USA Today // Rick Osentowski

Piper: Five steps to getting back on track

Illinois ended a three-game slide with a win over Iowa on Wednesday. What are the next steps this program has to take?

The Illini took one step up the proverbial ladder on Wednesday night with a 76-64 win against Iowa -- ending a three-game slide and improving their conference record to 3-5.

You know the thing about ladders, the first step is always the easiest. Especially when it's against a Hawkeyes team that was 0-4 on the road entering the game and had two Big Ten road losses by 20-plus. Not to mention, Peter Jok was a shell of his usual self due to a recurring back injury.

But Illinois still won the game. They got contributions from a variety of places, as Michael Finke (17 points), Maverick Morgan (12), Malcolm Hill (11) and Leron Black (10) all scored in double figures.

And John Groce finally made the necessary change of putting freshman point guard Te'Jon Lucas in the starting lineup, and it provided great results. Lucas had six points, six assists and two steals, while sparking a 10-0 start right out of the gate.

But even Groce said what everyone was already thinking: It's one game.

It was one step on Groce's motivational and metaphoric ladder. A baby step.

Wednesday's game wasn't a step that's going to put Illinois back on the 'first four in' rung of an NCAA tournament projection. Or the one below that. Or even the one below that.

The Illini need to take multiple steps in sequence just to give themselves a legit shot of climbing to where they want to be on the second Sunday in March. And of course, where the Illini stand on that day will say everything you need to know about Groce's future -- the hottest topic in Orange and Blue Country.

Most Illini fans have already positioned their opinion. And while large numbers would gladly have told Regis Philbin 'yes, final answer', the evaluation on this season, this team and this coach is still open and ongoing.

Minds can change and so can seasons -- even if unlikely. Groce can keep his ladder, but here are five real steps he needs his program to take to be on the right track.

Win back-to-back games

The Illini have played 27 Big Ten regular season games since they last won two straight in conference play back in 2015. To change tides you must change trends, and this is one Illinois needs to change immediately.

Following a win to Ohio State in the Big Ten home opener, the Illini went on the road at Indiana and found themselves down 15-0 before they could blink. After the Bloomington beatdown, Illinois came back home and defeated Michigan.

But they couldn't put a bow on the week-long homestand, as they went almost eight minutes without a point in the second half against Maryland and blew what was once a double-digit lead.

If Chutes and Ladders taught us anything, every ladder has a slide back to the bottom. And the Illini have found it after every Big Ten win for far too long.

But as the great ones do, they get right back on that... ladder. And here is Illinois' chance to take two steps in a row with their game at Penn State (11-10, 3-5) on Saturday.

The Nittany Lions have lost three in a row. They've lost back-to-back road games to Purdue and Wisconsin by 52 points combined. Not hard to do. But as Illinois fully understands, Penn State has been a different team at home.

They upset Minnesota, who was ranked No. 24 at the time, two weeks ago. The week before that, they beat Michigan State 72-63 in front of the home fans in Philadelphia. And even last week, it took a buzzer-beater by James Blackmon Jr. for Indiana to escape the Bryce Jordan Center with a win.

As usual, Penn State has a group that will grind you with toughness and defense. They're fifth in the league in defensive efficiency. And Pat Chambers has some talent and young pieces.

The Illini have lost five of their last seven trips to Penn State. And they've had plenty of road woes already this season. But this is a winnable game, and one they need to capitalize on.

Figure out your rotation

Ron Burgundy will read anything that is put on the teleprompter. And similarly, Groce seems to do whatever the predetermined substitution card says.

The Illini stormed out to a 10-0 lead on Wednesday night with buckets on four of their first five possessions. Jalen Coleman-Lands splashed a three. Lucas had one of his own, and he facilitated the first two scores before that.

But per the pregame plan, Groce subbed out Lucas, Coleman-Lands and Leron Black after three minutes and four seconds -- when his team was rolling. Two of his replacements were Tracy Abrams and Jaylon Tate, who missed two shots and had a turnover as Illinois' flow was halted.

Later in the half, Finke knocked down three treys in a span of two minutes and 24 seconds. After Iowa's next possession, Finke was subbed out during the media timeout.

Like an offensive coordinator scripting plays in football, it makes sense for Groce to have a plan for a substitution pattern. But if the quarterback is on fire, does that mean you go with the three straight run plays you had planned just because that's what sounded good in your office? You have to adjust your plan.

And as a whole, it's important for Groce to lock in on the right rotation. He's talked a lot about 'strength in numbers' all season. And that sounds nice. But he might want to look into cutting it back down.

The Illini played 10 guys double-digit minutes on Wednesday. It worked well enough for Illinois to win. But some would say Illinois won in spite of the rotation. And Illinois' substitution pattern was wild at Michigan too.

Groce should adapt to the temperature reading of his team. Lineups such as one that includes Tate, Abrams, Kipper Nichols and Mike Thorne Jr. all together should probably be avoided. And the best players should play the majority of the time.

The notable positive as it relates to that is Lucas started and played 27 minutes. He's been clearly the best point guard on the roster for a number of games. Finally, he got that kind of opportunity.

Illinois was +21 with Lucas on the floor. Abrams was -1 in 17 minutes and Tate was -11 in 15 minutes. Groce needs to mold this the right way.

