Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu and Tyler Griffey have been the five Illini to start every game this season. It was those five through the hot start and it's been those five through recent struggles. But when the Illini return to Champaign and take the court at Assembly Hall against Northwestern on Thursday the starting lineup could look different.
It may have just been anger following Saturday's loss against Wisconsin -- what was easily our worst loss of the season, both in the result and the effort put forth -- but John Groce sounded like a man who was ready to mix things up after the game. When he was asked if the lackluster play could lead to changes Groce made it sound like it definitely would.
‘‘Everything's open at this point,'' Groce said. ‘‘The thing that was most disappointing to me was, at the end of the day, [the Badgers'] competitive spirit was better than ours. That's unacceptable. That's not what we're about.''
The problem Groce faces is trying to figure out what changes to make. Yes, he can make changes just for the sake of mixing things up and hoping it lights a fire in some people, or he can make a change that he thinks will actually help improve this team and the play we've seen in the last two games.
But what changes will they be?
Without any inside knowledge of what Groce is thinking, I do believe it's safe to assume that Tyler Griffey is going to see somebody replacing him in the starting lineup. After a very promising start to the season that saw Griffey score at least 10 points or more in eight of Illinois' first nine games, his production has dropped off considerably. In the ten games since Griffey's reached double-digits in points once. That was his 14-point game against Missouri when he shot 4-of-7 from three.
Outside of that afternoon, however, it hasn't been pretty. In the other nine games he's averaging 4.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and shooting 37% from the field (21% from three) while playing 22 minutes a game. As a stretch four Griffey's strength in the offense is his ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shot. But when you've only made 2 treys in the entire month of January (2-for-14) and you aren't a strong rebounder or defender, you're going to lose your minutes.
So it's safe to assume Griffey's spot in the starting lineup is in serious jeopardy, but who replaces him?
It's entirely possible that Groce would just accept the fact that the Illini are going to struggle down low and on the boards against just about everybody in the Big Ten this season and decide to counter that by going "small." This would mean taking Joe Bertrand off the bench and inserting him into the starting lineup, giving us a four-guard lineup with Nnanna Egwu at center. There are benefits to this lineup, as it will be hard for a lot of Big Ten teams to guard. It would also give the Illini two guards who aren't afraid to attack the rim -- three when Brandon Paul feels up to it -- on the floor. It may even help rebounding. After all, JoeTales is averaging 4.6 rebounds a game. Only Brandon Paul is averaging more.
The problem with Bertrand is it leaves us with a bench without much firepower.
The other option would be to try and get "bigger" by replacing Griffey with Sam McLaurin. Sam doesn't bring much on the offensive end, but he could help on the boards. Right now there are only two players in the Big Ten with a higher offensive rebounding rate than McLaurin: Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe and Indiana's Cody Zeller. Having McLaurin out there for more minutes could create more chances on offense.
The problem with this is it doesn't leave us with a true big on the bench should Nnanna have another Wisconsin game and just start fouling everything that moves.
Then there's the wild card option. One that I don't see happening, but one that Groce could take just to make a point.
After yesterday's loss Mike Shaw was the only player that Groce seemed happy with.
‘‘One guy that played his butt off was Mike Shaw,'' Groce said. ‘‘Mike Shaw played like his head was held under water. That's what I'm looking for.''
Shaw played 19 minutes yesterday after playing only 20 minutes all season before Saturday. And Groce was right. Shaw's effort yesterday was fantastic, even if the numbers in his box score line don't show that. Could Groce give the 6-foot-8 sophomore a chance to bring energy to the floor in place of Griffey? It would send a message to Griffey and leave strength in the bench from Bertrand and McLaurin.
But it probably doesn't make the Illini a better team.
So Groce has options. But which one should he choose?