Anyone that has kept up with Big Ten Basketball thus far knows that Illinois has gotten off to a rough start this year.The Fighting Illini are 2-3 on the season. Illinois has been playing a majority of its games at its temporary home, the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield, while the State Farm Center in Champaign finishes its renovations.
Illinois lost its home opener to North Florida, allowing the Ospreys to knock down 17 three pointers. Then, the team came back from a double digit deficit to defeat North Dakota State in Springfield. The toughest test of the season thus far for the Illini came at the road against a talented Providence team, and even though Illinois played the Friars down to the last possession, it was unable to come away with a victory, losing 59-60.
The Illini then returned to Springfield for a two game stand against Chattanooga and Chicago State. Illinois trailed Chattanooga for a majority of the contest before surging to a 7 point lead late in the second half. Just when it looked like they would hold on, the Mocs came fighting back, hitting 4 three pointers in a row to win 81-77. Finally, Illinois beat Chicago State, one of the worst teams in Division 1 basketball, by a narrow three point margin. Those three points came at the buzzer by freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands; Illinois trailed by as many as 16 that game.
No Illinois fan is happy thus far. Considering that Illinois is having a tough time beating easier opponents, there won't be a lot of optimism going into Big Ten play. That is, unless, the Fighting Illini turn things around quickly. Here are some early issues that Illinois has had.
1. Defense, Defense, Defense
Have you ever heard the phrase "defense wins championships"? In this case, Illinois needs to learn that "defense wins games over mid-major opponents." The Fighting Illini have allowed opponents to score 77.4 points per game, ranking dead last in the Big Ten by a mile. Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten in defensive field goal percentage (46.2%) and 12th in defensive three point field goal percentage (41.3%). Illinois has proven to be one of the easiest teams to shoot against because its players don't close out very well on jumpshots. The Illini like to implement a 1-3-1 zone, but when defenders don't close out, the opponents are making the Illini pay from downtown.
Illinois gets beat off the dribble too frequently against mid-major opponents. Too many times are guys missing assignments and allowing the opponent to walk right to the basket for an easy lay-up. One of the problems for the Illini is that their defensive intensity is fueled by their success on offense. If shots aren't falling, Illinois isn't typically hustling on the other end of the floor. John Groce has to reinstate his mentality that defense creates offense. If Illinois can look to force turnovers and stop dribble penetration, it will find a lot more success on both ends of the floor.
2. Illinois isn't Getting Enough Offensive Production
Most Illinois fans know the frustration when the shot clock is winding down and the Fighting Illini have to settle for a forced jump shot 5 feet behind the three point line. Illinois is not finding easy buckets on offense. Part of the problem is that they have a young group of guys that are still getting used to playing with one another. Without much of a true point guard in the lineup, the Illini have a tough time bringing the ball past half court and subsequently have only 20 or so seconds to work with. Illinois has gotten off to numerous slow starts as it has yet to lead a single game at the half this season. The Illini need to be firing on all cylinders for a full 40 minutes.
The Illini aren't necessarily struggling shooting the basketball from 2 point range. When the Illini do work the ball into the post and let Mike Thorne Jr. or Maverick Morgan go to work, they tend to score and get some momentum. The Illini are shooting the ball at 44.9% from the field. When Illinois shoots the ball from behind the arc, its not great but not awful. Illinois shoots 35.1% from three compared to its opponents at a combined 41.3%. It's not that the Illini are a horrible three point shooting team, it's just that at the rate at which they are giving up three point baskets, they need a lot more themselves just to catch up.
3. You Can't Win if You Don't Make the Free Ones
Illinois is 11th in the Big Ten in free throw percentage this season after making just 65.2% of its attempts. The Illini are managing to make it to the foul line far more frequently than their opponents, and yet they aren't able to capitalize. Illinois has attempted 115 free throws compared to a total of 71 from its opponents. That being said, their opponents are shooting the ball at 70.4% from the line and limiting Illinois' advantage of seeing more trips to the charity stripe.
The Illini led the nation in free throw shooting last year at 79.4% from the stripe. They were able to pull out some tough victories because of their ability to make foul shots. This year, that isn't the case. The Illini have struggled immensely from the line and can't seem to capitalize when they need to. If Illinois wants to stand a chance moving forward, it needs to spend more time shooting free throws in practice. That's all it comes down to.
Illinois plays in the Emerald Coast Classic this weekend where it faces UAB and either Iowa State or Virginia Tech. Despite a horrific start to the season, Illinois has a chance to snag a huge win over a top 5 opponent in the Iowa State Cyclones. It's definitely a long shot, but if the Illini can play the way they played against Providence, then they definitely have a chance.