By MARCUS JACKSON
CHAMPAIGN — It’s understandable the mood around the Illinois men’s basketball program hints of panic. The 12-0 start seems like eons ago, the Illini losing six of nine games and plummeting from the national rankings. A 2-5 start in Big Ten play includes a loss to Northwestern. At home. Without Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb on the court.
But there’s still a chance to make something of the season. Getting to 20 wins might be enough to reach the NCAA tournament thanks in part to early-season efforts against Butler, Gonzaga and Ohio State. However, to be happy on Selection Sunday, John Groce’s team must clean up some things.
During its 12-0 start, Illinois led the country by averaging 10 three-pointers per game, shooting 40 percent from deep. In the nine games since, the Illini have hit 10 in a game once, shooting 25 percent from behind the line. In Illinois’ most recent game, a 74-60 loss to Michigan on Sunday, Illinois went 6 for 26.
“We were wide open. We ran plays and executed, got shots that we were getting earlier in the season and we weren’t making them,” Groce said. “We got guys good shots, guys in shooting areas and ways to get them in which have been their strength this season or maybe throughout their career. We didn’t make enough of them. If you make a bunch of shots, your margin for error is much larger.”
Illinois’ best pure shooter, Tyler Griffey, is marred in an 0-for-20 slump from behind the three-point line.
“I can’t hit the broad side of a barn,” he said. “In between Nebraska and Michigan, I made 2,000 threes. I was in here at night. I’m confident they’re going to fall eventually.”
Pull an upset
Those aforementioned wins are nice on the resume, but to offset bad losses to Purdue and Northwestern, Illinois needs to impress the selection committee by picking up another win against one of the Big Ten’s elite. Tonight’s game at Michigan State provides that opportunity. Oddsmakers peg the Illini as 10-point underdogs heading into the Breslin Center, where the Spartans are 11-0 this season.
When the Illini went to Gonzaga in December, they were underdogs and admitted they watched as CBS’ Doug Gottlieb said they had no chance of winning in Spokane.
“We’re back at that again,” center Nnanna Egwu said. “We feel like we have something to prove. Obviously, we like that feeling. We’re going to go into that place (Michigan State), play as hard as we can and try to come out with a victory.”
Illinois is one of two teams in the country (Butler) to have defeated two teams currently ranked in the AP Top 10. The Illini’s wins came against Butler (No. 9) and Gonzaga (No. 7).
“We talk about that; we can play better than we’re playing right now,” Groce said.
Win at home
The key to having successful conference seasons is taking care of business at home and stealing a win or two on the road. The Illini haven’t taken care of the home part as well as they should. After knocking off Ohio State on Jan. 5 to move to 8-0 at the Assembly Hall, Illinois has dropped three straight by an average of 15 points per game.
Before its current slide, Illinois hadn’t lost three straight at home since the end of the 2009-10 season. The last time the Illini lost four straight at home was the 2007-08 season, when they finished 5-13 in Big Ten play.
Illinois has played in front of four consecutive sellout crowds, and it’s hoping Sunday’s game against Wisconsin on Super Bowl Sunday can extend the streak to five. That would guarantee six straight because the following home game against Indiana (Feb. 7) is sold out.
“You want to win all your games at home. To do what we’ve done so far is kind of disappointing,” Egwu said. “The key is to just make sure we keep doing what we’ve been doing. We can’t panic too much and make sure when we come back home and play Wisconsin and know that we have to defend our house. It is disappointing to lose games at home because it’s where we should be comfortable.
“I told the guys, ‘Yeah, we’ve lost some games at home, but let’s go steal some on the road.’ We’ve got to balance that out and figure out a way to get back on a little bit of a run.”
Better point guard play
In Maui, Tracy Abrams looked like he was on his way to becoming one of the Big Ten’s top lead guards.
He’s played at a high level at times, most notably while scoring 27 points with five assists and one turnover against Auburn.
Abrams’ offensive numbers (11.3 points per game, 3.2 assists, 2.9 turnovers) are consistent in wins and losses.
Illinois’ defensive struggles coincide with Abrams not making as many plays on that end of the floor. Abrams averages one fewer steal per game in losses than wins.
But more than just the numbers, his intensity, Groce said, needs to pick up defensively.
“Defensively, he’s got to give us more,” Groce said. “He knows that. I love Tracy’s disposition and attitude; he wants to be really good, and I like coaching him. I just think he can give us more on that end of the floor than he’s giving us now ... We’ve got to get more consistent play out of him, for sure.”
Send seniors out in style
The UI senior class of Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Griffey and transfer Sam McLaurin often is blamed when things aren’t going well.
Paul, Richardson and Griffey have played in two NCAA tournament games at Illinois, and they’re running out of time in their careers to leave a mark on the program.
“They’re down to the last two, 21/2 months of their season, Lord willing,” Groce said. “You’ve got to embrace challenges; you’ve got to embrace the journey. You’ve got to enjoy the journey and try to get a little bit better every day, control the things you can control.”
Winning some games down the stretch and picking up a win on Senior Day — March 2 against Nebraska — would send them out on a high note and rekindle some warm feelings within the fan base, which has witnessed losses on three of the last four Senior Nights.
The group has been through a lot, including a coaching change, so winning in its last game on the Assembly Hall floor during the building’s 50th anniversary celebration would be a moment worth filing away for the grandkids.
“We want to leave a legacy,” Griffey said. “We’re in a rough stretch right now, and we’re going to work our way through that; it’s the only way we know how.”
“It’s winding down for us, we know that,” Richardson said. “We know what we’ve got to do, and we’ve got to step up and make some plays for us to get to the NCAA tournament. That’s our goal. We want to keep getting better and see what we can do.”