Try to explain this Illinois team. You can’t.
Following an impressive four-game winning streak that had many fans believing they had finally figured it out and were primed for the success many expected in the preseason, the Illini were utterly dominated Thursday in their home building by a depleted Indiana team, 80-65.
It just made no sense. Coming into the game, Illinois was defending at an extremely high level and, all of a sudden, an Indiana team sitting a measly 2-4 in Big Ten play walks into State Farm Center and puts up 80 points on 1.18 points per possession. And its big man, Trayce Jackson-Davis, drops 35 on 15-for-19 shooting.
Illinois allowed 54 points in the paint. Fifty. Four. For a team that prides themselves on the length and athleticism they’re able to have on the court at all times, that’s a staggering number.
Offensively, it was a mess as well. Constant misses around the rim, 9-for-23 from the free throw line, far too much isolation. Aside from Terrence Shannon’s 26 — and he wasn’t free from some brutal misses either — nobody had it going. A complete 180 from the high-level ball movement and fluid possessions we saw during the two weeks prior.
We know that it isn’t always like this. That’s the problem. We’ve all watched this team beat UCLA and Texas early, we just witnessed them seemingly find their footing again and rattle off a winning streak that included two road blowouts.
We’ve also seen them get basically blown out from tip to finish by the likes of Penn State, Missouri, Northwestern, and now Indiana. Not exactly a list of National Championship contenders.
Here’s a good indicator of just how much of a Jekyll and Hyde situation this is.
In Illinois’ 7 wins over major conference opponents this year, their average margin of victory is 15.43 points.
Average margin of defeat in their 6 losses? 13.17 points.
Obviously, an imperfect science, but the overall message being that when this team is rolling, they’re really darn good and when things aren’t going well, it can get ugly.
So, what exactly should we make of this team?
The talent is undeniable. The chemistry and fluidity between that talent is questionable.
It may just be a case where we have to live with the high ceiling, low floor nature of this group. We may be left wondering the rest of the season which version of the team is going to show up for any given game.
I’ll be optimistic for a second and say that this is still a team that can make a lot of noise. The Big Ten regular season title is pretty much off the table — Purdue already has a stranglehold on that in mid-January — but I think it’s fair to say the primary goal for most of the fanbase at this point is a Sweet 16 appearance. That can still very much happen.
I don’t think Illinois will have to worry about making the tournament. With two phenomenal non-conference wins to bank on, it probably only takes a .500 Big Ten finish to get in, which really shouldn’t be an issue with this team’s schedule.
The key, come March, has to be finding some sort of consistency. Being able to adjust when things aren’t going right and finding a way to give yourself a chance every night.
With the versatility this team presents, it shouldn’t be so hard to make adjustments and play different ways based on a particular opponent. On paper, Illinois seemingly has multiple ways to beat you offensively and is capable of playing a variety of coverages defensively. Yet against Indiana, we witnessed the same thing beat them for 40 straight minutes and frustratingly, they had no answers to stop it.
One thing’s for sure, this Illinois team is going to take us on a giant roller coaster ride. And there’s still two months until it’s over.