Way Off Base

There was no way Illinois was going to lose to Northwestern. Fletcher Page was sure of it. He was wrong.

EVANSTON, Ill. – I'll go ahead and say it. I'm not running, and I've got nowhere to hide. The Nostradamus of sports, I am not. At least not when it comes to predicting Illinois basketball games.

There's no way Northwestern should ever beat Illinois, at least not on the basketball court. The disparity in tradition and talent and everything else we can talk about makes it to where I can see no other way. I understand sports don't work like that and there are elements in play on any given night that can set up even the most surefire bet to fail.

But Illinois shouldn't lose to Northwestern, especially not this Northwestern team.

Not after losing to Wisconsin by 25 the game before, a supposed wake-up call. Not after Coach John Groce surely conveyed to his players how ridiculously difficult upward mobility within the conference hierarchy will be this season and how the way it all shakes out controls who plays in the NCAA Tournament in March. Not after everybody said the right things the last few days about practice and preparation and focus and yeah, you get it.

So I pegged the Illini to win going away on Sunday night. I just knew the team would be extra sharp and crisp on offense, extra tough and stingy on defense.

They'll blow those guys out of the gym, I said. At least I had the defense part correct. The rest, forget it.

The Wildcats won 49-43 in a game I wish I could delete from my memory. Put simply, it wasn't fun to watch. Expanding on that thought, it was the worst kind of bad basketball. It was a not-very-good team that I didn't want to watch to begin with (Northwestern entered 7-9 and winless in three Big Ten tries) versus a team that, having recently been punked, inexplicably failed to answer the bell again.

The Wildcats held on to upset the in-state rival in a game that was made exciting only by the fact that Northwestern tried to give it away up until the last possible second.

Illinois scored 15 points in the first half and shot 28 percent for the game. Only junior Tracy Abrams reached double figures. The rest of the starting lineup shot 9-for-39 and posted 23 points. Still, the Illini had more than a few chances to steal the game down the stretch, thanks to boneheaded Northwestern turnovers and missed free throws.

Didn't happen.

Instead of getting back on the right track, the Illini lost to one of the worst teams in the conference and fell to 2-2 in Big Ten play. This game was supposed to halt the wheel of doubt, quell any worry, at least for a couple days, from the fandom about the long-term forecast.

Instead, one terrible-looking loss to Wisconsin has snowballed into two losses in the week following Illinois entering the Top 25. This is not how ranked teams should behave.

And what concerns me the most is the effort is there. The want-to isn't a problem.

The Illini held Northwestern to 37 percent shooting, won the rebound margin and committed only six turnovers.

Against Wisconsin, Illinois had 25 offensive rebounds and a noteworthy eight turnovers.

And yet, the Illini were maliciously kicked around in one and embarrassingly fell flat in the other.

Why? Well, Wisconsin was the better team and the Illini didn't bring their A-game on defense.

But what took place on Sunday? That should never happen. A complete failure on the offensive end, marked by uncharacteristic passiveness, was the culprit. And after struggles due to poor shot selection and erratic possessions on offense for long stretches against the Badgers, we're seeing a troubling trend here.

"We've got to finish plays. It's that simple," Abrams said.

Illinois can't score. In the least, the Illini can't score consistently. Why? Because they can't shoot. In the least, they can't shoot consistently.

Illinois now ranks last in the conference (numbers reflect games against fellow Big Ten foes only) in effective field goal percentage (38.4 percent), last in three point shooting (23.1 percent) and next to last in two-point shooting (40.0 percent).

"I think it is mental," junior forward Nnanna Egwu said. "We've just got to stay aggressive. We can't get passive and not want to take this shots because they're not falling in."

The good news is: The Illini are second in turnover percentage and third in offensive rebound percentage.

The bad news is: so far those extra or protected possessions have only led to more missed shots.

"We understand the ups and downs of Big Ten basketball," Egwu said. "It's our job to fix that."

We all know it's not going to get any easier from here. Michigan State, Ohio State and the rest of the heavy hitters loom.

"Offensively we've got to be better," Groce said. "We've got to step up and make some plays. We've got to figure out as a staff how to put them in position better, and then they've got to step up and make some plays and be a lot more aggressive than they are right now."

All of that is true. Like I said, I'm clearly no authority on matters pertaining to the future, but something has to change on offense or hopes of meaningful games deep into March will go the way of my recent predictions.


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