The Illini's 103-69 loss at Indiana followed the same script -- just to the "nth" degree -- for a team that is struggling to find any consistency and momentum. For the sixth straight game, the Illini (9-10, 1-5 Big Ten) were beaten on the boards and in points in the paint. Some of that is the result of injuries to Leron Black and Mike Thorne Jr. (Thorne Jr. played first conference game vs Indiana). However, outside of Purdue and Michigan State, the Illini were not giving up that much inside against their four other Big Ten opponents. The Illini are playing small ball. When a team does that, it must win the perimeter game. But, so far, the Illini have shot a lower percentage from three than their Big Ten opponent four out of six games (better against Ohio State and Purdue). The Illini are winning the turnover battle, but it has not been enough to overcome losing the batting inside and from three. Is it officially time to hit the panic button on the season?
The Illini opened Big Ten play with a tough schedule. But losing two home conference games this early in the season puts you in a tough spot. The Illini are now looking at a schedule that they should have a very good chance of winning four or five of the next seven games. This stretch will determine what direction the season -- and maybe the program -- is heading.
It's not clear the coaching staff has lost the team, but there are some signs that indicate it could be heading that way. Four of the Illini's five Big Ten losses are by double figures and two of those games by 25-plus points. That's a bad trend. The change in lineups is also a sign that the coaches are searching for consistency and still trying to motivate their players. Once in a while, the bench can be used as a great motivator for a player. But if it is an issue every game, then you are wasting more time motivating that could be spent teaching and developing.
John Groce was very vocal in his last press conference about the leadership on this team. Groce usually refrains from putting the blame on his players. This is really the first time he has called them out in a press conference. Usually when this happens, the team is heading in the wrong direction. Right now, one of two things is happening. Either Groce is trying to use the media to motivate his players, or this is a serious problem -- one that is going to be very difficult to fix during this season.
The best leadership comes from the players. Players calling out each other in practice or in team meetings carries more weight than when the coaches have to do it. There are two problems here. One, the players have to step up and be leaders. To this point in the season, the Illini have yet to see a player step up and take control of this team from a leadership standpoint. Groce and staff need to recruit better leaders, as well. They need to bring in players who show they are good leaders in high school. Secondly, this issue also likely stems from recruiting transfers. It is fine to bring in a few transfers to supplement the team. But when a staff brings in a lot of transfers, it must re-teach and re-develop the culture every year.
The Illini should have their hand on the panic button. This seven-game stretch will save the season or send it into a freefall, giving the fan base even more of a cause for concern. This seven-game stretch includes several winnable games. The Illini should win more than they lose. If the Illini continue to lose by double figures, the season will painfully drag on. There is no question there is some good talent on the Illinni. But if leaders do not emerge, the wins will not follow. With most of the team returning next season, the Illini staff needs to find leadership now or do a great job of recruiting this offseason. Tracy Abrams is a true leader, but it can not rest entirely on him -- and his questionable health -- next season.
Sean Harrington is the basketball analyst for IlliniInquirer.com and also serves as a color analyst for ESPN. He played for four NCAA Tournament teams at Illinois, from 1999-2002. He also served on coaching staffs for Rick Majerus, Bill Self, Rob Judson and Bruce Weber. Follow him on Twitter @smharrington24.
Sean's +/- Big Ten standings
Rules of +/- standings. When you win at home you get a “0." When you lose on the road you get a “0." When you lose at home you get a minus-1. When you win on the road you get a plus-1. This evens out the unbalanced schedule during the season. Usually it takes a plus-4 to get a share of Big Ten title or plus-5 to win it outright. Usually, all positives have a good shot at the NCAA Tournament. Usually, even is a Bubble team.
Standings after games on 1/20/16
Ohio State +1
Penn State 0
Michigan State 0