Every Illinois basketball fan seems to know the drill come the month of January. Season after disappointing season, the Illini find themselves in good position coming into conference play, and absolutely blow it after the New Year comes around. Most seasons, the Illini will get a key non-conference win and enter Big Ten play with one or two losses on their slate.
This season, the Illini have accumulated three losses, but boast an impressive win over the Baylor Bears in the Las Vegas Invitational. But ask any Illini fan what January brings, and he or she will shake hisor her head in disgust as promising seasons tend to shift in the direction of the NIT consolation tournament rather than the Big Dance itself. Is it the difficulty of competition, a lack of vigor on the court, or the superstition itself that has the Illini falling head-over-heels in this dreadful month that's quickly approaching?
More importantly, what can be done to terminate the pattern that leaves Illinois basketball fans lost in feelings of hopelessness and dismay every season?
This pattern of January troubles that the Illini face has been present for the past two seasons under new head coach John Groce. John Groce has not lost a game in the month of November as Illinois' head coach, but January is a different story. In Groce's first season, the Illini got off to a hot start winning the Maui Invitational and going on the road to upset the tenth rankedGonzaga Bulldogs. The Illini would be ranked as high as tenth during that portion of the season. Illinois was hot from behind the arch hitting double digits in number of three pointers for their first six games of the season, but everything turned around as they entered 2013. January brought a 2-6 record for the Illini who lost embarrassing games to Purdue on the road and Northwestern at home. February however, was a little bit of a turnaround for this squad. They went 5-2 during this month and recorded pivotal wins over both Indiana and Minnesota to eventually make the tourney come March.
After the 2013-14 Season came and went in similar fashion, Illini fans tentatively began to see a pattern in their team. The Illini lost an incredible 9 players to graduation or transfers, and began rebuilding under second year head coach Groce. The Illini returned merely three players who had played together before. Though much wasn't expected of this team, newcomer Rayvonte Rice led his team to a ranking in the Top 25 and solely two losses in the non-conference slate of the season. Once again, January served as the ultimate demise. After winning its first game against Penn St. on the second day of the month, the Illini proceeded to lose eight straight and eliminate any hope for making the NCAA Tournament. The Illini were 1-6 in the month of January, but once again, February was a little bit of a turnaround for this squad. Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill were inserted into the starting lineup, and the Illini finished the regular season 5-3 with impressive wins on the road against Michigan St, Iowa, and Minnesota.
So what is it that causes the Illini to go stagnant this time of the year, and how can this year's team turn things around for good? For one, the Illini seem to lose focus in their defense-first mentality this time of the year. Groce preaches playing hard on both ends of the floor, especially the opponent's side, and when they do, it leads to easier buckets, and the offense seems to flow nicely and is less stagnant. Last season, the Illini went into the Kohl Center and let the Badgers put up a painful 95 points on Groce's defense. In Illinois' eight game losing streak, shots were forced and players became selfish, and there seemed to be absolutely no flow on either side of the ball.
It also seems as if the Illini get hit hard by tough competition and crack when the spotlight's on in big games. Shooters go cold, and every Illini fan feels as if there's a lid over the bucket. This is understandable for last year's inexperienced squad, but not quite comprehendible for the senior-heavy squad two seasons ago, so it begs the question as to whether it's the difficulty of competition that's locking down Illinois' shooters or if it's a mental thing that the players need to overcome.
Finally, the Illini tend to rely way too heavily in solely one player, and this becomes a major issue. Last year, Rayvonte Rice was called upon for most of the offense, and even though he was efficient during the non-conference slate of the season, he fell flat during big ten play. Though the 2012-13 team had an influx of three pointers at the beginning of the season, no one could find the bottom of the net in January, and the Illini kept forcing outside jump shots that wouldn't seem to fall.
So the question for this year's squad is how to avoid this mid-season slump that seems to be consistent in the Groce Era. If there are any doubts to Illinois' ability this year, there are certainly some reassuring aspects about this year's team. For one, John Groce probably has the deepest and most talented team that he's had at the University of Illinois. Groce plays a rotation that can go nine men deep, and he has a number of players who know how to put the ball in bottom of the net. The Illini no longer need to rely solely on Rayvonte Rice, as they now have a number of players who can lead this team to victory on any given day.
Groce also now has two years under his belt and knows what he needs to do to be successful in the Big Ten this season. He knows the expectations and believes that his team is in the right mindset heading into Big Ten play. "You've got to do it. You've got to make it happen," Groce said regarding games in the Big Ten. Night in and night out they will be challenged and will need to respond positively to adversity. The Illini will need to find open looks and spread the floor rather than taking contested jumpers if they want to be successful in January. Too many times we see the Illini hoisting up three pointers early in the shot clock, and when they don't fall, the Illini fall deeper and deeper into the grave they begin to dig themselves into. If the Illini learn to move the ball effectively, utilize their depth, and bring grit and mental toughness day in and day out, they will end the dreaded streak of "January Jeers" that tend to plague this program.
The Illini face off against the Michigan Wolverines on Tuesday to open Big Ten play. Jim Harbaugh's halftime speech has spurred interest in the game, and a full house is expected at the Crisler Center on Tuesday. It will be a big challenge for the Illini to keep their momentum going into conference play.