This season in Champaign, Ill. ran the gamut of emotions for Illini coaches, fans and players alike.
Illinois 2013-2014 Game-by-Game Scoring Margin
Early season success inspired trepid hope amongst the faithful. Picked by pundits to finish amongst the lower half of Big Ten teams, coach John Groce had his squad unexpectedly roll into 2014 with just two losses -- a three point loss at Georgia Tech and a seven point road loss to #15 Oregon.
A 75-55 win over Penn State on January 4 and the twelfth-best RPI in the nation bred hope of an NCAA Tournament run. That's when the mirage began to fade.
Sitting at 15-2, and 2-0 in Big Ten play, the Illini ship began taking on water. The new calendar year struck like an iceberg, leaving Illinois to endure a precipitous fall to the bottom of the conference ranks. The conversation had changed in Champaign. Instead of discussing NCAA Tournament seeding, fans were left discussing when, or if, the next win would come.
The 15-2 record may have been fool's gold, but no one expected an eight-game conference losing streak to strike down a promising season so quickly. From January 8 to February 18 Illinois won just a single game, a five point victory over perennial bottom-feeder Penn State. Illinois' season had indeed sunk to unexpected depths and it didn't look as if there were any life rafts to clutch onto.
On February 15, Illinois scored just 39 points in a home loss to Ohio State. The raucous Illini crowd was near revolt. With Illinois' season barely afloat, John Groce knew he needed to turn this season around before fans and players mutinied.
Groce challenged his team of boys. They responded as men. It appeared the insertion of freshman Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill into the starting lineup against Penn State was an energizing force in the Illinois locker room.
The Illini closed the regular season by winning four of their final five games, including victories over NCAA Tournament-bound Nebraska, Michigan State and Iowa. Groce's team discovered a renewed defensive intensity, an Illinois trait that had been left back in 2013 up until this point. The Illini allowed only 51.8 points per game in those four wins, over ten points below their season mark.
The small turnaround was enough to quell any rising dissension, for the moment. Illinois finished the season 18-13 (7-11 B1G) and saddled with an eight seed in the Big Ten tournament. After a surprising a early season start and a mid-season derailment, the Illini ended up right where most believed they would at the start of year. With a strong finish to the regular season whispers began once again regarding NCAA Tournament hopes and a Big Ten Tournament run in Indianapolis -- for fans, it never hurts to dream, right?
The postseason got off to an encouraging start. Facing an Indiana team on a similar hot streak, Illinois vanquished the Hoosiers 64-54 in the first found of the B1G Tournament. Illinois continued its torrid defensive play, stymieing Indiana's offense and cutting off the Hoosiers scoring lanes. Indiana committed 16 turnovers and made only 18 of their 51 field goal attempts. The 35.3 opponent field goal percentage was the Illini's best conference performance of the season. Groce had his team playing hungry.
Round two set the Illini up against #8 Michigan, a team that would find itself just four points short of a Final Four appearance 16 days hence. Ten days prior to this meeting the Wolverines marched into Champaign and methodically took apart Illinois, winning 84-53 in a laughable contest. Groce and his team left the court looking more like they were marching in line at a funeral procession, rather than walking back to their locker room.
For that very reason, this Big Ten Tournament game ranks as Illinois' best of the season. The two teams exchanged blow after blow. When it looked like Michigan had landed the final uppercut to put down the Illini early in the second half, Groce rallied his team just like he had when all hope seemed lost during that mid-season eight-game losing skid. Illinois stood back up.
A desperate Illini team clawed their way out of a 13 point hole, poised to win with 10 seconds left in the game. Unfortunately, the Wolverines still had one punch to the gut left up their sleeve. Wolverine forward Jordan Morgan scored on a layup with 7.9 seconds left to give Michigan a 64-63 victory. Illinois lost the game, but regained the pride the Wolverines had stripped them of just a week and a half earlier. It was a telling performance by a team that had been left for dead just one month prior.
This game was a perfect capsule of Illinois' season
A strong close to the season earned Illinois a trip to the NIT as a No. 2 seed. It wasn't the Big Dance, but an invite to junior prom is still valuable in its own right.
Illinois came out sluggish in round one against Patriot League regular season champions Boston University, trailing 33-22 at the half and looking like a group of college kids ready to start spring break. Rayvonte Rice stepped up in the second half, rallying Illinois to a 66-62 come from behind victory.
"I'm proud of our kids for not getting discouraged when you're on the road and you're down 30-13," Illinois coach John Groce said. The performance was a testament to how much this team of young men had matured in just a few short months.
The next game against Clemson would follow the same plot, except this ending was not a happy one for Groce and Illinois.Clemson guard Rod Hall cut his way to the rim, putting Clemson up 50-49 with 9.3 seconds left. Abrams would air ball a three with 2 seconds left, ending the game and the Illini's season.
An Illinois second half surge proved too late this time around, as the crux of this team reared it's ugly head one final time. Illinois shot 37 percent from the field and an unconscionably bad 3-for-21 from behind the three-point arc. The offense, as it had all season, betrayed a good defensive effort.
Illinois finished the season with a 20-15 record, going 7-11 in Big Ten play. Despite a mediocre record and an uneven showing in conference play, Groce and the Illini are expected to deliver next year.
Illinois stands to benefit from very little turnover and an influx of fresh talent within the program. This fact becomes something of a double-edged sword.
Defensively, Illinois just needs to maintain the same intensity they displayed throughout this year. Their 0.99 points allowed per possession was ranked 54th in the nation, while their average of 62.2 points against per game was a top-25 mark. It was the other side of the ball that plagued Illinois all season long.
Offensively, this team was barely better than inept on most nights. Rayvonte Rice often shouldered too heavy of a burden, and it looked like he had worn himself down by the time Illinois got to the heart of conference play. That should not be the case in the coming season.
The Illini will have more cohesion and a deeper arsenal of weaponry on offense, something a team ranked 238th in the nation in points per possession desperately needs. Returning juniors Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu will likely join Big Ten All-Freshman team selection Kendrick Nunn and freshman Malcolm Hill in the starting lineup next season. Inserting Nunn and Hill as starters against Penn State on February 9 was a catalyst for the Illini's late season turnaround.
A full off-season working together as a starting unit should help this collection of seniors and sophomores strengthen their chemistry and enhance their trust in one another. If Rice and Abrams can find other teammates to rely on within the offense this team has the ability to finish in the top half of the Big Ten next season, at the least.
Maverick Morgan and Jaylon Tate will be back off the bench, alongside three offensively capable transfers -- Ahmad Starks (Oregon State), Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall) and Darius Paul (Western Michigan) -- and incoming freshman forward Leron Black. Black is ranked 41st overall in the Class of 2014 and was recently honored as Tennessee Class AAA Mr. Basketball. The only depth problem John Groce is going to encounter next season is deciding how to divvy up minutes among a bevvy of talent.
Stakes are going to be high in Champaign next year. John Groce has felt the seat warm beneath him before, but if the Illini endure another long stretch of horrid play this year the calls for his head may not be put to rest so easily. This coming year has all the makings of do-or-die season for coach Groce and his team.
Transfers: Ahmad Starks (Oregon State), Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall) and Darius Paul (Western Michigan)
Incoming Freshman: Leron Black
Graduating: Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey.