Saturday is going to sting. No way around it.
The Illini, seeking their fourth Quad 1 win of the season and a chance to keep themselves within striking distance of a Big Ten regular season title, fumbled away a golden opportunity in East Lansing, 88-80.
Leading by eight with under seven minutes to play should be a recipe for a marquee road victory for a program that has prided itself on defense, toughness and physicality. Instead, Michigan State outscored Illinois 24-8 to close the game and take a win straight out of its hands.
A significant part of the collapse stemmed from a 7:17 field goal drought that prevented the Illini from extending its lead and putting the Spartans away for good.
But the crux of the issue, and the one that’s plagued this team for over a month now, is a steady drop off on the defensive end.
Since the Illini’s 23-point win over Missouri on Dec. 23, their defense ranks 95th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Bart Torvik. Up until that game, it ranked 19th.
That particular date is notable because it was the final game before Terrence Shannon Jr. —one of the Illini’s top defenders — started serving his six-game suspension. That hasn’t changed things though, as the number is actually worse since his return against Rutgers, ranking 105th nationally.
Saturday was just another example of what’s turned into a long line of defensive struggles in recent weeks. Michigan State’s 88 points and 1.26 points per possession did not reflect a team that had failed to crack 60 points four nights prior in Minneapolis. Or one that had been called out by its Hall of Fame head coach on multiple occasions for its offensive deficiencies.
To close the game, the Spartans mustered up 24 points in the final 6:32 of action, making seven of their final nine shots. Illinois was simply too mistake-prone and didn’t have their usual physicality when it mattered most.
Brad Underwood went as far as to call his team’s effort “soft.”
Not all too unfamiliar of late. Similar sentiments were uttered after the head-scratching loss to Maryland, after the mess in Evanston, and even just a week ago in a narrow escape against Nebraska. Not a pleasant theme to create.
The Illini’s defensive troubles have come from a variety of sources. But they’ve been consistent.
For as effective as the Illini’s NBA-style, matchup-hunting offense is, opponents have been able to do hunt nearly as many favorable matchups on the other end. When Illinois switches everything, teams are seemingly searching for matchups with Luke Goode and Marcus Domask guarding their quicker, more athletic guys. When up against a low post threat, teams are attacking Coleman Hawkins one-on-one. In ball screens, opposing guards are living at the rim far too comfortably against the Illini’s top perimeter options.
One thing has remained steady for this group: they have a championship-caliber offense. Currently just outside the top-five nationally, Illinois can score it with the best of them. An offensive trio of Terrence Shannon, Marcus Domask and Coleman Hawkins can be matched by very few potential March foes.
That’s not to dismiss the occasional offensive droughts or boneheaded decision-making. Fact is, the Illini’s ceiling lies solely on what they look like defensively a month from now.
History says one-dimensional teams shouldn’t book a long postseason stay. If the Illini want to clean things up and make a run as the postseason starts to peek over the horizon, they’re simply going to have to guard a heck of a lot better.
Part of it may need to come in the form of some schematic changes. Part of it boils down to simple effort and toughness and a willingness to get stops when it matters. Whatever the combination, Illinois needs to rediscover itself defensively with time slowly but ever so surely running out.
After all, defense wins championships, right? Or in this case, I’ll settle for two games in the NCAA Tournament.