Illinois Basketball: Will This Be a Jekyll and Hyde Season?

Dec 21, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach John Groce talks to players in a time out during the second half against the Missouri Tigers at Scottrade Center. Illinois won 75-66. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 21, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach John Groce talks to players in a time out during the second half against the Missouri Tigers at Scottrade Center. Illinois won 75-66. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports /

The Illinois basketball team squandered the chance for a December to Remember with an embarrassing route at the hands of Maryland.  But they bounced back nicely defeating a good OSU team in Champaign.

Not surprisingly many fans blame Groce for the poor play against the Terps.  But the lack of passion and complete inability to control the game is a problem that doesn’t start and end with the coaching staff.  Players cannot be fired, so fans understandably direct their ire at the top.  But outside of Hill, and some decent play from Morgan and Thorne, it looked to me like no one else wanted to be on the floor.

A different team showed up on New Years Day.  While the victory was a good one, I think it was emblematic of the kind of heart-attack inducing game that will be the norm this season.  It was a very close game between two equally good, but not great, teams.  But “parity” is the watch-word in the Big Ten this season.  With everyone basically beating an excellent IU squad, Nebraska taking down Maryland, Minnesota defeating Purdue, and with a head scratching Michigan State starting strong, but obviously vulnerable, only Wisconsin seems to be a clearly dominant team.

Last year many people, including me, gave Groce a pass because of the injuries and relative youth of the team that he was forced to play.  However, this year everyone agrees that things must be dramatically different.  This Illini team is 100-percent healthy, and they have had the entire non-conference to gel and to learn.  This is the team we wanted last year.  This is the team that must go to the NCAA Tournament.

But even after a nice win against OSU, questions linger. Is this the kind of team that needs the occasional smack down to be able to come back and compete?  And will competing be enough?  And if it is that type of team, the real question is why?  Is it Groce?  Is it the players?  Is it a combination of both?

Unfortunately, it seems like this is a debate that will rage all season.  The Illini do not look like a team that will win 75-percent of its conference games, even on its best day.  I think the Illini will struggle to reach .500, but I am confident that they can reach it if the team that showed up against VCU, BYU, and OSU can make an extended appearance in the new year.

And while every fan and person who writes about Illinois basketball is compiling a list of coaching candidates to replace Groce, I do not think it is inevitable that those lists will make it to print.  However, that could change after January.  The Illini have half of their games this month.  And it is a very tough schedule.

Like golf, the season can be divided into the front nine, and the back nine.  The front nine will be hazardous for the Illini.  Realistically I see Illinois only winning 4 of its first 9 games.

However, the back 9 is much easier where I think the Illini can take 6 of 9.  That puts them a little over .500, but it won’t be easy and the parity of the conference, coupled with the Illini’s dual personality disorder, could make this that much harder.  Without a marquee victory on their resume in non-conference and conference play (which my win prediction does not include) the Illini might need to win in the first round Big Ten Tournament to stay off the bubble on selection Sunday.

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Some good signs came out of the OSU game.  According to OSU’s Defensive Adjusted Efficiency ranked No. 30 going into that game.  What that meant to me was that the Illini really needed to protect the ball and crash the boards on offense.  Fewer turnovers coupled with solid rebounding would help Illinois against a strong OSU defense. In other words, it would be critical that the Illini not beat themselves.

And man did they respond well on that front.  The Illini had just nine turnovers, which is about half of their average.  We need to see that regularly.

Perhaps more importantly, the Illini outrebounded OSU 42-35.  But let us break that down a little more.  On Offense the Illini grabbed 12 rebounds to the Buckeyes 10.  And on defense, it was the Illini’s favor at 30 to 25. Leron Black was a vacuum on the boards, hoovering up 15 total, including four on the offensive end.

Another troubling stat that stood out to me before the game was the way the Buckeyes score.  The Buckeyes get their points inside the arc, ranking No. 14 on in that category going into this game (No. 17 now).  After the Illini’s complete failure to defend on the inside against Maryland, this stat had me very worried.

After the Maryland debacle, Groce said it was time for the Illini to man-up.  And they did that against OSU. The Buckeyes are not a great three-point shooting team, as evidenced in Sunday’s game, so I figured they would be looking to exploit the Illini on the inside.  But Illinois faired very well on the interior holding OSU to just 41.5-percent.  That is remarkable considering that the Buckeyes average well over 50-percent in that category.

Related Story: Another take on the Illini victory over OSU

We needed smart and aggressive play from Morgan, Thorne, Black, and Finke, and we largely got it, though Thorne’s minutes were limited.  Black avoided foul trouble, and as a result, we saw what he is capable of even when he doesn’t have his touch on offense (he only scored 6 points in 27 minutes of play).

Equally important was the outstanding guard play on defense.  Abrams, Tate, Hill and Coleman-Lands made OSU’s guards uncomfortable on the perimeter, forcing bad shots or driving them into the Illini trees in the middle.

The Illini succeeded in this tight game by limiting turnovers, getting rebounds, and playing smart but aggressive defense.  The Illini were a horrid 31.6-percent from beyond the arc on 6-of-19 shooting, but good interior shooting helped offset that.  In the final analysis, though, this game was won with good defense and solid ball handling.

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I am hoping that the negative energy surrounding the fan base will be tamed by a successful season and a great recruiting class.  The recruiting class is top-notch by all accounts.  The successful season is still attainable and inched in the right direction with the win against the Buckeyes.

Let’s hope that is a sign that the Illini have looked inward for their New Years Resolution, and determined to shed that shell of a team that emerged a couple times last year against WVU and Maryland.  And let’s hope that we don’t all have a collective heart attack this year every time we watch Illinois play.  But get ready because I think it’s going to be a thrilling ride.

Next up, the Hoosiers this Saturday in Bloomington.