Illinois lack energy, toughness in loss to Nebraska

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The Illinois men’s basketball team has officially hit rock bottom. Illinois couldn’t have played any worse in a 67-58 loss at the hands of Nebraska on Wednesday. 

Let’s start with Illinois’ offensive ineptitude, which has been a recurring trend this season. Rayvonte Rice was depended on far too heavily once again. Rice had 23 points, including a ridiculous behind-the-back move leading to a reverse layup, while no other Illini even scored in double figures.

Rice seemed like the only player even interested offensively. Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill were solid, combining for 17 points on 5-for-8 shooting, but the freshman duo stood around too often. The offense was stagnant, slow and without any direction. Illinois looked like a bunch of guys that had never played together.

The Illini shot just 36.7 percent from the field and connected on only four 3-pointers. Illinois once again failed to break double-digit assists as the team tallied just nine. I don’t know if John Groce’s schemes or selfishness from his players is to blame, but the ball movement on this team needs to pick up.

Groce can’t be blamed for the way his starting point guard Tracy Abrams has played as of late. Abrams has not scored a field goal since the first half against Wisconsin on Feb. 4. He is a combined 0-for-9 in the past two games. Groce isn’t exactly rich with point guard options on this team, but Jaylon Tate might need to join his fellow freshmen in the starting lineup sooner rather than later.

Illinois coupled its horrid offense with one of its worst defensive performances of the season. The usually solid Illini defense revealed some serious flaws against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers shot 44.2 percent from the field, a solid but unspectacular number, but thrived from the free throw line all game. Nebraska drained 24 of its 27 free throw attempts as Illinois struggled to stop the Cornhuskers penetration without fouling. Illinois couldn’t stop Shavon Shields at all.

Illinois made Shields look like LeBron James. The sophomore scored 33 points on only 12 field goal attempts. At one point he had 14 points on just two field goal attempts. He knocked down all 15 of his free throws and killed Illinois with his penetration. Illinois threw numerous defenders at him, but no one could stop him.

It’s not like Shields is a Big Ten player of the year candidate. He’s actually not even Nebraska’s leading scorer. Terran Petteway, who is, finished with 16 points. The two combined for 49 of Nebraska’s 67 points. Nebraska’s sophomore class makes up for 58.1 percent of its points.

Illinois just didn’t seem interested in this game. Nebraska went on a late 13-3 run after Illinois cut the deficit to two. For all the toughness and togetherness Illinois talks about, none of that was apparent down the stretch. There was no energy, passion or aggressiveness from the Illini.

Illinois has to make new goals if they want to salvage anything from this down season. Groce needs to play his freshmen more, tinker with his schemes and be willing to take more risks. Groce needs to start thinking about what he could do this season to make his team better next season.

Illinois is now in sole possession of last place in the Big Ten after Penn State pulled off an upset on the road against Indiana on Wednesday. After a lifeless loss to Nebraska, that’s right where they belong.

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