The Illini got everything they hoped for in the first 20 minutes. Illinois took a 41-33 lead into the locker room on Wednesday night after playing one of their best halves of the season. John Groce got contributions across the board offensively with nine different players scoring a bucket. At the other end, the Illini got stops and forced turnovers. They also managed to hold talented point guard Demetrius Jackson in check with just four points on 1-of-5 shooting from the field. All the while, the building was buzzing with excitement and the team seemed to be feeding off the energy. Big-time recruits sat front and center to witness what could have been a momentum-building night in Champaign. But what came afterwards was a complete and utter implosion by the home team.
The second half was about as ugly as it gets. After a bucket by Maverick Morgan gave the Illini a double-digit lead, Notre Dame went on a 25-6 run in just over nine minutes. Illinois was 1-for-15 from the field during that stretch, while easy hoops came in bunches for the Irish. The Illini struggled to operate against the Notre Dame zone. Meanwhile, they inexplicably left Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem open from beyond the arc - which should not happen being that they are both 40-plus percent three-point shooters. Illinois also did not have an answer for Jackson, who made all five of his shot attempts in the second half. Notre Dame shot a whopping 57.1 percent from the field in the second half, along with six threes, on their way to scoring 51 points. On the other side, the Illini shot just 25 percent in the second half until scoring six buckets in the final minute after most fans had already hit the exits.
Malcolm, where art thou? The Illini once again held a lead on a high-level opponent in the second half, but their best player disappeared down the stretch. The Illini were up by one against Iowa State with just more than 16 minutes left in the game after back-to-back triples by Malcolm Hill. But Hill took just one shot the rest of the game and the Illini fell in defeat. Wednesday night was a similar story, and a disappointing one at that. Illinois was scuffling offensively to start the second half, but they held onto a one-point lead with 13:25 remaining after a pair of free throws by Hill. The junior forward missed a three-pointer on the next possession, and then went 12-plus minutes without registering a field goal attempt. Hill said after the game that he was just taking what the defense was giving him. That's an acceptable excuse for a role player, but not from an All-Big Ten caliber player when his team is on the ropes. Big-time players find ways to create and make big-time plays, instead of waiting for the defense to hand them a good look.
More Austin, less offense. With a team that has been bad more often than not defensively, Groce has been fortunate that Alex Austin has emerged as an adequate defender. In fact, he has been the best perimeter defender on the roster. But Austin has been a liability at the offensive end. He is shooting just above 27 percent from the field, and he is 2-of-14 from long range. Austin's role seemed to revert back to normal with the return of Kendrick Nunn, as Austin played just seven minutes in two games at the Emerald Coast Classic. But Groce elected to play Austin 22 minutes on Wednesday night - to the displeasure of many Illini fans. Austin was 1-of-5 from the field and registered just two points in the game. Meanwhile, freshman Aaron Jordan scored three points in just four minutes of action. Jordan has played sparingly in big games due to his defensive deficiencies. Groce justified his decision by saying it would be "a mistake to play mistake players", and that's why Austin got the nod. But having Austin in the game did not lead to stops in the second half, and he limited what his team could do offensively. At least Jordan could have gotten back some of those points that would be given up at the other end. Illini fans don't like to see that Groce has more trust in a walk-on transfer than guys he actually recruited.
Black isn't fully back. It was a rough night for Leron Black, who could not convert on very makeable looks. Black was 1-of-7 from the field, although he did add seven rebounds. It was obvious that he didn't have the lift on his shot, and he still isn't 100 percent after having surgery on his torn meniscus. But unfortunately, the Illini need him to play regardless. Black's presence became even more valuable after Mike Thorne Jr. went down with a torn meniscus of his own. Thorne was Illinois' best rebounder, and Black has the ability to pick up some of that slack. He'll have to do so with Morgan and Michael Finke struggling in that area. They had just one rebound apiece in 33 combined minutes, while Notre Dame big man Zach Auguste had 14 boards.
Where are the answers? Groce was not shy about voicing his frustrations after the game. He was disappointed that his team reverted back to some of the backbreaking mistakes from the first two weeks of the season. Answering the "what" question is easy when it comes to identifying the problems. "Why" does it continue to happen and "how" does it change are the more pertinent topics of discussion. The alarming fact is that the Illini don't seem to have the solutions. Groce said it is insanity to repeat the same actions and expect different results. Ultimately, that includes the way he and his staff prepare their team and try to draw a desirable response. Groce assured that all aspects will be evaluated. Continued failures are reflective on the leadership, even under tough circumstances. The Illini looked like a team that turned the corner down in Florida last week, and the first half on Wednesday night was indicative of that as well. But there's no hiding the implosion in final 20 minutes, nor can you hide that Illinois is off to their worst start to a season in 48 years. Everyone in Illini nation knows that things need to change. It's up to Groce to show fans that he doesn't need to be part of it.