EVANSTON — During his first go-around as an analyst with the Big Ten Network, former Illini Stephen Bardo has been able to pay closer attention to his alma mater. What he has seen from the Illini the past couple of games has been trouble creating offense on a consistent basis. Bardo watched from the stands Sunday at Welsh-Ryan Arena as Illinois scored its fewest points under John Groce in a 49-43 loss to Northwestern.
“I think they got a little bit exposed at Wisconsin. They got embarrassed,” Bardo said. “People are scouting their offense well, so they’re struggling to find some rhythm offensively.”
Defensively, aside from the loss at No. 4 Wisconsin in which the Badgers scored 95 points, Illinois has been stout, including Sunday’s loss. It’s finding a consistent identity on the offensive end that has troubled the Illini during this two-game skid.
“They’re going to have to figure out their offense, whether that’s getting fastbreak points or open it up and drive to the hole a little bit more or getting Nnanna (Egwu) some more shots on the block. They’ve got to improve that area of their game.”
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Bardo has made a handful of stops through the Big Ten this season calling games for the Big Ten Network. What he sees four games into the schedule is a league that offers no easy outs, as evidenced by Northwestern’s win Sunday.
“I think it’s going to be balanced again. We just saw Iowa beat Ohio State on the road. They were 0-9 against ranked teams the last two years, so that’s a huge step for them,” Bardo said. “Michigan’s playing a lot better than people realize. Penn State and Nebraska, even though they haven’t gotten in the win column, they’ve been competitive. The league, top to bottom, is going to be one of the best in the country.”
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In Sunday’s loss, Rayvonte Rice, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, managed eight points on 2 of 11 shooting. It was the first game in his Illinois career in which he failed to score in double figures.
Rice appeared to be limited with some sort of injury in Sunday’s game, though Groce didn’t have any details about what was ailing the 6-foot-4 guard afterward.
“We’ve got to figure out what’s going on with him,” Groce said. “My first priority is to take care of our guys from a health perspective. We’ll see what we kind of size up here in the next day or two to figure out how he’s doing.”
In addition to Rice, Tracy Abrams appeared to be somewhat banged up, too.
“I’ll figure that out after the game. It is what it is; everybody goes through that,” Groce said. “You’ve got to figure it out. We can play five, they can play five.”
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Entering Sunday’s game at Northwestern, Joseph Bertrand had put together the most productive four-game stretch of his collegiate career. The fifth-year senior guard reached double figures in all four games, the first time in his career doing so, while averaging 14 points to go along with seven rebounds per game.
“Joe has been very consistent. It’s been great to see. Throughout the (first) 16 games, really with his practice habits, how he approaches every day, you know what you’re getting with Joe, which is very comforting as a coach,” Groce said. “He’s shot a high percentage from two, a high percentage from three, he defends much better at this juncture than he did last year. Part of it’s just knowing the system defensively better.”
Bertrand’s run came to an end Sunday, scoring four points to go along with seven rebounds, but he was one of a few players Groce singled out for how hard and aggressive he played against the Wildcats. In addition to his production, Bertrand has taken on a larger role as a leader and one of Illinois’ four captains.
“I think he’s been very, very consistent with what he’s given us not only statistically, but also in terms of leadership and his effort. Just his whole disposition. He’s really a kid that’s reaped what he sowed,” Groce said. “I’m excited for him. He’s a pleasure to coach. I enjoy coaching Joe just because he’s the same every day. You always know what you’re getting with Joe. That’s a great compliment if you’re a player coming from your coach.”
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Northwestern played Sunday’s game without starting point guard Dave Sobolewski, who is sidelined indefinitely after suffering a concussion in the Wildcats’ previous game against Iowa.
Sobolewski, a junior from Naperville, is averaging 7.1 points and 3.3 assists for the Wildcats.
Off guard JerShon Cobb ran the point for the Wildcats against the Illini, and Kale Abrahamson moved into the starting lineup.
“I’m assuming that (Northwestern coach Chris Collins) would rather have Sobo than not have him. He’s a tough kid, and I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated the way he’s played the game,” Groce said.
Illinois was also missing a player because of a concussion. Backup guard Mike LaTulip did not make the trip with the Illini to Northwestern after he suffered a concussion late in Wednesday’s loss at Wisconsin. LaTulip remained in Champaign to rest and recover, and there is no timetable set for his return.