense, is to blame.

Wisconsin scored on 10 of their next 11 possessions after Bertrand’s longball. The Badgers killed Illinois from behind the arc, draining three 3-pointers down the stretch. Sam Dekker, who had been struggling with his shot in Big Ten play, made four of Wisconsin’s 10 3-pointers.

“The difference of the game was the 3-point shot,” John Groce said. “We need to defend better than that.”

Illinois was slow closing out on Wisconsin’s shooters all night, which killed the Illini down the stretch. Illinois’ poor defense in the late stages of the game put too much pressure on its inconsistent offense.

The Illini just haven’t executed down the stretch in close games during this eight-game losing streak. Iowa outscored Illinois 20-8 to end the game on Saturday. Illinois also faltered late against Indiana Jan. 26, getting outscored 14-7 to end the game. Illinois just can’t make plays when it matters most.

The energy is there. The toughness is there, too, but sometimes talent wins out.

“The execution piece is what we could try to get better at,” Groce said. “Attitude’s good, effort’s good, tonight we weren’t good enough, they were better”.

The important line in that quote is when Groce admitted “we weren’t good enough.” That’s really what it’s come down to this season. Illinois will battle with any team they face, they’ve proved that, but this roster is lacking playmakers.

Rice is consistently the only player to step up, as he displayed by his 24 points on Tuesday, but he can’t carry this team on his own. We keep waiting for other players to step up, but it just doesn’t look like Illinois will ever be “hitting on all cylinders” as Groce has asked for.

Togetherness and toughness can only go so far. Maybe Illinois just isn’t good enough.

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