A buzzer-beating win never felt so empty. Illini fans erupted at the Prairie Capital Convention Center when Jalen Coleman-Lands' three-pointer sunk through the net for the game-winner. It was a great call by head coach John Groce with just five seconds on the clock, as it forced the opposition to stop Malcolm Hill's drive and forget about Coleman-Lands in the corner. Normally, that would be considered a highlight of the season and a shining moment for Illinois' brightest freshman. But the opponent and the 39-plus minutes prior to that moment won't allow that to be the lasting memory. The Illini trailed for more than 87 percent of the game to Chicago State, who won just eight games last year and came into this game as one of the 15 worst teams in all of D-I college basketball - per the Ken Pom rankings. Illinois could not avoid yet another sluggish start. They proved once again that they are a terrible defensive team. And when they were given an opportunity to handle arguably the worst opponent on their schedule, the Illini looked even more vulnerable. It is true that a win is a win, and Groce's team desperately needed one. But by the same token, a bad basketball team is a bad basketball team, and that's what the Illini have looked like for the majority of the first five games of this season.
Thanks, but we'd better get going. That is along the lines of what the Illini had to be thinking when they packed up and headed out of Springfield on Monday night. The fine Springfieldians were good hosts, but the Prairie Capital Convention Center was more of a house of horrors than a home away from home for Illinois - as Jeremy Werner wrote. The Illini managed to trail by double digits in the first half of all four regular season games at the PC3, and they led for just 15:51 of the possible 160 minutes during those contests. Ultimately, it was never going to feel like home with the Illini having to take a bus ride across I-72 and live the hotel life. For whatever reason, the Orange and Blue did not look ready to play from the very beginning of each game. It often resulted in an ugly brand of basketball. Luckily, the Illini fans in attendance had access to one thing that can make ugly look better: Alcohol. They certainly needed it, and Illinois certainly needed to get out of there after nearly notching one of the worst losses in program history and the first 1-4 start to a season since 1906. The Illini hope that the opening of the State Farm Center next week can reverse the mojo.
"We got every shot we wanted." Chicago State head coach Tracy Dildy said those words at the postgame press conference, and it didn't seem like he was far off. The Cougars came into the game shooting 31.4 percent from deep, and that included three of their four games against non-Division I opponents. On Monday night, Didley saw his team shoot 44 percent from long range (11-25). A good number of those makes came with space that was more suitable for a restraining order than a Big Ten defense. On the first possession of the game, the Cougars made one pass to the corner and three points were on the board. It is that lack of resistance that is so alarming for the Illini. They have given up 51 made threes in four homes games, as their three-point defense is one of the worst in the country. Illinois has been awful at stopping the dribble drive as well. They did a very nice job of containing preseason All-American Kris Dunn last week, but Friars are very one-dimensional. When the Illini have been forced to rely on team defense against multiple scoring options, they have crumbled. Outside of the Providence game, Illinois is giving up more than 81 points per contest.
Illini lacking leadership this year more than last. Last season, Illini seniors Rayvonte Rice and Nnanna Egwu took quite a bit of heat for failing to lead. It was said that Rice didn't fit the mold and that Egwu simply wasn't good enough. If only fans had the foresight to see what was coming after they left Champaign. The Illini are missing key pieces, and the absence of Jaylon Tate hurts in the leadership department. Groce's squad lacked competitive fire in the early stages once again on Monday, after it was obvious that a change needed to be made in that department. After the loss to Chattanooga, Mike Thorne said the team was too low key during shootaround and they didn't have the energy needed to compete when the game started. Thorne added that would never happen again the rest of the season. Well, he was right that he would not come out that way. Thorne had that fire and flow of competitive juices. The rest of his team did not. Hill said in the postgame that the team is guilty of being too relaxed and feeling things out in the early stages. They haven't turned it on until they've been forced to play with desperation. Rice may not have been the vocal type, but he had an attitude and will to compete that this team is lacking.
Michael Finke looked like Illinois' best offensive player for most of the game. From playing just five minutes in the season opener to leading the Illini with 17 points on Monday night, Finke has taken great strides already in the first 10 days of the season. The redshirt freshman is beginning to play with quite a bit of confidence, and others are showing confidence in him. Finke scored five straight points, which included a bucket and the foul to cut Chicago State's lead to six with nine minutes left. Moments later, Finke picked up a foul at the other end and Groce subbed him out - only to hear boos from the crowd. He hasn't been the late-game hero, but Finke is showing why the Illini staff loved his offensive skill. He is shooting just 23.1 percent from three, and his defense and rebounding still need a lot of work. That being said, Finke has given fans a reason to be excited for the future.
Khalid Lewis made some plays but leaves more to be desired. There's no denying that Lewis' floater in the lane to tie it a 79 with 35 seconds left was a huge play. The Illini missed plenty of late-game chances all around the court in the previous two games. Lewis finished with eight points (3-6), three assists, two steals and two turnovers. There is nothing particularly bad about that stat line, but Lewis has not looked the part of a starting point guard on a Big Ten basketball team. He hasn't been able to get the team in sync, and he has made his fair share of mistakes at both ends. The Illini are asking a lot out of Lewis, and they would be in even deeper trouble without him. But getting Tate back, even with his limitations, will be important for the Illini going against tougher opponents.
Illini have been awful against pressure defense. Chicago State took a page out of Chattanooga's book and decided to press the Illini for a good portion of the game. It turned out to be a great move. Illinois turned it over 14 times with more than half of those coming in the first 20 minutes. The Illini seem to panic when they get in those situations. It has something to do with not having a point guard who can weave through the pressure. In fact, Finke looked like the best candidate to break the press on Saturday against Chattanooga. The Illini are also relying on a variety of young guys to have the ball in their hands, and that makes them prone to mistakes. Groce has to find a way to clean this up because his team will see more of it until they show they can handle it.
Just take the win. The list of doubters and Groce critics didn't erase any of its members on Monday night. Illini fans still feel as bad about this team through five games as they've felt about any in quite a while. The concerns are glaring and numerous. Even though there have been costly injuries, freshmen thrown into the fire and four starting lineups in five games, there is no excuse for the Illini to play like they did against Chicago State. With many of the same mistakes happening over again and Illinois looking unprepared from the tip, it's hard not to wonder why Groce isn't getting more out of his team. Ultimately, the responsibility falls back on the head coach. At the postgame press conference, Groce was visably frustrated and he didn't have answers for some of his team's repeated struggles. The fan base is up in arms, and they have a reason to be. Inside the Illinois huddle, they did what they needed to do. Get the win and worry about the explanation later. But the celebration is over now and reality will set in real fast on Friday against UAB, who returns six starters from a team that went to the NCAA tournament last year. The Illini need big-time fixing before making the trip down to Florida for the Emerald Coast Classic.