Before the season began, if you would have told myself, or any Illini fan for that matter, that this team would be 11-2 in their non-conference schedule, we would not have believed it. With a hard fought road win over UNLV and an exciting win in the Bragging Rights game over nationally ranked Missouri, this team looked like a lock for the NCAA tournament. Ray Rice was playing better than anyone could have expected, the youth of this team was not showing many cracks, and the guys that needed to step up and lead, a la Bertrand and Abrams, were doing some phenomenal things as leaders of this team.
Fast forward to the end of January. After opening Big Ten play with wins over rival Indiana and Penn State, the Illini looked to be trending in the right direction, further solidifying their status as an NCAA team from the Big Ten. As the Illini sit mired in the middle of a six game Big Ten losing streak, it is easy to push the panic button. We forget that in those six games the Illini have faced three top twenty teams in Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State, let alone the fact that everyone knows how brutal the Big Ten play can be.
Illinois had a similar stretch last season when they went 2-7 in Big Ten play, so things are not as bad yet as they were last year, and there was still reason for optimism then. At 2-6 in Big Ten play, this squad has two tough games in a row, as they host Iowa this weekend and Wisconsin next week, two ranked teams that have already taken firm grasp of the top of the Big Ten. Before all is said and done, the Illini could need to rattle off several wins in a row if they are sitting at 2-8 in conference play.
The question, or questions here, is what is going on with the Illini? What has caused this team, which looked so strong earlier in the year, to be stuck in a slump that has them tumbling down the bubble? There are a couple reasons this team, in my opinion, is off to a rough stretch in Big Ten play.
The most obvious is the youth and fresh faces on this squad. With the stellar play of Rice and Ekey at times aside, this team has nine new players. With the freshman of Tate, Hill, Morgan, Nunn, and Colbert and the transfers of Ekey, Rice and having Starks, Cosby, and Paul waiting in the wings for next season, this team had unprecedented turnover from last season.
When you look at the bench for this team, the thing that sticks out is the fact that the majority of guys that see minutes are freshmen. With that kind of youth on a team, there are going to be some stretches where a team struggles. That comes with youth. Playing in the Big Ten is not the same as playing in high school. You have to develop in your youth, and that is exactly what Coach Groce is doing with these guys. Most of the new guys are still searching for their role with this team. Some have found it while others continue to search for it. They will not be freshmen next year, and this team will have a lot more depth and knowledge next season.
Youth aside, I do not feel like that is the main reason for the struggles for the Illini this season. All good teams are good at many things, but the common thread in them is that they are able to get the ball to guys to make plays on offense. Assists are the most glaring issue with this team in the 2013-2014 season. Currently we are dead last in the Big Ten with a mere 10.1 assists per game. That is not the worse part. Out of 351 eligible Division I teams, the Illini rank 335, behind such powerhouse programs as Southern Utah and Maryland – Eastern Shore.
The lack of ability to find open shooters and to create space on the floor is showing in Big Ten play. The shooting percentage is very low, the rebounds in most games favor the other team, and we are having a very tough time getting to the hoop and drawing contact. If this team can find a way to space the floor, be a little sharper and smarter with their passes, and getting inside for some higher percentage shots, this team has the talent and ability to compete with most teams in the country. That was evident against Missouri, Oregon, and UNLV. The Illini are not a pushover team, though they may look like it at times.
If there is one thing I can assure fellow Illinois fans, it is this: It WILL get better. The right guy is leading this team. He works 26 hours in a 24 hour day. Groce will build us back to where we should be, and that is a top 20 program annually who is right at the top of the Big Ten year in and year out. Give him time to rebuild. The youth on this team, the mistakes that are made in game play, it will fix itself. Groce will make sure of that. Give it time, and enjoy the ride. This program is about to be the envy of the Big Ten. #TNT