Want to know something? I’ve hardly watched Illinois play basketball this season. Sure, it hasn’t helped that a huge handful of games have been televised on alternate platforms that aren’t readily available (i.e. ESPN3), however it’s always possible to get around such content barriers on the Internet. Nope — I hardly give a damn anymore. Even so, I decided to watch all 40 excruciating minutes of the Indiana game on Saturday night. Great call on my part, right?
To be clear, the Orange and Blue were never going to defeat the No. 25 Hoosiers on the road; I said as much on the TCR Twitter account by maintaining that “looking competitive” should’ve been the base expectation for fans. Tom Crean’s struggling squad may have been riding a three-game losing streak, yet the Hoosiers recorded impressive wins over Kansas and Kentucky during non-conference play. Plus, John Groce was the owner of a shiny 11-26 conference road record as head coach of the Fighting Illini. Let’s not even talk about the staggering difference in athleticism and talent, either. So a full week of preparation is essentially all that stood between Illinois and pure annihilation.
And then, you know, the game started.
The Hoosiers bolted out to a predictable 15-0 lead. Malcolm Hill recorded three fouls within five minutes of opening tip. Hell, it took 6:05 minutes for Illinois to score their first points, which came at the free throw line. The start of this game was an unmitigated disaster and Indiana’s lead eventually ballooned to 22 points before the Illini realized basketball was being played at the Assembly Hall.
There really wasn’t anything Illinois could do at that point. James Blackmon Jr. (25 points), Thomas Bryant (20 points), and OG Anunoby (12 points) looked like three future NBA talents, so containing them while battling back from such a deficit for the upset wasn’t realistic.
But for all the bad, I’d be remised if I didn’t touch on Illinois’ second half effort. Indiana’s players were probably phoning it in down the stretch, and some stop-and-go action due to over-officiating wasn’t helping, but the Illini played their damned hearts out to at least stay within striking distance. Illinois went +3 against one of the nation’s top teams thanks to some remarkable individual performances. Malcolm Hill had 21 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists in 28 minutes. Jalen Coleman-Lands had a season-high 21 points while shooting 5-8 from behind the arch. Maverick Morgan even had 18 points!
You know what else was great about the second half? Groce was finally forced to give his bench players some extended minutes. Te’Jon Lucas — the freshman guard that doesn’t typically see the court for some inexplicable reason — had a team-high +8 plus/minus rating while notching 6 points and 4 assists in 15 minutes. Additionally, redshirt-freshman Kipper Nichols (4 points and 4 rebounds) brought a huge amount of energy to the court in similar time. I understand that Groce wants to stick with a set rotation given his ‘veteran’ lineup, but man, if someone isn’t playing well then please stop hesitating to sub in the next option.
Think about all of that. It makes the mind-numbingly atrocious start a lot harder to take in. Had the coaching staff not completely failed to get their players ready, the Orange and Blue may very well have had a chance in spite of the reasons I listed above.
Regardless, I think I’m OK with the 96-80 final score — mostly because I predicted a 14-point defeat beforehand. We already knew that Illinois isn’t able to play a lick of defense, and the same can be said of the staff’s inability to muster up anything resembling consistency. Perhaps the Illini can make this defeat more manageable by finding a way to carry over those second half positives into the next game.