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Michigan 79, Illinois 69: What we learned

Illinois remains winless in Big Ten play with a loss on the road to Michigan.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois dropped their fourth straight conference game yesterday against Michigan. Michigan was always going to be a tough matchup for the Illini, but Illinois came out strong and had a lead after the first half buzzer. Sadly, no one cares who wins the first half, and Illinois was unable to keep pace with a very good Michigan team in the second half.

Here are some top takeaways.

1. Three-point shooting woes.

Illinois made no threes in the second half against Michigan, while only taking six shots from deep. The Illini were 3-14 in the game overall compared to and 8-20 mark for the opposition. The inability to hit from three-point range made it difficult for the Illini to cut into the Michigan lead.

The offense itself wasn’t running too badly. The team kept the ball moving well and were getting some decent looks, but when you can’t shoot the three it puts extreme pressure on the offense to capitalize on every chance. Illinois didn’t, and lost because of it.

Three-point shooting has been an issue for Illinois all season. The team is currently ranked 272nd in the NCAA out of 351 teams — which places them in the bottom 25% of all teams — in three-point shooting percentage (32.7%). Illinois is ranked 115th in three-point shots attempted and are shooting sixteen of them per game.

Illinois has only three players who are shooting above 30% on the season (Aaron Jordan, Leron Black, Kipper Nichols, and Michael Finke).

Aaron Jordan started off the season on fire from deep and was leading the NCAA in three-point shooting percentage. He has slowed his pace. In the last five games, Jordan is shooting 3-12 from three-point range. He isn’t getting many attempts as a stationary shooter. It should be noted that even though Aaron Jordan is still shooting above 50% on his three-point shots, he doesn’t appear on the NCAA leaderboard as he doesn’t hit the necessary 2.5 three-pointers a game to qualify.

In modern-day college basketball, the three-point shot isn’t just a thing that teams can use to score points. It is something teams must use to have an effective offense. Right now Illinois is, quite simply, a bad three-points shooting team and it hampers the ability for the Illini to score enough points.

2. Mark Smith couldn’t sustain his hot start

Mark Smith got off to a very fast start for Illinois, scoring eight of the first eleven points for the Illini. Those would be the only points Mark Smith scored for the entire game.

Smith was one of the best, if not the best scorer for the Illini early in the season, but he has struggled as of late to find his rhythm in the offense. Smith’s six turnovers against Michigan were also a career high.

The former Mr. Basketball still has a lot of potential, and Illinois fans should remain hopeful that Smith can find his way out of his freshman struggles. It just may end up being in his sophomore season.

3. Kipper Nichols had a great game, defending the 5 at times as well

When Kipper Nichols is on, he is on. The redshirt sophomore tied a career high with 17 points and led the team with seven rebounds. Nichols played 22 minutes, marking the first time he played over 20 minutes since the UNLV game. Nichols’ scoring helped Illinois stay within striking distance in the second half.

During one stretch, Illinois ran a unit of four guards with Kipper at the five covering 6’ 11” Moritz Wagner. I wouldn’t say this unit worked — far from it actually, it was bad — but Kipper did make the most of it.

The focus on effort comes and goes for Nichols. He’s a very hot and cold player. He is a talented player who needs to find a way to be more consistent on both ends of the floor. It can be frustrating to see someone like Nichols only played seven minutes against Minnesota while shooting 1-7. He has the ability, but can he put it together for multiple games in a row?