USA Today // Mike Dinovo

Piper: Five burning questions leading into B1G play

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper answers five burning questions heading into the Big Ten opener.

1. How would you grade the Illini nonconference?

C+ -- The Illini bombed the midterm during Thanksgiving week. The overtime loss at home against Winthrop is a significant blemish. Then, they went to Brooklyn and lost by 43 points combined to West Virginia and Florida State -- the only teams on Illinois' nonconference schedule that look like sure-bets for the NCAA tournament.

But the response by John Groce's team after that gives them a passing and above-average grade. They reeled off six wins in a row. They beat some solid teams in N.C. State, VCU and BYU -- with two of those being neutral-site games. And those two were against opponents who are currently top-40 teams in the RPI.

The Illini played some of their best basketball during those three contests. They out-toughed and out-grinded VCU in Miami with an impactful defensive outing and strong finish. They held 'Diaper Dandy' point guard Dennis Smith Jr. to no points in the second half in a convincing win over N.C. State. And they played a stellar first 15 minutes against BYU, and ultimately pulled out the win down the stretch at the United Center.

Other victories were less impressive based on the eye test. Illinois hung around with a Mizzou squad that lost to Eastern Illinois the previous game. The Tigers are also one of the worst offensive squads in the country. The Illini played far too close with IUPUI at home, and they needed Malcolm Hill to save the day down the stretch. The Northern Kentucky game was similar. But wins are wins.

Ultimately, Illinois left nonconference play with a number of question marks. Even with a six-game winning streak, they have inconsistencies and noticeable deficiencies. There are areas of preparation that need to be addressed. But at the same time, this is a team with talent. They are experienced. The play of Tracy Abrams -- aside from the last two games -- has been stellar. The same can be said of Leron Black. Hill has had big-time games. There are reasons to be feel good just as there are ones to be concerned.

It would have taken a one-loss nonconference campaign for an 'A'. Two losses to West Virginia and Florida State in more competitive fashion could have earned the Illini a 'B'. But the loss to Winthrop -- and overall showing that week -- drops them down. They did enough to stay afloat, though. This nonconference slate will not make or break them.

2. What has you most encouraged about the Illini during Big Ten play?

Their veteran nucleus. For teams with NCAA tournament hopes, there is little room for growing pains once you reach Big Ten play. The Illini shouldn't have any. Hill has been a Big Ten starter since the last third of his freshman year. Abrams has essentially been a Big Ten starter his whole career -- playing 25.2 minutes per game as a freshman in conference play.

Michael Finke and Jalen Coleman-Lands got plenty of experience in the Big Ten last year. Black has a season of Big Ten experience under his belt. Maverick Morgan and Jaylon Tate are seniors who have played in 116 Big Ten games combined, including the Big Ten tournament.

No stage should be too big. No stakes should be too high. They aren't strangers to the teams they are about to face. They know what it's like to play on the road. They know how important it is to protect home court. They know that it's an 18-round fight, and win or loss, the next one is coming at you in a hurry.

The Illini are starting to figure it out in certain areas, which is proven in their current streak of wins. Their rotations are shaping up. They've seen what has worked. They've seen what needs work. They should be able to carry that over rather smoothly.

And it's encouraging how well the veterans have played. Abrams' offensive game has been a huge surprise, as he's shooting 59.2 percent from three on the season. No one had him hitting anywhere close to as many threes as Coleman-Lands this year, but he's hit more thus far. It's important to have a point guard who can score. Morgan's game is clicking right now with consecutive double-doubles. Hill has fit the bill as the third leading scorer in the conference (18.2 points per game). And Black looks like a big-time player in the making -- if his fouling tendencies can be more like his first seven games rather than his last two.

We already know this team has good enough parts to win games in this conference and beat quality teams. But the Big Ten can also knock you down just as easily. This Illini team should be poised through adversity. There should also be urgency and maturity with the oldest team in the Big Ten. And more consistency than other teams relying on youth.

They've been through this battle before. They're healthy. They should be hungry. And they're good enough.

3. What concerns you most about the Illini going forward?

Identity. What do you know you're going to get from a team game in and game out? It's a simple question, but it doesn't come with a simple answer for this Illini team.

Illinois has had games when they've defended well. They held VCU to their lowest point total in 11 years. They kept the nation's leading scorer, Marcus Keene, relatively under wraps against Central Michigan. N.C. State was a good showing. Then, they've had stretches where they've been awful at that end. West Virginia scored 89 points with 52 points in the paint. Keon Johnson went for 38 in Winthrop's upset win. Illinois was up 2 with less than 12 minutes to play against Florida State, but they got one stop over the next eight-plus minutes and were down by 15 with a nail in the coffin.

Lesser opponents have had too much offensive success as well. IUPUI played dangerously close with the Illini, as Groce admitted his team left good shooters open on the perimeter. Even Missouri -- a team that has been atrocious offensively -- got too many easy hoops to stay closer than they should have been. What happens when the Illini play good teams on a nightly basis? Which defensive team shows up? We know Illinois doesn't have very good interior defenders. Zone has worked to keep teams out of the lane. Will that burn them from three? Can they keep talented guards in front in man-to-man?

Offensively, there are questions there too. During Groce's tenure, they have consistently had an identity of taking care of the ball. They were top-15 in the country in turnover percentage the previous two seasons. In the previous four seasons as a whole, they've always been top-70 in that category. This year, the Illini are 242nd in the nation -- turning the ball over on more than 20 percent of their possessions. You can't give possessions away in the Big Ten and expect to win.

