It's hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong for the Illini tonight, because seemingly everything did.
Illinois started the game red-hot, with Rayvonte Rice scoring ten of the team's first 12 points. The Illini would extend their lead to nine points early on before Oregon went on a small run to bring the game back to even. Illinois would take a 25-20 lead into the under-eight break of the first half, and the Illini looked poised to open the game up once their shots started falling.
The first half was almost entirely positive for the Illini: though Cosby and Starks continued to struggle, Rayvonte Rice was dominant and the team started 14-for-14 from the free throw line. Even Maverick Morgan and Jaylon Tate scored a few points apiece and played solid defense. Illinois went on a quick ten-point run to lead 35-22 with just a few minutes remaining in the half, but that would be their largest lead of the day.
Rayvonte Rice pic.twitter.com/X0ND5fVLcf— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) December 14, 2014
Just before half, Oregon made a run of their own and cut the lead from 13 all the way down to four. Illinois only led 39-35 at halftime, which would be crucial in the second half. In about 90 seconds, Oregon went from the edge of a blowout to a small deficit and real hope of a victory.
In the second half, the Ducks raised their intensity on both ends of the floor and quickly began threatening to take the game from the Illini. After a small scoring battle between Kendrick Nunn and Dwayne Benjamin, who would finish three-of-five from three-point range, Oregon finally broke through and took their first lead of the game, 48-46, with just under 15 minutes remaining. Rayvonte Rice responded immediately with a three to regain the lead, but he could only stave off the Ducks for so long.
Ducks star Dillon Brooks, who finished with a career-high 24 points, was called for his fourth foul with 11 minutes to play in the game. He sat out for the next five minutes, but Illinois was surprisingly unable to take advantage of his absence. The game stayed even for the most part, but Rayvonte Rice once again ignited the crowd into a frenzy with a steal-and-score to give the Illini a 57-55 lead.
Rayvonte Rice pic.twitter.com/arqifTpc8y— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) December 14, 2014
The Ducks did their best to shoot themselves in the foot with turnovers and poor shot selection, but the Illini seemed determined throughout the game to take even worse shots and commit even more mind-boggling errors. Illinois extended their lead to four points after an Ahmad Starks three with just under six minutes to play in the game. Oregon came back and quickly reclaimed the lead 66-64 after a broken possession ended in an easy layup.
The Illini would never lead again, despite Rayvonte Rice's best efforts. Rice hit two unbelievable contested threes to keep Illinois within range with under four minutes remaining but they would never be able to get over the hump. The most embarrassing play of the game, and the one that pretty much ended it, was when Ahmad Starks fouled a three-point shooter with under five seconds left on the shot clock, giving Oregon a seven-point lead with 90 seconds to play. Illinois got within three, but gave up a floater on their final defensive possession.
Three Things We Learned
1. This is still Rayvonte Rice's team.
Rayvonte Rice was absolutely ridiculous tonight. He finished with a game-high 29 points on nine-of-15 shooting, including five-of-seven shooting from three-point range. He was the only one out there with a pulse for most of the night. Malcolm Hill never got going, Kendrick Nunn was only aggressive in spurts, and Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby continued to toss up bricks. Some thought that Ray would take a step back this year, but it looks like this offense will come down to him unless the Illini find a way to move the ball effectively.
#Illini Rice shot 9 of 16 for 29 points. Rest of the team went 14 of 48.— Shannon Ryan (@sryantribune) December 14, 2014
2. The early season ball movement may have been a mirage.
The Illini devolved into near-constant hero-ball tonight, and it was disgusting to watch. They shot ill-advised jumper after ill-advised jumper throughout the entire game and it resulted in an extremely poor shooting percentage. Oregon shared the ball well enough and attacked the rim whenever possible, while the Illini seemed completely content to shoot off-balance fadeaways with the other team right in their faces. Cosby, Egwu, Hill, and Starks were all guilty of this. The Illini need to get back to the efficient passing they showed against lesser teams this year.
3. This team has no identity.
Last year's team rested on the haunches of their outstanding team defense: between Abrams, Rice, and Egwu, Illinois had a lock-down defender no matter where the opposing team's best player was on the floor. Without Abrams, the perimeter defense has taken a massive hit, exposing Egwu's sub-par defensive rebounding and over-extending the Illini help defense. Drive-and-kick sequences have led to several open threes for opponents throughout the last few games, at a rate unseen last season. Defense has been the calling card for Groce's Illini teams, but they were absolutely terrible tonight.
On the offensive side of the ball, Illinois hasn't solved their problems this year. The transfers haven't been able to buy a bucket. Cosby should not have been in the game for the last five minutes, especially given his recent slump. Nunn is a much better option at this point, especially when the team needs offensive creativity like it did today. Illinois had a prolific long-range attack throughout the first five games, then the offense bogged down and the players have gotten away from what made them the highest-scoring Illini squad in recent memory. On both offense and defense, the Illini have a lot of adjustments to make ahead of the Big Ten schedule.
Your Moment Of Zen
Kendrick Nunn loses a shoe pic.twitter.com/16mH3Tgih5— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) December 14, 2014
The season is not over, despite what panicked Illini fans on Twitter may believe. Plenty of Big Ten teams have losses worse than the Illini this season, including Michigan, Iowa, and Nebraska, all teams expected to place similar to the Illini in the B1G. Don't give up on this team yet, though they've given fans plenty of reason to worry over the last five games.