Well, the Illini dropped another one at home (four of five) and another one to Wisconsin (nine straight). Two stats stuck out again, and Illini fans have seen these before. The Illini (10-12, 2-7 Big Ten) were outrebounded 37-25 and beat on points in the paint 22-8. It's simply hard to win games when these two stats continue to be one-sided -- and not on your side.
Fans were upset with the ugliness against Badgers. Some questioned the team's effort. The Illini gave plenty of effort and energy, But the Badgers just controlled the style of play. Wisconsin (13-9, 5-4 Big Ten) is back to playing the swing offense and a conservative defense. It is working for the Badgers who have now won four straight Big Ten games and are now back in NCAA Tournament consideration. The problem for the Illini is that they were not able to control the tempo in their own house. The home team should always have the advantage for the style of play. Outside of the Purdue game, the Illini have not been able to control the tempo and style at home.
Another frustrating issue from that game is the direction of the two teams. Both Wisconsin and Illini were having similar seasons, starting 9-9 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten. They both lost early non-conference games at home. They both struggled at the beginning of the Big Ten schedule. They both are playing a lot of young and inexperienced players. They both have two potential all-league players -- Wisconsin with Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig and the Illini with Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. However, the teams are headed in opposite directions. The Badgers have won four in a row and have found their identity. The Illini have lost four of five and are still figuring out how to win.
When a team is losing, it is natural to look for the "why." There have been too many "whys" for the Illini this year: youth, injuries, poor defense, outrebounded, no points in the paint, scoring droughts and shot selection are just some of the key issues. However, with the loss to the Badgers and the “mini suspension” of Jalen Colemen-Lands (did not start and sat the first 11 minutes), you have to start looking at the distractions around the program.
This is not the first time a player has not started because of a discipline issue. We have seen this happen to Coleman-Lands already this year, and Kendrick Nunn has lost a start because of it. I give credit to John Groce for doing this because it sends a message to the players to do things the right way. Unfortunately, the players are not getting the message. We saw this happen last year with multi-game suspensions of Aaron Cosby and Rayvonte Rice as well.
This type of thing happens to other programs. Based on the small suspension to Coleman-Lands and Nunn this year, I would imagine they missed a class or were late for a meeting or practice. Those things my not seem like that big of a deal, but when you are not winning, you can not afford to have any distractions. As a player and a coach, everyone must be doing all they can to avoid distractions. Distractions force the coaches have to address the issue to the team. The team has to talk about it in-house. The players and coaches have to talk to the media about it after the game. These are things taking away from the team's focus. The team is spending time talking about off-the-court issues instead of getting ready for the next game.
So who is to blame for this? It falls on both the players and the coach. A coach cannot make decisions for a player. So it is up to the player to make the best decisions when they are on their own. It is also up to the player to not let his teammates down. When I was a player, we had standards set up and I knew that I would be letting my teammates down if I did not live up to those standards. If you don’t care and are letting your teammates down off the court, you are not going to care if you let them down on the court. If a teammate sees another teammate struggling, he has to be there to help him make better decisions. This is where player leadership is important -- and it appears to be lacking on the Illini.
A coach needs to set the example for the players. There has to be a consequence for a poor decision. Groce has clearly held players out for their poor actions. But if the players continue to “violate team rules” then they do not fear the consequence. The consequence needs to be more severe, otherwise these distractions will continue to show up. If these issues continue to show up, then the coach needs to take a look at who they are bringing into the program.
I was very lucky to have a great leader my freshmen year in Victor Chukwudebe. Vic had been in the program his entire career. He showed the young guys the ropes. He told us how to do things the right way. Vic was not the best player on our team my freshmen year but I respected the heck out of him because he had been in the program for four years, and he did things the right way. He was respected by his teammates and by the Illini fans. I was able to see this as a freshman and then became a captain myself during my senior season. Vic bought into the program and showed that to us. I bought into the program and then tried to show it to Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and James Augustine when they were freshmen. The players have to take pride in the program. And the coaches have to make sure they are bringing in players that understand this as well. If there are distractions, the team cannot fully focus on what it will take to win the next game.
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 2/1/16
Ohio State +1
Michigan State +1
Penn State -2