And how about the offensive direction and execution? Groce has repeatedly beaten the drum that he wants his team to throw the ball down inside. You can see why. The Illini dominated in the paint for most of the first half against BYU, who has a future NBA big man. Morgan and Thorne are coming along as very consistent scorers in the post. But Illinois has been given fits by the use of 2-3 zone, which has shown to turn the Illini into a jump-shooting team. It has stagnated ball and off-ball movement, and has made the Illini looked lost for significant stretches.

Then, there is Hill. He is a big part of Illinois' identity. He has played Superman (or 'Orange Mamba') in certain moments for the Illini, especially when they've needed someone to take over down the stretch (except for Thanksgiving week). But every team in the Big Ten knows Hill's game. You can bet they'll do what they can to take away what he wants to do. If they're able to just slow him down, can the Illini still manage to win big games? They haven't shown that.

Being consistent in staple areas of execution and having successful counterpunches for certain attacks are things that this team needs to do, and they are causes for concern until they prove that ability.

4. Who or what is the biggest X-factor for the Illini?

Frontcourt production. In the preseason, the post rotation was labeled as arguably the biggest strength of this team. The Illini need it to be at least close to that in Big Ten play.

Being able to play inside-out is a major key for this team. Morgan and Thorne can create and make close-range shots with their post-up position and frame. They can finish with either hand and they've been very consistent at doing so. The two have combined to shoot 60.6 percent from the field on the season. They've made 66.7 percent of their shots over the last three games, and they've provided more than nine buckets per game combined during the stretch.

Post touches are at a premium, and we've seen how dumping it down inside can force defensive rotation and open things up elsewhere. It enables the Illini to kick it out to Abrams and Coleman-Lands for spot-up threes. It takes pressure off of Hill as well. And when Illinois is focused on getting it near the paint, it naturally creates ball movement that may not otherwise exist on the perimeter.

You can bet the Illini will look to feed the big guys, and they need them to produce. Morgan is a pretty big X-factor with his ability to play longer stretches than Thorne. He can hit the step-out jumper. And he's Illinois' best interior defender.

Black and Finke are absolutely huge as well. If Black can channel his earlier showings in the nonconference, he will provide a huge boost. There were many times when he was the second best player on the court for the Illini -- if not the best. He's had the look of the sophomore version of Nigel Hayes. His energy, toughness, rebounding, second-chance finishes and dead-eye mid-range stroke have been paramount. Black elevates Illinois' ceiling by a large margin when he's on his game.

And Finke needs to play well in his role, which is to make shots while rebounding and playing defense at an adequate level. Finke was very streaky with his outside stroke in the nonconference, as he shot 33.3 percent from deep. For a stretch, he was in the kind of shooting slump we saw from him in Big Ten play last year. But he's played better of late. And the Illini need to be able to rely on him against conference foes.

The focus on this group goes far beyond their points production. Many Big Ten battles are won on the interior. We thought this would be a top-5 rebounding team in the Big Ten this year. They are currently sixth in rebounding margin. They have to be productive there. And defensively, they have to be ready for the likes of Hayes, Caleb Swanigan, Ethan Happ, Isaac Haas, Thomas Bryant and others.

If Illinois' frontcourt is good enough, this team will be good enough.

5. What do the Illini have to do to make the NCAA tournament?

Most people will look at reaching the 20-win milestone with a 10-8 conference record as the road map to the NCAA tournament, and that's a good place to start. But the quality of wins should not be lost in the quantity.

Ohio State won 20 games with an 11-7 conference record and a Big Ten tournament win last year, but they were left out. Of course, they lost five games during nonconference play -- including home losses to UT-Arlington and Louisiana Tech. And they only beat one ranked Big Ten team, and got smoked by some others.

The Illini left nonconference play with just three losses. If Winthrop goes on to make the tournament, that could soften the blow. It will be important to monitor how well VCU, N.C. State and BYU fare throughout the rest of the season. But really, it comes down to winning games in the Big Ten.

On paper, a 20-11 overall record and 10-8 mark in conference heading into the Big Ten tournament reads like a tourney team. But the Illini have to avoid any more potential bad losses. They need to win the toss-up games at home. And they need a nice win or two on the road. Trips to Maryland, Indiana, Purdue and Michigan will be their big opportunities.

Back to the toss-up games. ESPN's Joe Lunardi has nine Big Ten teams in his NCAA tournament projection right now. Illinois is not one of them, but Minnesota, Northwestern, Maryland and Ohio State are in. They play Maryland and Northwestern twice, and Ohio State and Minnesota at home. Win at least four of those six games. A split doesn't do too much, and worse than that would seemingly all but pop the bubble.

But it all starts with the Illini having to survive the tough seven-game stretch at the forefront of Big Ten play: @Maryland, Ohio State, @Indiana, Michigan, Maryland, @Purdue and @Michigan. You probably don't feel too bad even winning just three of those seven. Win more, and you're in very good shape. Less, and there is a very minuscule margin for error the rest of the way.

The opportunity for quality wins goes down immensely after the trip to Michigan. Wisconsin will come to town on Jan. 31. Michigan State arrives on March 1, but they have a ways to go to be considered a signature win.

Groce's squad must take advantage of some early opportunities, make a surge during the final eight conference games with a favorable schedule and come out with around 20 wins -- and a potential Big Ten tournament win in the holster.

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