Loss to Oregon troubling on multiple levels

CHICAGO — As I left the United Center following Illinois’ 77-70 loss to Oregon, most Illini fans had the same bewildered look on their faces.

This was supposed to be the year the Illini found balance and consistency, where they put away opponents with their superior depth and shooting, where they handled teams like Oregon at the United Center.

Instead, it seems head coach John Groce’s self-described “freight train” that is Illinois basketball has gone off the rails.

As demoralizing as this loss was, there is still two-thirds of the season still to be played. Illinois can still make a lot of noise this year, especially in what looks to be a weakened Big Ten conference.

But there’s no sugar-coating the fact that this loss hurts, and that the Illini have serious flaws right now.

Looking at the big picture, I wrote prior to the game about how losing at the United Center damages the Illinois brand more than an ordinary home loss would. And it does. There were plenty of Chicago-area fans who likely attended the only game they’ll attend this season. They spent a lot of money, watched Illinois lay an egg, and thought “same old Illini.” We’ll see if they come back next season.

Last night’s attendance was around 14,000 at the nearly 23,000-seat United Center. That’s a big disappointment for a Saturday evening game against a well-known opponent, and it’s a reflection of the disillusionment the Chicago fan base has with Illini basketball.

The 14,000 who did show up provided a raucous atmosphere. When the game was close in the second half, you could sense the desperation in the crowd, as if they were begging, pleading, for the Illini to pull through. It reflected the angst of a fan base that really just wants its program to be nationally relevant again.

The game started nicely for the Illini, and they jumped out to a 35-22 lead behind Rayvonte Rice’s usual heroics. It was a pleasant turnaround from the Miami and Villanova games, when Illinois dug early holes for itself. But Oregon clawed back, as Dillon Brooks and Joseph Young shredded the Illini defense with their speed and athleticism.

It seemed like every time the Ducks needed a big play on offense, someone delivered. And every time they needed a stop, Illinois forced an ill-advised shot. Oregon played calm and loose down the stretch, and the Illini tightened up. The Ducks dominated the last 25 minutes of the game and came out on top.

This sure isn’t the Illini offense many expected to see in Groce’s third year. With Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby serving as added shooters on the perimeter, driving lanes were supposed to open up, and everything else was supposed to come together.

But Starks and Cosby have struggled, and the offense has stalled. For three straight games against quality opponents, we’ve watched Miami, Villanova and Oregon move the ball crisply on offense and create easy looks at the basket for their players.

And in each of those games, I’ve watched an Illini big man set high ball screen after high ball screen, while a guard tries to go one-on-one with his defender, while the other three Illini on the floor pretty much stand and watch.

The result? Illinois gets few easy buckets, and it costs them.

The Illini have to work so hard for every shot that isn’t a 3-pointer. Rice, Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn have all been good catalysts offensively, but it takes an extraordinary effort from them to shed their defenders and get open shots.

Going forward, Groce has to find a way to get the entire offense involved, to get the ball moving inside-out rather than just simply swinging it around 30 feet from the basket. A pick and roll offense doesn’t work if the guard rarely hits the player rolling off the screen.

Illinois’ issues extend to the defensive end as well. Far too often, opponents are easily getting easy looks in the lane, and the Illini defense looks like a shell of what it was last season. I’m not sure what the answer is on this end. It couldn’t hurt to try some zone against teams that don’t shoot especially well (like Oregon) to help cut down on the inside looks  opponents are getting.

In the scope of this season, what does this loss mean? It certainly damages the Illini’s NCAA tournament hopes, as the rest of their nonconference slate offers no opportunities for a marquee win. Oregon is not a bad team, in fact, they’re decent and have some really talented players. But the fact remains that in this stage of the Groce re-build, Illinois was expected to be better than a team like Oregon.

The good news is that Groce is obsessed with improvement, and I have faith that he’ll do everything he can to make the necessary adjustments going forward. Wednesday’s home matchup with Hampton gives Illinois a chance to steady the ship before Saturday’s Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis.

Maybe we’ll look back at this loss as the wake-up call that lit a fire under the Illini, just before they found their groove heading into conference play. Or it could be the game that was a warning sign of the struggles that will plague Illinois once again in the Big Ten.

Either way, the Illini have some work to do.

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