Protect home court

After the weekend road trip to Penn State, the Illini have another set of big opportunities at home. Wisconsin (17-3, 6-1) comes to town on Tuesday. The Badgers are clearly the toughest opponent left on the schedule. Or put in another way -- the biggest shot for Illinois to put a quality win on the resume.

Wisconsin has not been kind to the Illini in recent memory. They've won 10 straight against Illinois, including their last four trips to Champaign. Groce is 0-7 against Wisconsin. And since 2007, the Illini are 4-17 in matchups with the Badgers.

That being said, Illinois needs to welcome the challenge. Remember back to the 2012-13 season. You know, the last time Illinois went to the NCAA tournament. Groce's team lost seven of their first nine Big Ten games. But when top-ranked Indiana strolled into town, they took advantage -- securing a win that carried a great deal of weight in March.

Next weekend, the Illini will square off with Minnesota in Champaign. That's a game Illinois needs, especially if they can't get it done against Wisconsin. The once-hot Gophers started the season 15-2 and 3-1 in the conference. But they've dropped four straight.

That's still a tough team, though. But being at home is where you want those battles. And fortunately for the Illini, four of their five toughest games left are at home: Wisconsin (1/31), Minnesota (2/4), Northwestern (2/21) and Michigan State (3/1). The other game in that group is a trip to Northwestern on Feb. 7, and the Wildcats are sitting pretty right now with a 6-2 conference mark.

The Illini will also host Penn State at home, and go on the road to Iowa, Nebraska and Rutgers.

Bottom line: The start of the Big Ten schedule for Illinois was what we thought. Pretty brutal. The latter part of the schedule has turned out to look tougher than originally projected -- based on both Illinois' play and how other teams have shaped up.

The Illini need to hit their stride down the stretch of conference play. The House of Paign hasn't exactly been a 'House of Pain' for opponents over Groce's tenure. He is 21-19 in Big Ten home games. But his team's strut has been much better at home than on the road recently. That record will need to wind up being even more games over .500 for Groce to have staying power at season's end.

Surge with Mark Smith

Illinois already has a very nice 2017 class signed and sealed. And Groce has full understanding that if this season doesn't stay above water, he may not get to be here to deliver that class to campus in June.

Recruiting is a huge factor in what happens next for this program. It's also Groce's biggest insurance policy right now. But Groce has to win, and that's what he has been focused on first and foremost.

Meanwhile, Edwardsville senior guard Mark Smith continues to have one heck of a season. At the outset, he seemed like a downstate gift just waiting for Illinois to scoop up. Smith grew up as an Illinois fan. He was a recruiting guest at the Braggin' Rights game. And he wanted an Illinois offer so bad, and while it probably should have came sooner, the Illini pulled the trigger on New Year's Day during his visit to Champaign.

But since then, Smith's recruitment has been set ablaze. Northwestern sent their entire staff to Edwardsville earlier this month and offered Smith. Chris Collins has made him a huge priority, and has put in a good amount of time to develop that one-on-one relationship.

Indiana head coach Tom Crean watched Smith at a game earlier this week. The Hoosiers have been one of a growing list of programs expressing interest. Purdue, Nebraska, California, Utah, Vanderbilt and others have also been involved. And then Kansas shows up at a practice this week.

Groce has plenty on his plate right now. Illinois doesn't desperately need Smith in terms of position, or the overall talent level of their current class. But he's a heck of a player with attributes the Illini could really use in their backcourt. They could use him now. 

But of course, Illinois is in a tough spot with the current situation surrounding the coaching staff. Still, the Illini have to make a strong push here. Groce needs to be locked in on the season, but that doesn't mean he should get outworked in this recruitment.

Smith has said that he'll look to take some visits again soon. He plays against Jeremiah Tilmon next Friday, and Illinois has a home game that Saturday against Minnesota. The staff already has Tilmon and his mom planning to come up for the game -- Tilmon's mom told IlliniInquirer.com earlier this week. They need to do what they can to lock Smith in on the visit list too.

And the Illini have to be in the thick of this race throughout the rest of the way.

Finish strong

For all the knocks that have been on Groce, his teams have consistently played better in the second half of the Big Ten season -- considering we toss out last season.

In 2015, Illinois won six of their last 10 Big Ten games and put themselves in a position to make the dance with just one more win at the Big Ten tournament. But they blew that with a 73-55 shellacking by Michigan.

In 2014, the Illini started 2-8 in Big Ten play. But they went on to win six of their next nine games, including a Big Ten tourney win over Indiana. Illinois had to pull the unlikely upset over top-seeded Michigan to make the dance. They played a very good game overall, but Abrams missed a bunny and the Illini missed the dance.

And then there was 2013. Illinois started 2-7 in the Big Ten. But then they stacked five wins in a row, and they also got a win in the first round of the conference tournament. Thus, the Illini got to dance.

Even when Groce was at Ohio, his conference record in the MAC was just average at 34-30. But he had two years when his team got hot late. During his last season in Athens, Ohio won 10 of 11 games to reach the Sweet Sixteen against North Carolina.

In 2010, his team was just 7-9 during the conference regular season. But Ohio rolled through the conference tourney and also got an upset win against Georgetown in the NCAA tournament.

Groce's current team has some talent. Can he flip that familiar switch this year? It was an ability that helped him get this job in Champaign. And it's one he'll need now to keep it.


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