With Owls in town, Illini must continue to forge identity

The outcome of Saturday night’s Illinois basketball game isn’t really in doubt. 

The Illini face 4-9 Kennesaw State at State Farm Center, and it’s a game Illinois should win.

Yes, I know upsets happen. Michigan State recently lost to Texas Southern, Michigan embarrassed themselves against NJIT and Nebraska couldn’t beat some team called Incarnate Word. The Big Ten has had a rough time in nonconference play overall. 

But the Illini aren’t losing this one. For this game against the Owls, winning shouldn’t even be Illinois’ main focus, because a W should be guaranteed. Instead, Illini head coach John Groce and his team should be focused on strengthening their identity heading into Big Ten play.

Illinois is roughly a third of the way through its season, and with a 9-3 record, we still don’t really know who this team is. Last year, its identity was built around defense. Yeah, last year the Illini couldn’t shoot at all, but stellar defense kept them in games at the end of the season. This season, the defense has been spotty. 

Several games into the current season, when the Illini were setting the nets ablaze against the likes of Coppin State and Austin Peay, it looked like Illinois would compensate for its drop-off in defense with an offense that would overwhelm many opponents with 3-point barrages. Instead, the 3-point shooting has regressed, and Groce’s offense has looked somewhat limited against decent competition. Most of the offensive production has come from the wings, with Rayvonte Rice and Malcolm Hill carrying the brunt of the load. 

The team’s biggest strengths seem to be free throw shooting (nearly 78%) and limiting turnovers (just 10.1 per game). And yes, at times this team has shown that toughness and grit that Groce works so hard to instill in his troops, but resiliency alone wasn’t enough to get it done against Miami, Villanova and Oregon. 

With the Illini currently sitting in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten when it comes to many major statistical categories, they need to figure out what type of team they’re going to be this year. Because in basketball, being average at a lot of things will likely result in the Illini being an average team at the end of the 2014-15 season.

At this point, I’m not sure where the Illini are most likely to improve. Stats from their previous schools suggest transfer guards Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby will shoot better as the season goes on, which would give the Illinois offense a serious boost. If those two can produce at a somewhat high level, the Illini have potential to be a serious threat in the Big Ten. 

There is room for improvement on the defensive side of the ball, and we’ll have to see if Groce dials up more presses and zones to confuse opposing teams when the man-to-man defense isn’t effective. The Illini also need to do a better job of stopping dribble penetration, which has been a weakness in big games all year. 

Maybe Illinois can get by this year on toughness and togetherness when the shots aren’t falling. Groce is a notorious motivator, and seems to get the most out of his team when its back is against the wall. Maybe the Illini will win a few games it shouldn’t this year on will alone. 

But Big Ten season is approaching fast, beginning with trips to Michigan and Ohio State next week. Winning on the road in conference play takes poise and confidence, and to exploit teams’ weaknesses the Illini must know their own strengths. 

So it shouldn’t matter if Saturday’s opponent is Kennesaw State, Chicago State or Blue Mountain State. 

If you’re a team without an identity, the Big Ten schedule can eat you alive. 

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