Well, folks, that should just about do it. Illinois had an opportunity to keep momentum rolling, to show that their upward defensive trajectory wasn’t an anomaly, to prove that they were coming together just in time to maybe squeeze into the tournament and save their coach’s job.
They blew it.
There’s no way to sugar coat what happened at the State Farm Center this afternoon. John Groce tried a ninth starting lineup today, opening with Te’Jon Lucas, Malcolm Hill, Kipper Nichols, Leron Black, and Maverick Morgan. It seemed like a good idea based on the Northwestern game, and it also got Illinois some more length and bounce to try to match up with Penn State’s rangy athletes. It’s hard to say whether the strategy was effective as neither team got off to a great start. Soon, however this game began to look a lot like the first loss to Penn State. The two teams traded buckets early in a slow, sloppy opening quarter. The game was tied 27-27 with 4:00 to go in the first half when, just like in Happy Valley, the Illini went cold. Penn State closed on a 14-2 run to take a 41-29 halftime lead.
Nearly halfway through the second half, Penn State was up 19 when Illinois started to close. A Tracy Abrams three-pointer with 5:00 to go cut the deficit to 5, but that’s as close as Illinois would get. The Nittany Lions converted and-1s on two consecutive plays and the Illini were suddenly down 11. Penn State made their free throws down the stretch and won comfortably, 83-70.
Groce did go with a short bench again. Shorter, even. Eight guys played, and everyone but Black played more than 20 minutes. Hill and Lucas led with 33 each, which makes sense as they’re the two primary offensive facilitators and have also proven to be two of the toughest defenders. Lucas played a complete game, with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 7 assists, and 2 steals. He got to the line an impressive 13 times, but he’s got to make more than 7 of those freebies. Hill led the team with 14 points, but he had just one rebound, one assist, one steal, and shot two free throws. He also had 5 of Illinois’ 14 turnovers. They were joined in double-figures by Jalen Coleman-Lands, who made 2 threes and all 4 free throws en route to 12 points.
The offense didn’t flow in this one, but it was the defense that killed the Illini. That Renaissance I mentioned in the pregame? Forget about it. This was a return to the Dark Ages. Penn State shot 56.9% overall and 43.8% from three. This is a team that is 13th in the Big Ten in field goal percentage at 42% and ninth in three-point shooting at 35.4%. In another turnaround, Penn State, last in the Big Ten in rebounding margin, out-rebounded the Illini 27-20.
Illinois just couldn’t keep up with Penn State’s athleticism. Tracy Abrams had a pretty good game off the bench, with 7 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists, but he was a step slow. He’s an older guy who’s had two significant lower body injuries the past two seasons, and at times it appears he struggles to keep up. Michael Finke played 27 minutes, third most behind Hill and Lucas, and he scored 8 and had 5 rebounds, but he’s not an ace defender as he lacks speed and quick reflexes. Jalen Coleman-Lands seems to struggle with court awareness at times, turning his back to the play completely on defense while focusing on his own man. This makes him less effective helping or interrupting passing lanes. On the blocks, the Illini big men were not aggressive, bringing the ball down and allowing Penn State to get in defensive position and swat it away. Two of Illinois’ best post athletes, Kipper Nichols and Leron Black, were fairly ineffective in a game in which their energy and ability were sorely needed.
Illinois had to have this game at home, and they came out without urgency or confidence. There’s a significant lack of leadership on this team, and that’s on coach. If he didn’t recruit leaders, then he needed to develop leadership qualities in the guys he has. That hasn’t happened. Coach also needs to have the answers to opponents’ runs and in-game adjustments. That hasn’t happened consistently, either. Illinois is over-matched on the court and on the bench. Most people wanted it to work for John Groce. He’s had five years, and he’s compiled a 33-52 Big Ten record (21-22 at home). That’s the worst conference record at Illinois for a guy who was here for more than one year. Ever.
A look at the past 50 years of Illini coaches:
|Coach||Years||Record||Conference Record||Conference Winning %|
Even if he wins the five remaining Big Ten games, Groce will still be at the bottom. And it’ll take winning the Big Ten Tournament to prevent his squad from missing the Madness for the fourth straight March. For the first time, the NCAA released a bracket prediction today for the top 16 seeds. There was nary a Big Ten team to be found. That tells you how the selection committee feels about the quality of the conference this year. Sitting near the bottom of a weak conference is no way to earn at at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Combine Groce’s historically bad conference and NCAA tournament records with a program that has failed to develop an identity over nearly 5 seasons, and it looks like Coach Watch 2017 has officially begun.