The Illini followed a familiar script in this one, getting down big early, going through significant scoring droughts, scrambling to catch up, and then ultimately running out of momentum toward the end. Wisconsin shot out to a 9-0 lead at the State Farm Center last night just three and a half minutes into the game. After a timeout, a Malcolm Hill jumper tallied the first Illini points, but that would be it until Wisconsin had built a 16-2 lead. Midway through the first half, the Badgers saw their own buckets dry up, going five minutes without a point. Unfortunately, the Illini scored just 5 during that span and could only cut the deficit from 26-10 to 26-15. The lead hovered around 10 for the rest of the half until Wisconsin got six shots in the last 1:38 thanks to 5 offensive boards. The Badgers went into the locker room up 33-20.
After halftime, the Illini tightened up the defense (really!) and put a scare into the visitors. With 10:53 to go, Jaylon Tate stole the ball and took it down the court for a layup, cutting the Wisconsin lead to 42-36 and setting the home crowd roaring. The score was the same on the next possession. Illinois took the ball out under the Wisconsin basket and ran a set play for Malcolm Hill. He came wide open for a corner three and . . . missed. Wisconsin came down to the other end and drained a trey. What was nearly a 3-point game had, within seconds, become a 9-point Badger lead. There were still 10 minutes to go, but that felt like a turning point even in the moment. The Illini never got closer than 8 the rest of the way, finally falling 57-43.
This was a night when Wisconsin was vulnerable. The Badgers shot 40.7% for the game, nearly 7 points below their average. After starting out 7-9, they shot 34% the rest of the way. In addition, they clanked 7-9 free throws, good for 22.2%. In spite of their usual solid rebounded effort – they owned the boards by 9 – the Badgers didn’t play their best game by far. Still, Illinois lost by 14. Does that mean Wisconsin is that good, or the Illini are that bad? As poorly as Wisconsin shot for most of the game, the Illini were worse, cashing in only 27.6% of their shots and 23.8% of their triples. Wisconsin’s defense was pretty solid, but Illinois still got 16 offensive boards and created open shots. They just missed them. Hill and Maverick Morgan were the only two Illini in double figures with 10 points each.
After the game, Coach Groce highlighted Wisconsin’s 19 offensive rebounds, the slow start, and the Illini shooting woes as the keys to the game. That pretty much sums it up. He rightly pointed out the effort the Illini put forth in the second half to defend and claw their way back into the game. Unfortunately, he remarked, the only things they didn’t do in the second half were rebound consistently and make shots. Yep, two rather significant problems. After spotting the #10 team in the country a 16-2 lead in the first five minutes, you’d have to play lights out on both ends to recover. The Illini couldn’t do it.
A look back:
No, not that far back. But remember when Nick Smith and his tiny moustache played for Illinois? And the Illini never wore anything but orange? And it was 2004 and the Illini were on the cusp of one of the greatest seasons in their history? Good times.
Anyway, just back to yesterday’s post. The pregame questions focused on lineup consistency, containing Ethan Happ, and putting together a complete game. The substitutions were still numerous, but it seemed like there were fewer than in recent games. That’s as accurate as it’s going to get here, because I don’t want to try to dig those stats up, but it did seem like certain combinations were given more time on the floor together to see if they could get something going.
Ethan Happ (right) had as good a game as anyone on the court, leading all scorers with 14 and all rebounders with 13. He shot 7-11. That guy is good.
As to the third question, the Illini did not play a complete game. That’s pretty obvious from the numbers. What the numbers don’t show is that these guys played hard. That’s part of what is so puzzling and disappointing this season. The Illini care, they give effort, they seem to get along and like their coaches, but they just don’t play cohesively. There were times last night, in the 23rd game of the season, when the five guys in grey looked like they’d never played together before. There was little movement off the ball and when they were running an offense, it lacked purpose and boiled down to somebody going one-on-one with the shot clock winding down. They rarely attacked the basket out of a set play; the motion was often lateral. They also struggled to inbound the ball several times, which has become another theme this year. On the positive side, the defense was better, and they ran some kind of 3-2 zone at one point in the first half that cooled the Badgers down for a bit, so maybe that’s something to build on.
Illinois will need to go 7-1 over the final 8 games to reach the 10 conference wins that many think is the minimum needed this year to reach the tournament. That’s not a lot of room for error. The Illini schedule gets easier after Wisconsin, but that also means there are no real marquis wins left to earn. Right now, Illinois is ranked #70 in KenPom and #56 in RPI. Even the RPI is barely a bubble number because of all the conference tournament champions who will take some of those 68 spots. The Illini are on the outside looking in at the moment. The final 8 games are all winnable; Northwestern is the only ranked team at #25. It won’t take a miracle for the Illini to win out, but it will take consistency and cohesiveness.
But maybe asking that of this team is requesting a miracle after all.
Maverick Morgan photo: News-Gazette. http://www.news-gazette.com/multimedia/photogallery/2017-01-31/ui-mens-basketball-vs-wisconsin
Te’Jon Lucas photo: Rick Danzl, AP, via Wisconsin State Journal. http://host.madison.com/wsj/sports/college/basketball/men/badgers-men-s-basketball-no-wisconsin-clamps-down-on-illinois/article_5ec351ac-10b2-5606-8c43-dc842eca610a.html
Nick Smith photo: Darrell Hoemann, AP, via Scout. http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/235599-wisconsin-illinois-ap-photos
Ethan Happ photo: News-Gazette. http://www.news-gazette.com/multimedia/photogallery/2017-01-31/ui-mens-basketball-vs-wisconsin