Piper's points: Illini drop B1G opener vs. Michigan

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down Illinois' 78-68 loss in the Big Ten opener against Michigan.

Second half struggles continue to go without answers. The Illini held a three-point lead at halftime on Wednesday against a good but beatable opponent at home. Kendrick Nunn led the way with 13 points in the first 20 minutes, while Illinois shot 50 percent from the field and hit six triples. Meanwhile, the Illini defense allowed just three long bombs and forced 10 turnovers against a Michigan squad that was top-20 in the country in offensive efficiency. But the second half brought on an all too familiar trend for the Orange and Blue. Michigan went on a 27-11 run through the first 10-plus minutes of the second frame to open up 61-48 lead. The Wolverines scored on 11 of their 16 possessions during that stretch, as the Illini allowed them to get easy buckets inside and out. On the other side, the Illinois offense was reeling without much rhythm. Michigan cruised on to victory by outscoring the Illini 44-31 in the second half. It marked the seventh time in eight games that the Illini have been outplayed on the scoreboard in the final 20 minutes. Why does this continue to happen? Why does the other team - even inferior opponents - appear to be better equipped to compete in the second half? John Groce admitted that part of the reason is that Illinois' young guys struggle to execute halftime adjustments. Injuries have forced the Illini to rely on freshmen more than they'd like. But continuous mishaps in the second half speak to a bigger issue. Groce can point to causes of the problem - and many in the fan base have their fingers pointed back at the coaching staff. Either way, the only acceptable resolution is to change the trend through results. The Illini simply haven't done that.

Where's the "TNT"? Toughness and togetherness were a staple of Groce's team during Year One. The first-year head coach used the acronym ad nauseam, but it was a message that rang true and was embodied throughout the roster. The motto on the team wristband has changed every year, and it's important for each team to develop their own identity. But the Illini need some "TNT" back in their lives. It didn't seem like Illinois needed any added motivation heading into their first Big Ten test of the season. But the emotional pull was there - playing against a team that embarrassed the Illini in the Big Ten tournament last March and erased any hope for a bid to the Big Dance. Malcolm Hill said the Illini were coming into the game with a bad taste in their mouth because of that memory. Still, the Orange and Blue lacked the necessary effort and toughness to compete in the second half. Groce was disappointed that his team didn't battle when they got punched in the mouth. It may be difficult to have cohesion when significant contributors are dressed in street clothes. But that's not an excuse to act as a punching bag during a boxing match.

Interior battles won't be pretty. Redshirt freshman Michael Finke has garnered a large amount of praise this season, and it has been deserved with his offensive production. But Finke was exposed down low on Wednesday. The Illini allowed Michigan to total 38 points in the paint, which was the sixth time in the last eight games that they've given up at least 30 points in the paint. It was news to the Wolverines that they had a dangerous scoring threat in the frontcourt. Sophomore big man Mark Donnal had 43 points combined in the team's first 13 games. But going against Illinois' weak interior, Donnal had a statline that would make you think he was Mitch McGary. He posted career-highs with 26 points and nine boards in 28 minutes. That's not an encouraging sign for things to come in the Big Ten. Furthermore, the Illini aren't in a position to gameplan around it. Finke is not a good defender, and neither is Maverick Morgan. Illini fans may want to cover their eyes when Purdue comes to town for the next home game in Champaign.

Hill can't have an off game. The bar is set high for the junior forward - not only because of his ability but because the Illini can't afford anything less. Hill entered Wednesday's game as the top scorer in the Big Ten, and he was averaging more than 24 points per game over the last four contests. But while Hill has been the butcher, baker and candlestick maker for the bulk of the season, he has had stretches where he's been a magician with a disappearing act. Hill finished with a quiet 11 points against Michigan, and he didn't make much of an impact in other areas either. Other top talents like Nunn (23 points) and Caris LeVert (22 points) came to play, but Hill essentially looked like just another player. Groce was not pleased with Hill's overall effort and performance. He is also looking for more in the leadership category. Expectations have changed for Hill compared to his sophomore season. When failures came, the blame was often pointed at Rayvonte Rice. That's the burden of being a star.

Feel-good finish to nonconference has quickly worn off. Negativity and frustration have been prevalent in Illini nation this season. But the Orange and Blue got a little break from that to close out nonconference play. They entered the Big Ten opener on a five-game winning streak for the first time in seven years. Groce and his team danced in celebration after claiming the Braggin' Rights trophy before Christmas. But Wednesday was a snap back to reality. Barring an upset win, the Illini are probably on their way to starting 0-4 in the Big Ten. That would put them below .500 on the season and in a huge hole for the remainder of the schedule. Obviously, that is why they play the games - and the Illini have a chance to write their own version of the story. But it's hard not to look at the path they're headed on. According to the KenPom projections, Illinois is predicted to finish 6-12 in conference and 14-17 overall. That would be the fewest wins for the Illini in a season since 1998-99, and it would certainly add to the gloom of a potential three-year NCAA tourney drought. But this year would could come with a disclaimer given the unfortunate string of injuries. Still, perception is important for a variety of reasons. Days go by with more doubters than believers, and that doesn't help the sell to 2017 recruits - who are crucial to the future of Groce and the program in general. The circumstances haven't done this staff and this team any favors. But they must show some promise and improvement.


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