When news broke in early September that senior point guard Tracy Abrams would be out for the year due to a torn ACL, I was devastated. First Darius Paul is dismissed from the team and now this. Two huge hits to the first "true" John Groce-built Illinois roster. But then I started really looking at the construction of the 2014-15 team, and saw some very strongly-opinionated videos on how Abrams' injury was a blessing in disguise, and that this team would be just fine if not better off without him, and my trepidation disappeared. Transfer guards Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby were going to more than make up for the loss of Abrams, right? And incoming big men Leron Black and Michael Finke were going to help with the depth in the front court that was lost when Paul left, right? And maybe Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert could become solid substitution players and help out at the 4 and 5 spots, right? This team was going to win somewhere between 20 and 26 games and be a lock for the NCAA tournament with all this incoming and developing talent, right?
Wrong. And oh boy, was it ever evident against Oregon at the United Center this past weekend. In case you missed the game (and the subsequent Twitter meltdown), the Illini lost by seven to a bad Ducks team in what was practically a home game. At one point late in the first half Illinois was leading by thirteen, but then Oregon went on a 55-35 run over the remaining portion of the game to shock the Illini faithful. And shocked they were:
Don't blame fans for melting down after this one. Subpar performances versus 3 straight quality opponents. Offense bad vs. 4 quality foes.— Jeremy Werner (@WernerESPNCU) December 14, 2014
Yeah, it's time to panic. Brutal showing and it makes you question how far the Illini have come in three years— Alex Roux (@aroux94) December 14, 2014
@breitwieser you can't lose this game...Unacceptable by every measurement— Kyle Wiese (@Kwiese06) December 14, 2014
By the way, Illinois basketball sucks. Shouldn't lose to a lesser opponent.— Paxton G. Strouse (@pax_strouse) December 14, 2014
Bruce Weber was justifiably fired for not making the NCAA Tourn. If John Groce can't do it either, he will meet a similar fate. #Illini— TeamVulture (@TeamVulture) December 14, 2014
Following the Miami loss, the fanbase was disappointed. The hope was that the horrid shooting in that game was just an anomaly. Then came a lackluster performance against American University (a win albeit) where the offensive trend continued; Starks and Cosby combined for just twelve points, and the team committed a whopping 19 turnovers. Then came a primetime matchup against seventh-ranked Villanova, where, to their credit, the Illini were able to hang tough until the 8:00 mark in the second half. The Wildcats ended the game on a 23-9 run where the Illinois offense looked totally inept. No ball movement, no rhythm, no flow. Starks and Cosby went a combined 2-for-13 from the floor and managed a measly seven points between them.
These were the sharp-shooter transfers that were supposed to swoop in and save the team from the loss of Tracy Abrams. Now they can barely manage to reach half of his level of production between the two of them. They were supposed to be role players for a tournament-bound team. Now the only role they're playing a big part in is the team's losses. Fast forward to the Oregon game and the two struggled mightily once again. A combined 3-for-15 for eight points. And let me be clear; these three losses were not all solely the fault of Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby. But other than Rayvonte Rice, they're the ones who dictate the flow of the offense, an offense which has been really bad in the last five games.
Remember when the Illini were #1 in the country in scoring? Over 100 points per game. I don't care if it was against Coppin State and Austin Peay, when a team breaks school records and scores over 230 points in two games that's impressive. Now they're 31st in the nation in scoring and are only at 79 points per game. Stop me if you've heard this before: the offense has been bailed out by Rayvonte Rice because he's the only player who looks totally competent on both sides of the ball. Sound like last season? When the team had no offensive ability whatsoever and relied entirely on Rice? Well I've got news for you; that is what's happening all over again. Look at the point guard production last year through ten games compared to it this season:
2013-14 PG stats: 11.2PPG (points), 4.1RPG (rebounds), 3.2APG (assists), 1.3SPG (steals)
2014-15 PG stats: 7.7PPG (points), 2.1RPG (rebounds), 3.2APG (assists), 0.6SPG (steals)
None of those stats have gone up since last year. Ahmad Starks and Jaylon Tate have combined to average significantly worse numbers than Tracy Abrams and Jaylon Tate through ten games. Now let's average Starks' stats with Cosby's and compare them to just Tracy's:
Tracy Abrams through 10 games: 11.2PPG (points), 4.1RPG (rebounds), 3.2APG (assists), 1.3SPG (steals)
Starks & Cosby through 10 games: 8.0PPG (points), 2.7RPG (rebounds), 2.7APG (assists), 0.3SPG (steals)
Still worse than Abrams in every category. The point here? This team is in an offensive decline from last season statistically speaking. And they were supposed to be lightyears ahead of the 2013 Fighting Illini on that side of the ball by this point in 2014. But perhaps the most troubling thing of all to me was the statement Coach Groce made after the loss to Oregon:
I'm not going to say we played poorly offensively. Because we didn't. This game has nothing to do with the offense. Nothing. I mean, the ball moved well, we had good ball energy...
He went on to say that the defense of the Illini has been the sole culprit of their losing three out of the last four games. That's not totally incorrect, the defense most certainly needs to get better. But Oregon is one of the highest-scoring teams in the country. They average 80 points per game. So the Ducks scoring 77 points was not as much of a shock as the Illini only reaching 70. Oregon allows the most outside three-pointers of any major conference team, and the Illini only hit five of them if you take away two three's that Rayvonte Rice just chucked up in the final minute of the game. Make no mistake, the defense needs work. But the offense? It needs a rebuild. Leron Black, a talented freshman, is only getting seven minutes per game. His nickname is "Savage" and is honestly one of the only guys bringing 110% energy 100 percent of the time. And between him and Maverick Morgan, there were at least three illegal screens called on Saturday. You need to know how to set a proper screen; that's on the coaches. You need to setup better gameplans and better sets of plays; that's on the coaches. The ball movement, something John Groce doesn't seem to be concerned about in the least, was horrid against Oregon; that's on the coaches too.
@cole_Henke it's flat out poor coaching. Trying to make an offensive philosophy work that just won't— Alex Roux (@aroux94) December 14, 2014
Harsh #Illini reality is that Groce has gotten more love so far than he's actually earned. I hope he truly earns it soon.— Dave Wischnowsky (@wischlist) December 14, 2014
I really like John Groce. I love the energy he brings, I love the way he recruits, the parents and kids always love him, and he handles press conferences with such confidence and enthusiasm that you can't help but smile when you listen to the guy. However, winning press conferences and bringing home silver medals for recruiting only goes so far. And if his actual team continues to show no consistency or improvement from an NIT appearance in 2013, that's exactly where they'll be headed again this postseason.