Illinois lost to Iowa 77-65 at home on Sunday to drop to 3-8 in the Big Ten and 1-5 at home during conference play. Iowa (19-4, 10-1 Big Ten) -- which received 11 first-place votes in this week's AP poll -- dominated the game from start to finish. The Hawkeyes controlled the inside by outrebounding the Illini 43-32. Second-chance points were the biggest difference in the game with a 26-6 advantage going Iowa’s way.
But a few bright spots for the Illini came from a couple of freshmen. D.J. Williams gave the Illini a nice spark off the bench scoring a career-high eight points and tying a career hight with four boards in only 15 minutes. Jalen Coleman-Lands continued his hot shooting, making 5 of 11 shots from beyond the arc on his way to 17 points.
With the Illini struggling this season, the question now is do the Illini need to make a youth movement? Right now, the Illini coaching staff believes they can win the rest of their games. Unlike fans, the coaching staff does not think this season is lost. That's the mentality of a coaching staff. They are focused on winning the next game against Northwestern. They will evaluate practice and play the guys they believe will give them the best chance to win the next game.
But it might be time for the Illini to start to get some experience for the younger players. The Illini have played overtime in three of their past five games, including a triple overtime win at Rutgers. Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn are playing more than 35 minutes a game during conference play. It is not a slight to Hill and Nunn to play them less minutes. It might actually help them out. If they are getting worn down at the end of games, the extra rest might keep them fresh. Giving three to five minutes of each of these guys' playing time to the freshmen will give the freshmen some valuable Big Ten experience.
The freshmen are going to make mistakes, but they will learn now instead of later. The freshmen will be more locked in at practice and be more motivated to get in extra time on their own if they are getting more minutes in games. At this time of year, it is hard to stay locked in if you are not contributing on a consistent basis.
During the 1998-99 season, the Illini went 3-13 in the Big Ten but the season still was productive. The Illini were able to get valuable minutes for three key freshmen (Robert Archibald, Lucas Johnson and Damir Krupalija). These three guys might not have been ready for heavy minutes at that time, but they gained a lot for experience that season and would go on to be the core of teams that finished fourth, first and first in the Big Ten in their final three seasons.
The Illini just got a first-hand look at what early experience can do for a group when it matures. Hawkeyes seniors Mike Gesell, Anthony Clemmons and Adam Woodbury earned valuable minutes when they were freshmen playing with some veteran players, including Melsahn Basabe, Devyn Marble, Eric May and Zach McCabe. Iowa coach Fran McCaffery did a good job of mixing in minutes for everyone. Those freshmen definitely made mistakes along the way and struggled at times to close out games. But those teams and players gained experience, and now this Iowa team is playing terrific team basketball. Even this seaon with an experienced group, McCaffery is going a good job of getting Big Ten minutes for the freshmen and sophomores (Uhl, Baer, Wagner and Ellingson).
Coaches get a comfort level with their players. They watch what the players do in practice everyday and see them make mistakes or see them show signs of improvement. A lot of trust comes from what the coaches see everyday in practice. If you make a lot of mistakes in practice, it is hard for coaches to gain trust to put you into the game. Also, a coach’s job is on the line to win games. So they will play the players they trust and the ones they believe give them the best chance to win. Sometimes though, when you are so focused on the now, it is hard to determine what could work best in the long term -- especially if the long term isn't guaranteed for that coach.
Looking at this Illini roster, these freshmen have a chance to be a good core group of players to lead this program in the future. They need to gain experience now and learn from mistakes that happen during a game. To get these guys more minutes, the staff has to take away minutes from others. For most teams, an ideal rotation includes eight to nine players. Hill and Nunn might benefit from fewer minutes, keeping them fresh and letting them be more productive when they are in there. Both of these guys deserve and need 30-plus minutes but 35 is too high. Fifth-year transfer Khalid Lewis has done some good things this season, but he is not a part of the future. His minutes have to be reduced to give the freshmen more experience. Alex Austin is a hard worker who can give you a spark from time to time. Austin’s minutes have been reduced recently, but it should only be the rare situation that he gets more minutes in a game than anyone in the top nine, including Williams and Aaron Jordan.
The Illini basketball season has been a struggle, but this last month of the season could have a lot to do with the future of this program. The Illini freshmen need to continue to improve and carry momentum into next season. The coaching staff needs to give them some more time to shine, make mistakes, learn and grow.
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 2/7/16
Michigan State +2
Ohio State +1
Penn State -2