1:00 February 18, 2017
Radio: 97.5 FM WHMS 1400 AM WDWS
Questions Worth Asking
- Can the Illini repeat their defensive performance against Hawkeyes star Peter Jok? The combination of Malcolm Hill and Kipper Nichols held Jok to 10 points on 3-9 shooting in the Illini win in Champaign last month. At the time, Jok was nursing an ailing back, an injury that caused him to miss the next two games. He was also leading the conference in scoring. Jok’s return to the lineup has seen his shooting percentage dip, but he’s still topping the Big Ten leaders board, averaging 20.6 points per game. During Big Ten play, Jok’s scoring 2.6 more points per game at home than on the road. The Illini defense is giving up over ten points more on average on the road than at home.
- Can Leron Black play with more of that “savage” tenacity he showed during his freshman campaign and at the beginning of this year? Black has been inconsistent this season. He came close to double-doubles in 5 of his first six games, including matchups against West Virginia, Florida State, and VCU. Since then, he’s come close just three times. John Groce said this week that Black’s been dealing with some “knick-knacks,” but he’s determined to continue to play hard without complaint. Black could and should be an important component of the Illini engine. Let’s see if he can get back on track and carry some momentum into his junior year.
- Will the Illini come out motivated? At this point in the season, most projections forecast Illinois will make neither the NCAA Tournament (clear-cut unless they win the B10 Tourney) nor the NIT. That’s not a place you want to be as an experienced team with a 5th-year head coach. It’s also assumed that Groce is on his way out. So how will the team handle the disillusionment? The Illini themselves have cited a struggle to play consistently for 40 minutes all season as a reason for their record. Now that the dangling carrots are completely out of reach, it will be interesting to see if they can muster the energy and intensity required to finish strong. This is a good group of guys who care a lot about the university and their teammates. I think they’ll try, but it has to be hard knowing that 2016-17 is going down as a lost season.
There are five B10 games left in the season, and it’s time to look ahead to next year. The Cubs have prepared many of us for this very situation. Like Chicago in 2014, the Illini have a young executive who has had success in the past in hiring the right coaches. They’ve got a couple of good, young players already on the team and a stable of promising recruits ready to come up next season and contribute right away. Would the Cubs have succeeded so quickly and spectacularly under Rick Renteria (and it’s probably unfair to compare Rick to John here)? Maybe, but probably not. Josh Whitman needs to go out and find his Joe Maddon. In the meantime, Illini fans can watch the development of the young guys and look forward to next year, and we can appreciate the effort and talent of seniors Hill, Tracy Abrams, Maverick Morgan, and Jaylon Tate. Those guys wanted this season to turn out differently, too.