More Evidence of Systemic Failure? Illinois 68 – Purdue 91

Purdue center Isaac Haas (44) shoots over Illinois guard Malcolm Hill (21) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in West Lafayette, Ind., Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017.

Are we witnessing a systemic failure at Illinois?

Illinois lost at Purdue last night in what’s become familiar fashion on the road. The defense gave up wide open threes to start the game. Purdue opened up a 15-5 lead – all on three-pointers – and never looked back. The first three threes weren’t even challenged. Two came on failures to match up in transition, and a third on a busted defense along the baseline.

It was 30-44 at halftime and never got closer than 12 the rest of the way.

A quick look back at the pre-game questions:

Purdue’s big men feasted on the Illini in the paint. Caleb Swanigan, Isaac Haas, and Vince Edwards each played over 20 minutes and combined for 57 points and 17 rebounds. Four Illini bigs played more than 15 minutes and combined for 27 points and 15 rebounds. Rebounding was actually one of the few bright spots for Illinois. They still got beat 28-35 on the glass, but allowed only 3 offensive rebounds. Not bad at all.

The three-pointer played a big role in this game. Purdue came out hot and went 5-9 in the first half. The threat from the arc made the Illini guards hesitant to double down on the Purdue bigs, creating one-on-one matchups in the paint that favored the Boilers. Purdue finished the game 7-15 from three for 46.7%. The Illini shot 3-17 for 17.6%. Two of those makes were by Michael Finke in the first half. The few times the Illini really looked effective on offense were when Finke stepped out to the arc and spread the floor. He proved his threat by making the first two of his four 3-point attempts. It would have been interesting to see whether the Illini would have gotten better results had they consistently pulled Finke out of the paint rather than having him post up. Would Purdue have used a big to guard him? That would have opened up the driving lanes for Malcolm Hill and others. Or would they have countered with a quicker player, who the 6’10” Finke may have been able to shoot or pass over? Oh well.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to say about Tracy Abrams. He went 1-6 from the field and 2-5 from the free throw line with four rebounds and no assists. He was a little more assertive about getting to the basket, but was unable to convert more than half his free throws. Te’Jon Lucas was more effective in his 19 minutes. He scored 10 points on 3-5 shooting from the field and 4-7 on free throws. He also had 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 turnovers, and 4 fouls. He picked up three quick fouls in the first half, effectively taking him out of the game while it was in the balance.

So what’s going on with Illinois basketball? The defense is really, really bad. Illinois is currently #232 in the country in opponents’ field goal percentage at 44.5%. Defense was a hot topic in post-game comments. When asked whether he was feeling things needed to change before this game, or whether this game sparked that idea, Maverick Morgan responded, in part, “This is just kind of more so in your face, like hey, there it is again. And this is going to continue to happen if we don’t play defense.” When asked a similar question about what needed to change, Malcolm Hill replied, “The number one thing we need to change is be more prideful on defense.”

Coach Groce also addressed the defense in his comments, alternately describing the challenge of guarding Purdue as “playing Russian roulette” and “pick your poison.” He agreed that the defense needs to be better, but puzzlingly added: “I was really pleased with it the other day against a really good Maryland team. I thought we defended really, really well for just about 40 minutes, so that was good.” Granted, Illinois’ nearly 8 minute scoring drought did them no favors against Maryland, but they were also unable to get stops in the second half or to turn good defense into transition buckets when the jumpers weren’t falling. Anyone who watched that game could see that Maryland was getting plenty of open looks in the first half and just missing them. And the Terrapins finished the game shooting 42.6%. If that’s the best Illinois can play defense against the Big Ten, that’s only good for 114th place in the overall standings.

And that’s not good enough. Groce is a positive guy, and that’s a good trait to have, but I wonder if it’s blinding him to the real problems on this team. He says things like “These guys care,” and “The energy and effort were really good,” and that is great, but it’s not translating to winning, or even mediocre, basketball. Maybe there’s a different message behind closed doors, but when he tells the press that consistency is lacking in offense, defense, and among individuals, we’re left to wonder what the heck we’re good at 4.5 years into his stewardship of the program.

Just for fun (or not), here’s a look at the field goal percentages for John Groce’s Ohio and Illinois teams since his first season in 2008-2009. I’m sure someone could tell me why this stat is flawed, but I think over time it can be a useful measure of how successful your offensive system is at creating high-percentage shots and how good you are at preventing your opponent from doing the same.

Season Team FG % (nat’l rank) Opponent FG% (nat’l rank)
2016-2017 Illinois 46.6 (88) 44.5 (232)
2015-2016 Illinois 43.2 (215) 46.2 (317)
2014-2015 Illinois 41.3 (276) 42.1 (119)
2013-2014 Illinois 41.1 (314) 42.1 (98)
2012-2013 Illinois 41.2 (274) 42.4 (157)
2011-2012 Ohio 42.8 (204) 41.2 (71)
2010-2011 Ohio 43.5 (177) 44.7 (260)
2009-2010 Ohio 43 (200) 41.8 (102)
2008-2009 Ohio 43.4 (188) 44.1 (216)

Stats from

Based on field goal percentage, none of John Groce’s offenses have finished in the top 150, and only two have ended up in the top 200 (and both of those at Ohio). On the other side of the ball, he’s had two top 100 defenses, and none better than 98th at Illinois. These are troubling trends. So far, this year’s team has shown an ability to score in spurts, but they’ve not been able to get stops with anything resembling consistency. It doesn’t appear to me that John Groce’s offensive or defensive systems are effective. We keep hearing about the need for a better point guard to run his dribble-drive offense, but his history as a head coach suggests he’s never had that player. Even the legendary DJ Cooper at Ohio was only able to run Groce’s system to a 177 ranking. We’ll see how these stats shake out at the end of the year. The Illini FG% is currently 43.8 (10th) in conference play, and their Big Ten opponents are shooting 51.7% (13th). Both of those numbers are going in the wrong direction.

When asked whether he felt like there should be a sense of urgency now, what with the Big Ten season 1/3 over, Malcolm Hill countered that he equated the term “urgency” with a sense of anxiety and worry. He said he was “not nervous and worried at all. Disappointed, but not nervous and worried.” Hill was also asked about his legacy as one of the best players to play at Illinois. His response: “Someone I don’t want to be remembered as is someone who didn’t get to play in the NCAA tournament.” At this point, I’m more than a little nervous and worried for him.

Photo: Michael Conroy, AP. Via The News Tribune.

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