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The Illini lost their focus

They need to find it Thursday night.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Between Hack-a-Kofi and Co., forcing Ayo to his left, and intimidating Illinois into missing 20 layups, Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans shut down Illinois’s high-powered offense on Tuesday. Sure, it’s okay to have a clunker now and then. But the issue on Tuesday, aside from MSU potentially seriously injuring Illinois’s two best players, was a lack of focus. Missing as many layups and free throws as they did is unacceptable for any team, let alone one that wants to win the Big Ten title.

Trent Frazier was the only bright spot on Tuesday. He had what is becoming a routinely efficient performance, with 22 points on 13 shots, and an eFG% of 69.2%. The other primary ball handler Andre Curbelo had some nice takes toward the end of the game, but it was too little, too late. His missed free throws and turnovers (and multiple near turnovers) set the tone for the Illini early, and they continued to mar his excellent abilities.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili had a rough night on both ends of the floor. Regardless of the missed shots from point blank, he didn’t close out effectively on the perimeter, and he wasn’t assertive in the paint. Hopefully Brad Underwood and Chin Coleman give Giorgi some quality looks against Nebraska ahead of Illinois’s upcoming gauntlet of road games. But even against Nebraska, I’d try to minimize his time on the floor in favor of a four and five combo of Da’Monte Williams and Coleman Hawkins when Kofi’s out.

Kofi Cockburn’s missed free throws have become a problem. As good as Ayo is, Kofi is Illinois’s most reliable scorer. He’s getting 1.71 points per shot as opposed to Ayo’s 1.31, so whether he gets the bucket or has to take free throws, you’re expecting to score every time he gets the ball. Over the last five games, Kofi is 20-of-39 from the line, and Tuesday his missed free throws were basically the difference in the game.

I’ll forgive Ayo’s missed free throws towards the end of the game after Mady Sissoko clotheslined him like it was the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals. But, his inability to drive left off the dribble showed again, perhaps indicating why he’s still not projected to go in the first round on most big boards.

Illinois will only have one day of rest before each of their next two games, so they won’t have much time to practice. The good news is that there is a low injury risk, high reward drill that the Illini can focus on in the next few days. And it’ll help the team with all of the nasty fouls that they’re drawing.

It’s called free throws.