Illini basketball’s fight not enough against Villanova

As Illinois’ 73-59 defeat at the hands of No. 7 Villanova played out, it became clear that we’ve seen this movie before.

The script unfolded in a similar fashion to last week’s loss to Miami. The Illini fell behind by double digits in the first half, then scraped back into the game multiple times, but ultimately couldn’t get over the hump as their opponent pulled away.

Yeah, it would have been big-time if John Groce’s squad could have pulled out a win over a top-10 team at an event like the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. It would have catapulted the national perception of the program and given the players a huge boost of confidence as the nonconference season winds down.

But for the second time in seven days, the Illini came up short. They clawed back from deficits and tied the game at 38, then at 50, but turnovers and some ill-advised shots prevented the Illini from ever grabbing a second-half lead. Once the Wildcats weathered the storm, Dylan Ennis sank two consecutive threes late in the second half for what would be the game’s decisive shift.

This game was a lot closer than the 14-point spread would indicate. For the first 35 minutes, Illinois belonged on the same floor as Villanova, showing admirable grit and refusing to back down from one of the most talented teams in the country.

Sophomore Malcolm Hill was an all-around stud, abusing Villanova on the offensive end and finishing with 20 points. Rayvonte Rice grinded out 10 points and three steals, while

Kendrick Nunn had an efficient nine points on 4-of-6 shooting. Senior center Nnanna Egwu played as hard as anyone on a floor can play. He had eight points and eight boards to show for it.

Unfortunately for the Illini, the Villanova onslaught never let up, and the dam broke. After Ennis’ threes put the Wildcats back on top, Nova big man Daniel Ochefu imposed his will in the paint and finished Illinois off for good. Ochefu finished with 12 points and seven rebounds.

Villanova truly played as well as advertised, displaying a balance offensively that will make them tough to beat. Four players (Ochefu, Ennis, Josh Hart and Darrun Hillard) scored in double figures, and JayVaughn Pinkston had eight. They shot nearly 55 percent from the field as a team, and wore down the Illini defense with ball movement and easy looks.

The Wildcats’ balance offensively was a blueprint of what I hoped the Illini would bring to this game, but Villanova’s smothering defense limited the number of decent looks at the basket for Illinois. Watching both teams run their offenses, the discrepancy was clear. Villanova was crisp with the ball and had easy looks. 

The Illini’s offensive rhythm came and went and they were often left scrambling for shots. Along with ball movement, Illinois’ transition offense, help defense and free throw shooting (4-for-8) simply have to improve if they want to compete with a team like Villanova.

The game is officially in the record books, but Illinois can certainly use this experience to get better. The only team on its schedule that may be a stronger squad than Villanova overall is Wisconsin, so some parts of the Illini’s performance can certainly be looked at as encouraging. If they can close out the rest of the nonconference with four straight wins, they have to feel pretty good heading into Big Ten play.

In order to win these last four nonconference games, though, Groce will have to find a way to put guards Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby in the best position to bust out of their slumps. First impressions are important, and many fans are frustrated with what they’ve seen early-on from Starks and Cosby.

The pair went a combined 3-for-12 in this game to go along with seven turnovers and have struggled against high-major competition all season. Some fans might not be aware of their high level of production at their previous schools before transferring in, and are writing them off already. When they hit shots, they add an extremely valuable dimension to the Illinois offense, so finding a way for both to bust out of their slumps is vital to the success of this team.

Yes, the loss to Villanova was disappointing, but not unexpected. The key now is to finish the nonconference strong and take lessons from the losses into Big Ten play.

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @aroux94.