USA Today // Marc Lebryk

Piper: Lack of consistency is frustrating

An opportunity slipped away on Saturday against Maryland. The Illini need more consistency as they hit the road this week.

Illini fans couldn't help but grumble and stir in their seats on Saturday as they watched their team miss out on a sizable opportunity against Maryland -- falling 62-56 and dropping to 2-3 in conference play.

The game was very much there for the taking. A game against an NCAA tournament-level opponent.

Illinois played arguably their best defensive half of the season in the first. The Terps scored just 27 points in 20 minutes, and three of their 11 buckets were fastbreak run-outs that don't happen without bad turnovers.

And Maryland did them a few favors too. They didn't come with their best game. They chucked threes in the first half instead of focusing more on the drive -- the most glaring point of attack for them in the 25-point win against Illinois in the Big Ten opener.

But this game was different. And it felt different. And the season started to feel different. The win against Michigan on Wednesday in impressive fashion was an attention-grabber.

It helped spike Saturday's attendance up past 14,000, which was the largest total since the night the State Farm Center reopened on Dec. 2, 2015 against Notre Dame. For as many doubters that were already well dug in, they were watching. Most with at least a barely-cracked-open mind.

But the second half reminded those fans in the stands and watching at home why that rise inside in relation to Illinois basketball doesn't rev up like it once did. Like it wants to. It was a reminder of what this team is and what this program has been: Painfully inconsistent.

A near eight-minute scoring drought in the second half was backbreaking. It was horrid. It was a lot of things.

Some would say it was so Illinois. An anemically bad stretch that lost them the game. Like the start at Indiana. Or the finish against Winthrop and Florida State. Or the bulk of the game at Maryland and against West Virginia. 

Whatever the name, it was part of a collapse that was once an 11-point lead in the first half and turned into a loss. Fans filed out frustrated.

Illini head coach John Groce called it disappointing.

"Just disappointing because I thought we played some pretty good basketball really this week. Would have liked to have gotten both. But it just didn't go that way," he said.

The Illini have gone a while without 'getting both'. Illinois hasn't won back-to-back Big Ten regular season games since 2015. There's one other team that hasn't during that stretch: Rutgers.

That's concerning. Of course, last season has to be taken with a grain or two of salt due to the circumstances. But even in all five of his seasons, the Illini have never won consecutive games in January under Groce.

There's unreal parity in college basketball and in the Big Ten. That's why you see 10 of the 14 teams with two or three conference losses at this juncture. And with their beginning Big Ten schedule, it's not a surprise Illinois is one of them.

But unfortunately, wins against Michigan and Ohio State don't look as good as they would in previous seasons. They're not NCAA tournament teams now or probably in two months. And if you look at Joe Lunardi's most recent Bracketology, the Illini are 1-5 against teams that are projected in the field. VCU is the one win, and the five losses are by 80 points combined.

Again, it's disappointing. And an upcoming trip to Mackey Arena against Purdue on Tuesday probably won't have fans hopeful enough to get disappointed. Lose that game and you're 2-4 in the Big Ten heading to Michigan, which is still a place where Illinois has lost seven of their last eight.

KenPom has Illinois projected to lose their next two on the road. If you look at their game-by-game projections, they have Illinois losing nine of their last 13. But the overall calculated finish sits higher at 8-10 in conference and 18-13 on the season.

In dance terms: The wrong side of the bubble. And that's if the Illini win some of those games in which they're not favored. Being on the bubble in general -- let alone the wrong side -- is frustrating for a good faction of Orange and Blue constituents.

'Member October? When we said 'if this team is healthy...'

"I think we've got a chance to do something special," Groce said at Illinois basketball media day. "We have high standards. We're pursuing excellence here."

"At the beginning of every year, I always remind myself that what we're trying to do is control what we can control, and the team that we have, we want them to overachieve."

This team is healthy. Overachieving? Haven't seen that yet.

"We will show. Talk is cheap," Tracy Abrams said on that October day.

The talk was different on Saturday. After Malcolm Hill managed to score just two points in the second half. After a post-trapping defense sent the Illini offense through a loop. After Abrams' decline went to a scoreless level for the first time all year and took his shooting slump to 1-of-17 from three in Big Ten play.

The players insisted that the loss was more attributed to the defensive end in the second half.

"Our defense wasn't up to par in the second half -- or it was just okay in the second half," Hill said. "Isn't good enough. It's kinda getting late in the season. We need to figure that out fast."

A very true point, and one of the few team-originated comments that have hinted with urgency thus far. Eight weeks from now, the NCAA tournament selection committee will have already made their tough decisions and released their bracket for Greg Gumbel to share with the country.

Where will Illinois fall in the conversation? There's many games left to decide that. One ingredient the Illini could use is a nice-looking road win. This week provides, as we continue to say, another opportunity.

The thing about opportunities is you expect a veteran team to be steadier with them. As steady as you can be in the wild world of college basketball. But experience, mixed with talent, should produce poise and reliability in the form of results.

But the fact is that those riding with the Illini will probably be riding a familiar roller coaster the rest of the way. Down. Up. Down again. Unexpected up. Back down. That's the way the middle portion of this league looks. That's the way this team looks.

The hope will probably be to ride the bubble long enough to float in come March. Not exactly 'special'. That's not to say a bubble team can't do something special. Syracuse took a 19-win season and won four games in the tournament to go to the Final Four last year.

But that is a shade of a different 'Orange'. Right now, it's about finding a level of consistency that just gets you invited to the party.

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