This season of Illinois basketball has been an exercise for all fans of the Orange and Blue. A team that was expected to contend for a national ranking and place in the upper half of the Big Ten standings team has shown glimmers of promise while showcasing great ineptitude.
The question is what’s going on with John Groce’s team, and why does this squad seem to struggle in games they should win handedly? The short answer is defense.
In all but 2 of their 7 wins, Illinois has held their opponent to under 70 points. Two of their last three wins have come while allowing 74 and 77 points.
However, it’s more than just your basic defensive effort, or lack thereof, that seems to be a looming danger over the 2016-17 campaign. Losses to Winthrop, West Virginia, and Florida State show major ball control issues. Turnovers plagued the Illini in those three contests as they coughed the ball away 22, 24, and 11 times, respectively. After the games on December 6, Illinois ranked No. 247 in the nation (out of 351 teams) with an offensive turnover rate of 20.6%. But, luckily, a combined 22 steal-effort over the course of this recent three-game winning streak has been enough to counteract those miscues by regaining some crucial possessions.
Rebounding has also proved to be somewhat of a concern given the size and experience of the frontcourt. Illinois has so far played four high-major programs on the season, and the team is only averaging 2.9 positive rebound margin against those opponents. Illinois’ overall rebounding margin ranks No. 143 nationally, which normally would be pretty average and respectable. But it is rather worrisome after looking at the schedule and noting that Maverick Morgan, Mike Thorne Jr., Mike Finke, and Leron Black should’ve dominated smaller competition.
Additionally, Illinois seems to struggle in transition. They leave the lane open far too often, and when they do manage to funnel opponents back to the three-point arch, secondary defenders just aren’t in a position to contest open shots.
It’ll be a long and frustrating Big Ten season if these trends continue for Illinois. But with Winter break comes a few prolonged stretches of off days, meaning the coaching staff will have more than enough opportunities to rectify some of the problems during practice.