Tate: Offense is in quite the funk
When “Chicago’s Big Ten team” can’t do anything right, the Purpleclads from Evanston can always find solace against the state university.
Winless in seven conference football games, Northwestern finished the 2013 campaign with a 37-34 win in Champaign.
And beaten three times by 20-plus points in new coach Chris Collins’ league debut, the host Wildcats bounced back to register their fifth basketball triumph in the last eight games of the series, 49-43.
An Illini quintet that stunned Missouri and Indiana to reach No. 23 in the AP poll is suddenly reeling from two devastating losses ... a defensively inept 95-70 blowout at Wisconsin and an anemic offensive effort Sunday night. Yep, they gave up a 13-year high of 95 one day and came back to produce 43 the next.
John Groce’s club, now 13-4, missed baskets from every possible angle, from three-pointers to a bewildering number of close-in attempts. Through 24 minutes, Illinois missed 30 of 36 shots and trailed 25-15. In a six-minute stretch spanning halftime, the Illini went scoreless between Tracy Abrams’ drive-ins. It was mind-numbing.
Rallying belatedly, the Illini tied it 27-27 on a Kendrick Nunn breakaway and again 34-34 on a Nunn trey. That’s when Tre Demps, a third-year sophomore from San Antonio, emerged as the Purple hero with three chilling treys to stifle the UI comeback.
For those wondering where Illinois would be without Big Ten scoring leader Rayvonte Rice (18.8 ppg. going in) this season, Sunday provided the answer.
Rice missed a virtually uncontested layup in the first minute and didn’t record his first basket until the final 8:40. Rice, Jon Ekey and Joe Bertrand made two fielders apiece in 31 attempts.
Rice was working on a streak of 16 games in which he scored at least 12. With the Centennial product struggling, there was no one to pick up the slack.
A spurt in the final 16 minutes lifted the team’s field goal percentage from the depths of 16.7 percent to a season-low 28.1.
It is inexplicable. The Illini hadn’t been held under 25 points in the first half all season, and managed just 15 in the first 24 minutes Sunday. Even Tracy Abrams, who led the team with 13 points, had trouble finishing on drives.
Nor did the Illini get to the free throw line, shooting just six to the Wildcats’ 17.
“We’ve got to get Ray back to himself,” Groce said. “There are no excuses. We outrebounded them by four (actually six) and led the turnovers by five, but we’ve got to convert layups. This was a really disappointing performance ... maybe the worst since I’ve been at Illinois. We weren’t nearly aggressive enough.”
This upset broke a developing trend. If, as many believe, the Big Ten is divided into three distinct tiers with Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State at the top, and Northwestern, Nebraska, Penn State and Purdue at the bottom, this is the first time a team has beaten one from a higher bracket.
The Wildcats, who lost earlier to Illinois State and DePaul, had given no positive indications. According to Big Ten statistics, Northwestern was last in scoring (64.6), field goal percentage (40.7), three-point shooting (30.9), rebounds and steals, and the numbers were worse in Big Ten games.
They were playing without regular point guard Dave Sobolewski (concussion symptoms) and have only one standout, Drew Crawford (13 points, eight rebounds) who would start for Big Ten leaders.
But they never trailed Sunday after Crawford and JerShon Cobb nailed treys for a 10-6 getaway. This boiled down to the Wildcats playing a routine game (Northwestern shot 37 percent), and the Illini hitting new lows in their ability to put the ball in the basket.
There’ll be no opportunity for Illinois to even the score in Champaign. The Illini host Purdue on Wednesday before wading into a withering schedule of Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin. Nothing that happened Sunday raised expectations for what’s to come.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.