Illini Plagued by Slow Start (Again) in Loss: Illinois 67 – Penn State 71

Jan 28, 2017; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions guard Shep Garner (33) defends Illinois Fighting Illini Guard Malcolm Hill (21) during the first half at Bryce Jordan Center. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve kind of put off writing this postgame report because each road game sees the Illini making the same errors. We’re writing about slow starts, terrible defense, and stagnant offense ad naseam. That’s Latin for, “makes you want to puke.” Actually, it’s Latin for “to the point of nausea,” but close enough.

So grab your barf bags, everyone, here we go again.

Illinois was only down by 3 after the first seven minutes. The defense was bad, the offense was choppy, but Penn State came in shooting the lowest percentage in the league (40.8%), so Illinois was hanging around. A minute later, Penn State was up by 8, and you felt Illinois’ grasp on the first half start to slip. After falling behind by 13, the Illini pulled within 8 again before letting go completely. The Nittany Lions went into the locker room shooting 60% and leading the Illini 45-25.

Gag.

So what went wrong? In the first half? Take your pick. In the Pre-game questions, I asked whether Te’Jon Lucas would continue to run the Illini offense at a high level in his first road start. Answer: Nope. Second, I wondered, could Illinois avoid another sluggish start on the road? Answer: Oh, hell no. Finally, would we see John Groce continue his liberal subbing? Answer: Yes, yes we would. But who could blame him in this one? The Illini weren’t getting stops on defense or points on offense. He had to try something.

Because it was so egregiously bad in the first half, let’s take a brief look at the Illini defense. Check out the Illini’s field goal percentage allowed in Big Ten Play:

@ Maryland 55.9
Ohio State 41.5
@ Indiana 59.2
Michigan 52.9
Maryland 42.6
@ Purdue 60.4
@ Michigan 45.1
Iowa 40.0
@ Penn State 49.1

That’s an average of 53.9% on the road and 44.3% at home. Pretty significant home/road split, that. Sometimes you’ll catch a team on the wrong night. They get hot, and there’s not always a lot you can do about that. This, my friends, is a trend. The Illini bring the heat all right, but not in a way that wins them games.

Sure, Illinois came out and played better in the second half. They held Penn State scoreless for 4 minutes and got within 3 points at 59-62 with three minutes left, but after a couple of late turnovers and a flagrant foul call, they couldn’t pull off the comeback, falling 67-71. Malcolm Hill, the only guy getting much of anything going in the first half, continued to battle in the second. He both scored and facilitated, finishing with 19 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds. Jalen Coleman-Lands got hot after halftime and contributed 13 points and 7 rebounds. Michael Finke and Kipper Nichols made solid contributions off the bench, adding a combined 13 points and 13 rebounds.

Illinois Penn St Basketball

Honestly, the comeback attempt wasn’t all that exciting. It should have been, but maybe there was a sense that to win this game would have allowed everyone to gloss over the troubling start. Maybe Illinois becomes that team that came back in the second half for the rest of the season, but so far it’s shown itself to be the team that gets down big on the road. To fix a problem, you have to admit it is there.

After the game, John Groce was in no mood to paper over another poor start. “The first half was just not good enough. Not acceptable.” He’s right, of course. In a turn-about from other postgame press conferences, Groce insisted, “In this league you gotta play 40 minutes.” News-Gazette beat writer Scott Richey heard more from the coach on this topic:

“We’ve been down that road where there’s been several times where I’ve been proud of them battling for 20 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 32 minutes, 20 minutes,” Groce said. “We’ve got to sustain it a lot more and be a lot more consistent with that when we go on the road. I expect that for 40 minutes, and that should be the expectation and the standard and the bar.”

Thank you, Coach. We’ve seen very few games in which this team has shown consistent effort over 40 minutes. That’s not entirely uncommon, especially when a team gets ahead by a wide margin. And that’s why some of the Illini second-half comebacks have felt hollow. Yes, they came back some on Indiana and Michigan and Penn State, but you have to put those surges in context. A team winning by 20 almost always lets up a bit. Sometimes psychologically, sometimes in getting away from their regular offense to try to eat up the clock, sometimes by altering substitution patterns to get bench guys more minutes. That’s why Groce’s comments praising his team’s second-half performances have often been frustrating rather than encouraging.

After this game, Groce owned the fact that this Illini team doesn’t give the consistent effort necessary to win on the road in the Big Ten. That, at least, is encouraging. I don’t think I could stomach another claim to moral victory.

Photo: Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports, via Fansided. http://victorybellrings.com/2017/01/28/penn-state-basketball-nittany-lions-stumble-second-half-hold-late-win/

Photo: Phoebe Sheehan, Associated Press, via Pantagraph. http://www.pantagraph.com/sports/college/basketball/men/after-trailing-big-illini-unable-to-finish-off-rally-at/article_d56e6e72-2788-5ad4-a58e-00682525cb8d.html

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