Heading into the game at Indiana, Illini head coach John Groce said his team prepared well with the week given to them and made some necessary tweaks to be ready for the Hoosiers' best shot.
They weren't. Noticeable tweaks were absent -- especially in the first half -- as Illinois looked just like the same team that was blown off the court at Maryland in the Big Ten opener.
It didn't matter how many times Groce mentioned mental tenacity on Friday. It didn't matter that Malcolm Hill said that his team couldn't let 6-0 runs turn into 15-0 runs.
Where was the game less than six minutes in? 15-0 Indiana with Hill on the bench with three fouls, Indiana shooting 62.5 percent with four threes and the Illini missing eight straight shots with a handful of turnovers.
Just like the trip to Maryland in the first half: Minimal defense. Lagging offense. More than a 15-point deficit heading into the locker room at halftime. More changes need to be made.
If you ask a large portion of the Illini fan base, they'll tell you exactly what kind of change is necessary. This is where Groce's 30-45 Big Ten record comes in. His 11-27 record against Big Ten teams on the road.
The fact that Illinois hasn't beaten a ranked opponent on the road since 2014. They have lost their last seven games in a ranked foe's building by 145 points combined -- 20.7 per game.
|12/2/14||@No. 15 Miami||70-61 L|
|1/3/15||@No. 20 Ohio State||77-61 L|
|2/15/15||@No. 5 Wisconsin||68-49 L|
|1/7/16||@No. 5 Michigan State||79-54 L|
|1/19/16||@No. 25 Indiana||103-69 L|
|3/3/16||@No. 14 Maryland||81-55 L|
|1/7/17||@No. 25 Indiana||96-80 L|
But all of that will be addressed in due time. There's more than two months to go in that evaluation.
In the meantime, we focus on what lies ahead. Illinois has some significant opportunities at home this week with Michigan (11-5) and Maryland (14-2) coming to town. Those are a pair of top-100 RPI teams. Maryland is currently No. 32 in the RPI.
Of course, it's important to look back on your team's last outing and figure out what you should take to the office with you. Groce said in his press conference on Saturday night that his biggest takeaway was his team's fight and response to adversity... once they were down 20.
'I'm not by any means a moral victories guy," Groce said. "But..."
Yes, Illinois cut the lead to nine with more than five minutes to go. But it never exactly felt like Indiana was in great danger of giving up the game. They knew how much they were up. And once it got to nine, it was 18 again not too long after.
Some of the more pertinent takeaways relate to what changed in the second half. And how those changes need to be taken a step further in the games to come. Because looking at the fight your team showed down 20 on the road (again) and saying 'we're good' would be Groce-ly mistaken.
Using the trip to Maryland as a learning lesson didn't exactly work. Here are some lessons that actually can.
More Te'Jon and Kipper
What we knew back in November is showing to be true now in Big Ten play: Te'Jon Lucas is a more talented point guard than Jaylon Tate. And it's time for him to get some real run. Not just thrown in when the team is down by 20 in the second half.
Lucas has played 25 combined minutes in the Big Ten between games at Maryland and Indiana. He's posted nine points, six assists and three turnovers, and Illinois has been +12 when he's on the floor. For reference, the Illini are -43 with Tracy Abrams on the court in the Big Ten and +3 with Tate.
Abrams has missed 16 of his last 18 three-point attempts. He did make productive drives to the hoop in a 16-point outing against the Buckeyes. But Saturday was another bad game for him. As for Tate, he has a 7-to-3 assist-to-turnover ratio in Big Ten play thus far. But does anyone remember the last time he made a basket in a Big Ten regular season game? Jan. 23, 2016 at Minnesota.
It's been shown time and again that Groce has more trust in Tate than Lucas. One player has been in the program for four years. The other has been in the program for seven months. And Tate has played well in some games -- mostly as a distributor against lesser opponents.
Now, you're facing teams that know Tate's game all too well. He played 14 minutes in the first half at Maryland. Illinois threw it down low, the Terps post-trapped and left Tate wide open. He took three shots in the first half and missed them all.
What about Tate being a better defender than Lucas? Well, Tate played 34 minutes against Winthrop and Keon Johnson still scored 38 points. Tate has played in Big Ten games, and well, he's not exactly helping Illinois lock down anyone. This is a team that's still giving up buckets at a pretty high rate with Big Ten teams shooting 51.4 percent from the field.
It's time to play the younger, more offensively-capable option. Lucas came in during the second half on Saturday with Illinois down 18. He was part of the run that cut Illinois' deficit under double digits. He did get called for a five-second call out of a timeout after that. Freshman mistake, and you'll see some of those. But the risk is worth the reward.
Maybe Illinois wouldn't have to work through as many of those learning mistakes had Lucas played more than a few seconds against SEMO, more than three minutes against Northern Kentucky, more than six minutes against Detroit or more than nothing at all against Winthrop or Central Michigan. But the point remains: He should play more now. It's not to the point where he should start over Abrams, but regular rotational minutes are deserved.
And while Groce didn't have the ability to get Kipper Nichols some tick earlier in the nonconference, he needs to play. Nichols has posted six points and seven rebounds in 15 minutes of Big Ten play. He had four points, four rebounds and a steal in 11 minutes at Indiana.
