This season is starting to feel eerily familiar. Last year, the Illini started conference play 13-2, and this year they upped the ante slightly and started off 14-1. Last year, the Illini won just 4 conference games, and this year is shaping up to look almost exactly the same. After an ugly home loss to Northwestern on Thursday, the Illini are now 10th in the conference with just 1 win and 4 losses.
The loss on the road to Purdue shouldn’t have happened, but we’ll let it slide. Minnesota at home also isn’t great, but they’re shaping up to be a pretty good team. Wisconsin on the road is another OK one to let slip away, but we didn’t need to be made to look like fools. Add in there a home loss to Northwestern, and now we’ve got a huge problem.
Northwestern has a record of 11-7, and they let Iowa embarrass them at home with a 20-point loss. There is absolutely no reason for them to come into the Assembly Hall and beat the Illini 68-54. The Illini were down 15 points at halftime, scoring just 21 points in the first. They never could get back in there, and they went ahead and lost their third game in a row. I’m just confused as to how on Earth we managed to steal a win from Ohio State.
It’s not like Illinois hasn’t faced difficult opponents this year. We beat Butler to win the Maui Invitational a few months ago, and Butler is now the 13th team in the country. Illinois also beat current #7 Gonzaga in Spokane. Have they not gotten the memo that teams are supposed to get better as the season progresses, not worse? I’m sure the Big Ten is a tough conference, but we should not be losing to the likes of Purdue and Northwestern. We’re digging a hole that may be inescapable, and in March we may find ourselves sitting at home with a quart of ice cream while watching other teams play in the NCAA Tournament.
Tyler Griffey hasn’t made a 3-pointer since he had 2 at Purdue, even though he managed 4 against Missouri. Joseph Bertrand has also disappeared during conference play, and these are two guys that we really need to perform. Brandon Paul is still carrying the team, with the help of Tracy Abrams. Nnanna Egwu and D.J. Richardson are putting in minimal contributions, but it’s just not enough. When we were winning, all of those guys were pouring in 3′s and making things happen.
On Thursday, Paul had a team-high 21 points, and Abrams was the only other player in double digits with 10. Griffey lost his starting role for the first time this season to Sam McLaurin, who had 5 rebounds and 6 points. The Illini shot 38%, which is pretty much standard in the four conference losses. They were also 3-20 from downtown, a far cry from their streak in the early season. The 3′s aren’t falling, and the Illini aren’t winning. Also, 18 turnovers for the night certainly didn’t help matters.
Mike Shaw showed a small spark against Wisconsin with 19 minutes, 2 points and 3 rebounds, but that’s not enough to make up for the slump overshadowing the rest of the team. Also, if this is what we’re calling “impressive” in a game where the Illini lost by 23 points, then we are certainly lowering our standards.On Thursday, he played for 5 minutes and earned 4 fouls, 0 points and 0 rebounds.
I am still satisfied with the Coach John Groce decision, and I’m not going to give up on him by any means. But, if we continue this spiral then I’m going to wonder if we would’ve been just as well off keeping Bruce Weber, whose Kansas State Wildcats are 14-2 and ranked #16/18. Without Meyers Leonard the team is missing a big talent, and I don’t know that Weber could’ve this team to a win against Butler or Gonzaga earlier in the season, so I will give that praise to Coach Groce. However, he needs to turn this team around, and fast.
Illinois will have the weekend off, before heading to Nebraska on Tuesday. Last year’s trip to Lincoln ended in a horrific loss and Leonard in tears on the bench. It was also the moment that I realized the season was over. Nebraska currently has 0 Big Ten wins, and I will be damned if we give them that first conference W of the season. Yes, the Illini are struggling, but this is a game that they should win, and a game that they must win. If they can’t beat the bottom of the conference, then February and March are going to be tough months.
The Illini will play Nebraska on Tuesday at 7:30.