Saturday's struggle made a sad statement about the Illini hoops program. The attendance at the United Center (5,151) was bad. The on-court display was worse. Illinois needed a late push to beat a team that is statistically one of the worst in the country. UIC came into the game at No. 331 of 351 D-1 teams in the KenPom rankings. They were coming off a trio of losses to Drake, DePaul and UCF by an average margin of 26 points. But the Illini once again couldn't help themselves from looking like a mess against a woeful team from the Windy City. Earlier this season, the Orange Blue needed a buzzer-beater by Jalen Coleman-Lands to take down Chicago State, who is actually ranked lower than UIC. These are teams that DePaul beat by 20-plus. That doesn't help the recruiting perception in Chicago, or anywhere else for that matter. The state of the Illini program has created doubters by the handful, and even more apathy on top of that. The sad hope for the Illini is that most people had better things to do on Saturday afternoon than pay attention.
"A win is a win" doesn't suffice. When you survive by four point against Yale, you can take that as a good sign. Even though fans of a Big Ten program don't want to believe that an Ivy League school can compete with them athletically, the facts show that Yale has a solid basketball team. They competed with Duke and lost by just two against SMU - two top-20 teams in the AP rankings. But doing the same thing against UIC doesn't pass the test. Ultimately, the Illini got the win and went above .500 for the first time this season. However, John Groce even admitted that the win doesn't mask the stench. Illinois has often looked like a team in disarray, which makes sense given some key injuries. But that excuse only carries so much weight. It's bad timing for the program to reach these depths after missing the NCAA tournament the two previous seasons and having an inevitable change in power in the athletic department on its way.
Illini defense makes bad teams look good. The frustrations continue to mount at the defensive end. UIC came into the game as last in the country in effective field goal percentage. But against the Illini, they shot 60 percent from three and 47.6 percent from the field. UIC shot over 55 percent in the second half, as the Flames outscored Illinois 49-42. No other D-1 opponent allowed UIC to shot above 40 percent from the field. Saturday was just another example in a trend of bad defense against bad teams. The Illini allowed Chicago State and Western Carolina to hit 11 threes apiece. Like UIC, Chicago State scored 79 points against the Illini. The Cougars have scored more than 65 points just once in the five games since then. Opponents seem to play with a high level of confidence against the Orange and Blue. That is a product of the Illini giving up some easy buckets and not setting the tone from the outset. The Illini continue to leave guys wide open on the perimeter, and their interior defense is suspect with Michael Finke and Maverick Morgan on the inside. They have given up 32 points in the paint in each of the last two games.
Coleman-Lands and Finke were bright spots offensively. It's hard to draw positives from an ugly game like that, but the Illini got good outings from a pair of freshmen. Coleman-Lands regained his smooth stroke by going 4-of-6 from three for 15 points. Finke was good early on, as he scored all 14 of his points in the first half. The Illini also saw Khalid Lewis post eight points and eight assists. Malcolm Hill led all scorers with 22 points, and he got to the free throw line 14 times - including 12 times in the second half. The Illini did some good things offensively for the most part, but it comes with very little satisfaction given the opponent and the ongoing problems. It's not all defense, either. Illinois has had killing stretches, and they had one in the second half that saw them go more than six minutes without a bucket. In that span, a 10-point lead for the Illini turned into a lead for UIC.
The rocky road will only get rockier. The feeling around the Illini basketball program isn't the same as you'd typically associate with a three-game winning streak. But that has a lot to do what awaits this team if they don't see big changes. If it wasn't apparent before, there is no such thing as a guaranteed win on the Illini schedule. They will be picked to win their next two games against South Dakota and Missouri, but that won't have fans feeling at ease. South Dakota won in double OT at Minnesota, and anything could happen in the rivalry game against Mizzou - as much as that idea disgusts Orange and Blue fans. On top of that, the Illini are only currently favored to win in five Big Ten games, per the KenPom projections. Be ready to brace yourself. The first 11 games has been fair warning.