Writing about sports is tougher than I expected. Sure, there’s a new game or two every week, and you can spend time rehashing the particulars of what happened when, but when you’re looking for themes and story lines, the material can get surprisingly repetitive. Defensive lapses, offensive dysfunction, scoring droughts, puzzling substitutions, discordant lineups, yada, yada, yada.
Illinois dropped another Big Ten game yesterday at a sold out State Farm Center. Sold out, mind you, to see the Cubs’ World Series trophy. But still, I assume most fans stayed past the first media timeout – when the trophy was paraded around the court before shuttling off to the next appearance on its Midwest victory tour – to see the Illini close the half on a 5-0 run to tie the game at 35 going into the locker room.
Illinois avoided one of their patented slow starts in this one. Well, maybe “avoided” is misleading; let’s say, “put off.” The Orange and Blue led for most of the half behind the energetic play of Kipper Nichols, who had tied his career high of 13 points by halftime. The defense was pretty good, and Jalen Coleman-Lands actually stopped Minnesota in transition, which was so rare as to be remarkable. When was the last time you took note of a stop in transition? I think this is my first time. It wasn’t a pretty first half – Malcolm Hill picked up two quick fouls and had to be used carefully – but Illinois had made it through 20 minutes without a significant scoring drought.
Illinois has been on the wrong side of consistent since the start of Big Ten play, and their habitual slow starts and scoring droughts reappeared after the halftime break. Fans who were late getting back to their seats after grabbing a hotdog – and maybe a beer in one of the new luxury clubs – likely didn’t miss an Illini basket. Illinois was down 7 before Malcolm Hill made a jumper four minutes into the second half. After trading buckets for a while, the Illini again went into a four-minute offensive hibernation. Minnesota wasn’t great, either, and the Illini were able to get within 6 before scoring just 3 points in the final 3:41. The final score: Minnesota 68, Illinois 59.
Both offenses were pretty bad in this game. The difference was that Minnesota was consistently bad at both 2-point and 3-point baskets, shooting 37.5% overall and 36.8% from three, whereas Illinois was pretty good from two (48.8%) and exceptionally bad from three, shooting 38.1% overall and 18.2% on triples. Hill and Coleman-Lands combined to go 0-15 from beyond the arc. The Gophers also cashed in 6 more free throws than the Illini to provide the bulk of the 9-point margin.
Looking for answers
In the pregame, I asked whether the defense would continue to show improvement. The first half defense was active, but a little over aggressive. The Illini didn’t adjust to a game that was called tight early and committed too many fouls. In the second half, the defense looked worse, but actually gave up fewer points than in the first half. Go figure. The Gophers weren’t shooting the lights out, either, so that helps.
The answer to whether Illinois could regain its shooting stroke was a resounding no. Although they shot better than the 27.6% against Wisconsin, the 18.2% from three was brutal. Especially when you see that they took 22 threes and made just 4. Hill and Coleman-Lands are too good offensively to go 0-15 on a regular basis, but the struggles of Illini marksmen to make shots – and perhaps we could include Tracy Abrams in this group (he only played 3 minutes yesterday) – begs an answer to the third question.
Did John Groce help his job security yesterday? No, he did not. With prize recruits Jeremiah Tilmon (signed) and Mark Smith (pursued) sitting court side, the Illini did nothing to assure these young men that the coach recruiting them will be the man at the helm when they arrive on campus. The Illini continue to struggle with the same systemic problems against quality competition: lack of offensive flow and lack of defensive cohesion. Illini shooters should be more consistent because the offensive system is both tailored to them and familiar. They should be getting high-percentage shots in predictable positions because they should know when and where they will be open. Without an offensive flow, shooters don’t get in rhythm. Getting shots in rhythm is critical to 3-point success. Guys like Coleman-Lands, Hill, and Abrams might be getting those open looks, but they aren’t in often in the flow of the offense. Defensively, Illinois is showing minor improvement, but there are still communication problems and guys committing too hard to help at the wrong time, leaving opposing three-point shooters wide open, or giving drivers too much space, requiring big men who lack athleticism to move quickly to help while still keeping an eye on their own men. A rangy, athletic big like Nnanna Egwu could do this, but guys like Maverick Morgan, Mike Thorne, Jr., and Michael Finke can’t.
The lineups are also puzzling. Kipper Nichols was the only guy who really had it going in the first half, and he was the fourth guy off the bench in the second half. What’s up with that? For some reason, Groce seems reluctant to adjust to the flow of the game and play the hot hands. He’s a math guy, a numbers guy. Advanced statistics are becoming more and more popular in sports, but maybe Groce is over reliant on quantitative analysis and pre-planned rotations based on numbers rather than instinct and in-the-moment evaluation.
We’re entering tough territory now. Illini fans have been here before – more often than we’d like. With every loss and every unanswered question, Groce is heading closer to a pink slip come March or April. He’s a good man. So were Bruce Weber, Ron Turner, Bill Cubit, and the guys on their staffs. Groce cares about his team, and in his postgame comments asked that fan and media frustration be directed at him rather than toward his guys, who care a lot about their team and their program. He’s a good man who, for whatever reason, isn’t excelling in a high-profile, high-pressure, high-salary job. Mark Tupper addresses the discomfort of discussing a coaching search when there’s still a guy in the job, but also acknowledges that in light of the season’s trajectory, it’s fair for media and fans to start looking at who might be the head coach next year.
Barring a stunning turnaround, the story lines to tire out over the next few weeks will revolve around whether Illinois should hire a hot mid-major coach, an NBA guy looking for a change, a rising assistant from a blue blood program, yada, yada, yada…
Kipper Photo: Robin Scholz, AP, via Chicago Tribune. http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/college/ct-illinois-minnesota-college-basketball-spt-0205-20170204-story.html
Mav Photo: Robin Scholz, AP, via Argus-Press. http://www.argus-press.com/world_sports/image_f1467b75-1a62-52a5-b701-7037e14c1a23.html
Groce Photo: Robin Scholz, AP, via Daily Astorian. http://www.dailyastorian.com/cowan-scores-19-and-maryland-outlasts-illinois-62-56-da-ap-webfeeds-news-college-sports06738091ae914dc68640a80ec4d7f944