The Fighting Illini have undoubtedly battled through countless injuries, tough games, and chaos all around, but the reality is that they have to be prepared for conference play whether they like it or not. Illinois has two non-conference matchups remaining: a home game against South Dakota and a meeting with Missouri for the annual Busch Braggin' Rights Game in St. Louis. After that, a loaded Big Ten Conference awaits. The way the league is beginning to shape out, it is almost impossible to get two easy opponents in a row. There are plenty of tough games on everyone's schedules, and every team will have its opportunity to prove its worth to the NCAA Selection Committee.
Illinois isn't exactly in the best position despite winning its last three games. The Illini stand at 6-5 overall, and they have narrowly escaped some underwhelming opponents against home crowds. Though the Fighting Illini have struggled immensely in the non-conference slate of their schedule, it is still possible to get back to the NCAA Tournament with an exceptional showing in the Big Ten Conference. It is possible, but not exactly likely. With that, here are some keys for Illinois heading into the brutal stretch that awaits: Big Ten Conference play.
1. Illinois Has to Learn to Play Team Defense
According to TeamRankings, the Illinois Fighting Illini rank 231st in the nation out of 351 teams in defensive efficiency. Illinois has allowed its opponents to score 75 points per game on 46% shooting from the field and 39% shooting from three point range. That's not good for a team that's about to face juggernaut offenses like Michigan State and Purdue. The solution to the problem stems from individual and team efforts.
When asked about his team's defensive effort in post game press conferences, Fighting Illini head coach John Groce repeatedly states that his team is well versed on what they need to do, it's just a matter of them wanting to execute it. Freshmen like Jalen Coleman-Lands and Aaron Jordan have a lot of strides to be made on the defensive end of the ball, though coach Groce did say that Coleman-Lands had one of his best defensive games last time out in Illinois' close contest with the UIC Flames.
Injuries definitely hurt, but at some point or another, Illinois' defense needs to become more active and more suffocating. There's not much more to be said other than the fact that it needs to get done for Illinois to be successful. Instead of offense leading to defense, the Illini need to embrace the mentality that good defense leads to easier buckets on the other end of the floor.
2. The Illini Can't Let Inferior Opponents Hang Around
Illinois has not played a game this season in which they have essentially won from start to finish. With the exception of the UAB game, there has not been one where the Illini have been able to pull away for the entirety of the second half and put the opponent away before crunch time. Coming out of the halftime locker room, Illinois often allows a double digit lead to dwindle until the contest comes down to the last few possessions. Just when it looked like Illinois was going to win by 20 points, it escapes with a 3 point victory and a sigh of relief.
In its last four contests, Illinois has been outscored by 27 points in the second half. In comparison, Illinois has outscored its opponents by 29 in the first. Why the disparity? Sure teams tend to have bad halves of basketball, but it seems as if Illinois just runs out of gas 20 minutes into the game. It's like the first and second halves are completely different ball games.
This is a huge area of concern for John Groce's Illini as they head into conference play. If Illinois grabs a first half lead over a strong team like Michigan State, Purdue, or Maryland, it's going to have a tough time pulling off the upset given the recent trend. It almost seems as if Illinois is trying not to loose rather than trying to win.
Illinois will have to learn to play a complete basketball game where it puts its inferior opponents away before they can come crawling back. While Illinois may feel like the underdog in a majority of its conference games, there are still some teams that the Illini can easily beat. Those teams are the ones that they can't afford to lose to if they want a shot at making the NCAA Tournament. Until this gets resolved, it's going to be a very long season for the Fighting Illini.