All eyes on the ugly. Thursday marked the third ESPN primetime game for the Illini in Big Ten play, and it followed an all too familiar trend of embarrassment. Illinois was pummeled 74-47 by Indiana at the State Farm Center. The Orange and Blue played two ESPN games in January: Losing 79-54 at Michigan State and 103-69 at Indiana. Between the three blowout losses, the Illini have lost by an average of 28-plus points. Unfortunately, Illinois has one more to go at Maryland next Thursday at 6 p.m. CT on ESPN. Expecting a similar result doesn't seem far off. Those kind of losses - regardless of unfortunate circumstance - don't bode well for the brand with a national audience tuned in.
Perception is of extreme importance. The odds have been stacked against the Illini this season with how the injury bug has taken its bites. But getting hammered at home and on national television don't help the cause. John Groce and his staff are under close evaluation. Where is this program headed? Is the team getting better? Are players still bought in? Is the fan base still bought in? Those are questions that newly-hired athletic director Josh Whitman is looking to figure out. Recruits are tuned in to what's going on as well. Losing the way Illinois did on Thursday is not good for the sell, especially with hopes of reeling in a landscape-changing 2017 class.
Rivals trending opposite directions. Indiana secured a 1.5-game cushion in the Big Ten standings with a win on Thursday. The Hoosiers are looking to clinch their second Big Ten regular season title in the last four years under Tom Crean. Indiana is capable of making a Final Four run. Yogi Ferrell is one of the best point guards in the country and he has plenty of offensive firepower surrounding him. On the other side of the border, Illinois looks like a team that is ready for this season to be over. They have talented pieces but there are glaring holes in the overall puzzle. Most notably, Illinois lacks a Big Ten quality point guard, and they don't have an adequate amount of strength and athleticism down low. The Illini lost both games to the Hoosiers by a combined margin of 61 points. Illinois has never lost two games in the same season by that many points in the history of the rivalry. To add further salt to the wound, the Illini have now lost three straight against Indiana for the first time in nearly 20 years.
"Illinois is close...Very, very close." That is what Crean had to say about the opponent in the postgame press conference - causing some Illini fans to question his math, sanity, honesty or a combination of the three. Crean praised Groce's coaching ability and the collection of pieces on the roster. He said that he liked what he saw from the Illini on film. Crean is no dummy. But some may wonder whether he was just standing up for a coach he knows he can beat. Or was he doing what's right for the Big Ten coaching fraternity? Or as a coach who had just eight Big Ten wins in his first three seasons at Indiana, maybe he has the foresight to see past an ugly record. The Illini hope it's the latter.
Hill and Nunn disappointed. The Illini have demanded a lot out of their veteran standouts, but they were unable to answer the call on Thursday. Malcolm Hill came into the game averaging 19 points and 10.4 rebounds per game in the month of February. But he failed to score a point in the first half, and he finished with just five points (2-7) and three rebounds in 29 minutes. Meanwhile, Kendrick Nunn totaled eight points but he had four turnovers. It's been safe to assume that Illinois needs about 40 points between the two to beat good teams. Getting 13 points combined on Thursday night was nowhere close, and neither were the Illini when the final buzzer sounded. Groce expressed displeasure in his upperclassmen after the game - saying that it's time for them to act as leaders and get the team connected.
Another second-half collapse. For the second straight game, the Illini held a halftime lead against a quality opponent but fell apart in the second half. Illinois held a 13-point lead at Wisconsin with 12:22 remaining, but they scored just 14 points the rest of the game. That kind of struggle reached a new extreme on Thursday. Illinois was up 28-27 over the Hoosiers at halftime after a solid defensive effort. But Jalen Coleman-Lands (21 points) looked like the only Illini player who fully came back out of the locker room. The Illini were scorched 47-19 in the final 20 minutes, as Ferrell scored as many points as the Orange and Blue during the frame. Illinois was completely out of sync at the offensive end, although Groce claimed it was just a matter missing shots that his team made in the first half. Regardless, the bigger issue was Indiana shooting 57.7 percent from the field and hitting 10 threes in the second half. Illinois' effort and grit was poor when the going got tough. The Illini at least fought Wisconsin until the end. On Thursday, they played dead.