John Groce’s injury plagued Illinois basketball team were competitive in its first two conference games of the season, but after two losses, the head coach’s team risks an 0-4 start to conference play.
The Illini proved that they can compete against strong conference opponents but season-long struggles hindered Illinois in its losses to Michigan and Ohio State. With Top-25 teams No. 5 Michigan State up next Thursday night and No. 20 Purdue following Sunday, Groce’s team must make quick adjustments to avoid digging itself into a hole.
Illinois’ first two games exhibited the struggles the team faces without three of its planned starters from the offseason and key bench players. The Illini were competitive against the Wolverines to start conference play and controlled the tempo for much of the first half, but like most of the season, the team struggled to finish the game in the second half. Michigan outscored Illinois 44-31 in the second half and were led by a star and a surprise.
Caris LeVert — a first-round NBA Draft prospect — scored 22 points, 10 assists and five rebounds in the game, but it was an unknown Wolverine who burned the Illini for a second-straight year. Mark Donnal came off the bench and led the team with 26 points, who’s previous career high was 13 points last season. Although the defense improved, it wasn’t enough.
The Illini traveled to Columbus for their second conference game of the season for the second-straight season and the team built upon their strong defensive showing. Players played their best defensive game of the season and limited most of the Buckeyes except Marc Loving, who scored 27 points.
Despite Loving’s high-scoring game, Illinois remained close on the road and managed to stage a late-game comeback that fells short. Illinois limited Ohio State shooters to 42 percent from the field and 33 percent from beyond the arc and the Illini shared the scoring among different players, but the Illini failed to put it all together for the win.
Ohio State was Illinois’ best chance to avoid a 0-4 start. Michigan State should prove to be a weaker opponent with the absence of Denzel Valentine, who isn’t expected to play Thursday. The Spartans stumbled from their top position in the nation after their loss to the Hawkeyes and also struggled against Oakland and Minnesota. If the Illini play well defensively and can find a hot shooter, they can find a way to pull away the upset at Michigan State,
That hot shooter will likely be either Malcolm Hill or Kendrick Nunn. Ideally, Groce wants both of his star junior guards to have high-scoring games, but Hill has taken a slide in recent games after being overused at the beginning of the season because of injuries to other players. Nunn now leads the team in scoring with an 18.5 scoring average while Hill is second on the team with a 17.9 average.
Groce will need a strong supporting cast to score if he wants his team to win either of the upcoming games or any of the remaining conference games. Redshirt freshman Michael Finke has grown into a fan favorite and has provided the second-tier scoring in recent games. Freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands as also evolved into the shooter Groce wants who needs to be more consistent and play better defensively.
Illinois will also still be without Leron Black and Mike Thorne Jr. — both are still indefinitely out and haven’t practiced at all. Khalid Lewis plans to return against Michigan State after missing the last couple games with mumps.
Although the Illini face a heavy task to avoid an 0-4 start, Groce will remain confident in the players that he has and the experience they bring from last season’s experiences.