Abysmal offense haunts Illinois in loss to Nebraska

Illinois’ 53-43 loss to Nebraska on Sunday night was ugly enough offensively to give Illini fans flashbacks.

John Groce’s team lost 48-39 to Ohio State and 49-43 to Northwestern last season in similarly depressing performances. Bruce Weber’s Illinois teams were known for offensively anemic showings toward the end of his tenure. And there’s not an Illini basketball fan out there that isn’t still emotionally scarred from the 38-33 Penn State debacle in 2009.

Remember when Illinois led the nation in scoring early this season? Seems like a long time ago.

Sunday’s loss at the hands of the Huskers was hard to watch, as the Illini missed 23 threes and shot 15-of-55 from the field overall. You’re not going to beat many teams by shooting 27 percent and scoring 43 points in 40 minutes. 

I wrote before the game that Illinois would need to bring the intensity it showed in its win against Maryland to Pinnacle Bank Arena on Sunday against the Huskers. They brought it on the defensive end again, holding Nebraska to just 53 points, and Illini center Nnanna Egwu was once again a disruptive force around the rim. 

But the offensive effort left much to be desired. Illini guards too often settled for bad shots from 3-point range early in the shot clock. Inside looks were few and far between and the ball movement was lacking. Big Ten Network analyst and former Illini player Stephen Bardo described it best as he noted how much the ball tends to “stick” during the Illini’s offensive possessions, meaning one guy dribbles around while the other four watch. 

Malcolm Hill couldn’t save Illinois two games in a row. He followed up Wednesday’s 28-point performance against Maryland with 12 points of 4-of-15 shooting against Nebraska. Kendrick Nunn scored 12 as well, but the pair of sophomores didn’t have much help from their teammates in the scoring column. The Illini shot 29 threes, which is entirely too many, given how the game was playing out.

Nebraska’s length and athleticism clearly bothered the Illini as they struggled to shed defenders and get quality shots. Illinois didn’t help its own cause, as it failed to attack the lane effectively and only shot eight total free throws, despite being a top-five free throw-shooting team nationally.

As expected, Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields led the way for the Huskers, scoring 18 and 11 points, respectively. Nebraska didn’t do anything spectacular in this one, but it played solid defense and made shots when it mattered.

In disappointing fashion, Illinois followed up its best performance of the season with arguably its worst. A road loss to Nebraska is not necessarily unexpected and certainly not devastating. Teams lose on the road in Big Ten play all the time. Wisconsin lost to cellar-dweller Rutgers on Sunday.

But it’s the way the Illini lost that’s distressing. With leading scorer Rayvonte Rice injured, the Nebraska game could be an indicator of struggles going forward for Groce’s team. Effort and intensity can carry the Illini to an extent, but at the end of the day this is basketball. You have to put the ball in the hoop. Sounds simple, but the Illini will beat absolutely no one with offensive showings like this.

This team misses Rice, and his absence leaves a huge production hole in nearly every aspect of the game. Anyone that thinks this is a better team without him is delusional, and you saw why tonight. 

The only potential good news is that Illinois faces Northwestern on Wednesday, in what is usually a fairly pro-Illini environment at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston. The Wildcats are not a very good team, and a win against them would put the Illini at 2-3 in conference, which is acceptable when you look at how their schedule is constructed. 

It’s reasonable to believe the Illini probably aren’t as good as they showed against Maryland, nor as bad as they showed against Nebraska. It’s hard to judge where they’re at right now as a team and what they’re capable of the rest of the way. 

But there are plenty of games left to find out. 

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