Smile Politely

Don’t panic… yet

Last week Illinois expectedly lost to Villanova, one of the best team’s in the country, and unexpectedly lost to Oregon, likely an NIT team, which led to a lot of hand wringing among the absurdly self-titled Illini Nation. The Champaign Room has a small selection of the gloom-and-doom tweets that pretty much sums up the knee-jerk reaction of the fanbase.

But anyone who says Illinois’s season was lost with the loss to Oregon is an idiot. Even calling for panic is reaching and being sensational. I get it, sensational sells, but college basketball has a long season and Illinois is only one-third through the schedule. And at 7-3 with its only bad loss its most recent, Illinois still has a good resume (losses to nos. 7 and 18 in the current AP poll are good losses, remember).

If anyone needs a reminder of how much bad losses count, just look at teams that got at-large bids in the NCAA Tournament. Nebraska (19-12), for instance, lost to UAB (18-13, no postseason play); Stanford (21-12) lost to Washington (17-15, no postseason play); hell, our old pal Bruce Weber’s Kansas State (20-13) team lost to Northern Colorado (18-14, played in CIT). So, as you can see, a bad loss or two can be made up for by a good win, and there are plenty of chances for good wins left on Illinois’s schedule (the Big Ten’s ranked teams come to mind: Wisconsin, Ohio State, Maryland, Michigan State).

All of this is not to say that Illinois’s recent failures are not concerning, however. A few things about Illinois have been elucidated in the last four games, including a drop-off at point guard, a struggle with switching defenses, and much worse defense than last year.

The first point is the most surprising, given the narrative of the off-season and the performance of the guards in the first few games. The overwhelming feeling for Illinois was that Ahmad Starks, with some help from Aaron Cosby, could replace Tracy Abrams as he rehabs his ACL. Turns out everyone was undervaluing the ever-loving shit out of Abrams. Per TCR (article linked previously):

2013-14 PG stats: 11.2 points/game, 4.1 rebounds/game, 3.2 assists/game, 1.3 steals/game

2014-15 PG stats: 7.7, 2.1, 3.2, 0.6

Assists are still there, but you notice a drop-off in every other area from one of the (or perhaps the singular) most important positions on the court. More specifically, though, we have to look at what Starks and Cosby have been providing (or not providing) over the last four games:

Starks: 20 points (8/26; 30%), 7 rebounds, 12 assists, 1 steal

Cosby: 16 (5/33; 15%), 10, 4, 0

Add in Tate’s numbers [13 (4/7; 57%), 3, 10, 0] in significantly fewer minutes and the pictures doesn’t really get rosier. But its hard to say if this is what can be expected from the guards in every game, or if they can get back to scoring in double figures, as they did in the first few games of the year. Both Starks and Cosby came in with good numbers at their previous schools, so maybe this is a funk and there is a way out of it for them.

Where the guards are not to blame is on interior play. In the last 4 games Illinois has been dominated inside, getting outscored 126-98 in the paint over that span. This has been a result of Leron Black looking like a true freshman, neither Austin Colbert or Maverick Morgan really doing much, and Nnanna Egwu being the same Nnanna Egwu on offense that he’s always been (7.75 points/game in the last 4 games, 7.8 points/game in 2013-14).

Last year John Ekey and Joseph Bertrand were able to give Nnanna the help he needed, especially on defense. The year before that it was Sam McLaurin and Tyler Griffey. This year…well Malcolm Hill is doing his best and Black has promise, but that only goes so far. And we’ve seen what happens when Nnanna gets sold out on defense:

Photo credit: Taylor Wilder/The Daily Emerald

But everything is a symptom of the greater defensive struggles Illinois is going through right now. To my eye the Illini aren’t closing down the perimeter like they were last year, which can directly be linked to not having Tracy Abrams at the top of the key. When they aren’t closing down the perimeter, lanes to the basket open up, which causes Egwu to shift to close that lane. When Egwu moves, he leaves a man open in the paint, which leads to Illinois being outscored in the paint miserably.

Defense is the biggest problem of all, if you believe John Groce. And unlike so many Twitter users that claim citizenship in Illini Nation, I still believe in John Groce. After the Oregon loss he said, “I’m not going to say we played poorly offensively. Because we didn’t. This game has nothing to do with the offense.”

So I expect changes on the defensive end to happen quickly. Illinois’s next  game is against Hampton, whose top 4 scorers are all guards. Though Hampton is not Villanova, shutting down their perimeter play will be an important first step for Illinois.

If head-to-head match-ups are the best way to preview opponents, Hampton beat Coppin State but lost to American, so they’re right in the middle of Illinois’s weaker competition. But Hampton is different than any of the other non-high-major teams Illinois has played because they have a squad that goes 9 or 10 men deep. Groce has cast a spell on Illini fans so far in his tenure, but now there are grumblings about whether he’s as special as initially thought. I’m not one of those discounting his career, but I think he has a great chance to do something good starting Wednesday night.

Illinois and Hampton tip-off at 6 pm on Wednesday with coverage on ESPNU/ESPN3.

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