Struggling Illinois men’s basketball team heads to Minnesota

Illinois’ Tracy Abrams (13) attempts a complicated shot during the game against No. 22 Ohio State at State Farm Center on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. The Illini lost 48-39.

By Johnathan Hettinger

If you ask head coach John Groce, the Illinois men’s basketball team is executing its offense better than it was in December. But you wouldn’t know it from comparing the offensive statistics of nonconference and conference play.

Illinois scored a season-low 39 points against Ohio State on Saturday, shooting 28 percent. But Illinois’ season-low offensive output came at the hands of excessive turnovers and too many blocked shots, as well as its continued struggle to put the ball through the basket.

The Illini will try to get back on track at Minnesota on Wednesday in what looks like a must-win for the Golden Gophers, who are sitting on the cusp of the bubble with tough games remaining at Ohio State and Michigan and against Iowa.

Groce said Minnesota is one of the most talented teams in the conference offensively. Through Big Ten play, Minnesota has been one of the conference’s better offensive teams thus far, shooting 46.1 percent from the field, good for third in the Big Ten.

The Illini will have their hands full with the Hollins brothers, Andre and Austin, who combine for 26.2 points per game.

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In head coach Richard Pitino’s first season, the bodies of Minnesota’s big men have gone through a transformation. Forward Maurice Walker lost 65 pounds and has been solid for the Golden Gophers after struggling to gain playing time prior to Pitino’s arrival, mostly due to weight issues. Still, the forwards don’t present as much of an offensive threat, which will neutralize the effectiveness of Illinois’ best defender, Nnanna Egwu.

Illinois’ defense has been below average, ranking in the bottom half of the Big Ten in every major defensive statistical category in conference play. In Saturday’s loss, Groce said it was the first time he had seen Illinois’ offensive struggles affect its effort on defense, and he also saw the Illini get discouraged on offense.

Illinois point guard Tracy Abrams said the struggles on both ends of the court ultimately fell on the captains, including himself, because they need to make sure the Illini keep their heads up, no matter what happens.

“It is a little frustrating just because we’ve obviously done better than that,” graduate student Jon Ekey said.

Like Ekey said, prior to conference play, Illinois shot 44 percent from the field, but Illinois has been unable to reproduce these numbers against the higher quality defensive teams of the Big Ten.

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.