Nichols gives the Illini more athleticism on the court, which is something they're severely lacking on their roster from top to bottom. All you have to do is look at teams like Maryland and Indiana. The Hoosiers have a next-level athlete in O.G. Anunoby. Nichols is one of the few athletes at Illinois' disposal that looks like he belongs on the same court. Indiana's entire frontcourt is mobile and athletic. Look at Maryland with Justin Jackson. Same deal.
With Nichols' physical qualities, he is defensively capable and he can hit the glass. You can move him around too. Then, look at a guy like Michael Finke. Yes, he made some important shots against Ohio State. And that's really his dictated value game in and game out.
But against Maryland and Indiana, Finke had no impact. He had no points and one rebound in 18 minutes against the Hoosiers. And he was often the swinging door in Illinois' nonexistent pick 'n roll defense against the Terps.
It's understandable and practical for Groce -- in a must-win season -- to give priority to players who have more playing experience and may be subject to fewer mental mistakes. By the same token, Lucas and Nichols have more physical talents than some of those more experienced players.
That's undeniable, and the need for some kind of switch-up after being completely outmatched in two of your first three conference games is as well.
Less Mike Thorne Jr.
The unexpected return of Mike Thorne Jr. for his sixth year was thought to be a major boost for the Illini heading into this season. Based on what he showed last year, it wasn't out of the question to think he could be one of the top five centers in the Big Ten. Maybe a little higher.
Thorne had 25 points and 14 rebounds in his Illini debut last year. He posted 10 points and seven boards in just one half against No. 4 Iowa State. And at No. 25 Indiana, he hopped around on one good leg to total nine points and nine rebounds.
This year, Thorne has one game against a D-1 team in which he's gotten at least nine rebounds. And that's after months of recovery. A player who averaged 8.5 boards per game last season is at 4.2 this time around. And he's posted just 11 rebounds combined in the last four games (2.8 per game).
The 6-foot-11 big man has not looked right. He hasn't moved very well. He can't play for long stretches. And while he's been more efficient in the paint than last season, he is a black hole on post touches with some bad misses that come along with it.
Thorne does not help Illinois at all defensively, and as a whole, the Illini should think hard about his usage. Illinois is -26 in Big Ten play with Thorne on the court. But he continues to get rolled out in the starting lineup.
Maverick Morgan is clearly the better option at center. That's why Morgan has played 62 minutes in Big Ten play compared to Thorne's 40. If the goal is to put Illinois' best five-man lineup on the court to start the game, Morgan should start in a heartbeat. But the only issue there is that the swap would hurt Illinois bench, which has been fairly disappointing, even more.
Ultimately, it's probably a move that Groce should make. And depending on the opponent, he might want to consider other options at the five too.
More athletic lineups
That plays right into the next area of focus, which touches on some previously highlighted issues. Illinois is not a good defensive team. Against high-major opponents, they are outmatched athletically much more often than not.
Groce should consider playing more of the athletes he has at the same time, even if it leads to less traditional lineups. The Hoosiers played some small-ball at times on Saturday, which had Groce playing Leron Black at the five and Nichols at the four. How about giving that a shot going forward?
What you lack in size probably isn't going to hurt you against most teams on the glass. Thorne isn't blocking any shots when the ball gets in the paint. The Illini need more groups that can collectively cover the floor and go up and rebound. Throw D.J. Williams in there too at 6-foot-7 with his length and mobility.
And heck, putting more athletes on the court can enable you to play with some defensive innovation. You know, instead of sitting in man-to-man waiting for a ball-screen to blow it up. Or letting some baseline cuts by an athletic forward eat up the 2-3 zone, along with some penetration and kick to open shooters.
It's the middle of the season. You're not going to see a drastic change over night. This isn't going to be a very good defensive team. But that doesn't mean Illinois shouldn't maybe try to get a little creative with the right matchup. Maybe put a smaller lineup on the court that can pressure or even run two guys at the ball.
Nebraska saw Maryland's ability to drive the lane, and they implemented a 1-3-1 zone with Ed Morrow (6-foot-7) on the baseline. It stymied the Terps down the stretch and the Huskers got a win on the road. Head coach Tim Miles said they worked on it for a couple days before the game and then let it fly.
The Illini haven't exactly been a team that has taken away anything their opponent wants to do offensively. So maybe they should try something different.
Prior to the season, Groce said that the experience and continuity of his roster would allow him and his staff to do more with game-planning and development.
"What that allows you to do as a coach is focus on the Xs and Os of the game. How to develop your team. How to develop each player. How to build them up. How to build your team up," Groce said back in October. "To me, that's a huge advantage for us when it comes to the experience and it's going to allow us, hopefully, to continue to take monster steps forward instead of small steps."
Monster steps forward have not been seen. But there are still attainable steps that Groce, his staff and this team can take down the path to the NCAA tournament.
You want to be playing your best basketball in March, but Illinois has to be playing well enough now. The next four games are largely important, and it's on Groce to take what he's seen, adapt, improve and make the most out of the opportunities at hand.