As of January 9th, Illinois’ records stands at 11-5 with a conference record of 1-2. This currently puts them at 4th from the bottom in the B1G standings. Above Illinois sit teams like the 10-7 overall Hawkeyes, 10-7 Nittany Lions, a 13-4 Northwestern, and a 9-7 Nebraska. These records and standings show the unpredictability of the conference this year, a conference as wide open as I’ve seen it at my time at Illinois.

At 1-2, nobody can blame Illinois for losses at Maryland and at Indiana, even if we don’t know what kind of team Indiana is (wins against UNC and Kansas, but back to back to back losses at home). BUT, when you really look at these Illinois losses, a 25 point defeat at Maryland and a 16 point defeat at Indiana after being down 20+, these losses become more inexcusable. If we had lost by 5 or 6 to these teams? Fine. I can live with it. But when you’re getting absolutely manhandled by teams in the most basic of principles and fundamentals, well, then it becomes slightly more alarming.

So what’s gone wrong so far for Illinois? Here are two factors:

Rotation: John Groce has been mixing and matching his rotation plenty this season. JG has gone to four different starting rotations, (yes I realize Leron was suspended the first few games and was going to be thrust into the starting lineup once back) and I still don’t think that it’s necessarily the right starting lineup he should be going to. Mike Thorne Jr., you’re a great guy and there’s nothing junior about you, but I think that Thorne needs to be relegated to the bench for an emerging Maverick Morgan. Thorne is a massive human being coming in at 6’11 270 but he doesn’t have the coinciding athleticism to help his team in the way he is being asked to. His only offense is the baby hook, predictable and only somewhat effective, and he struggles to get downcourt to help his team on defense. Thorne can be effectively brought into situations where Illinois needs one or two half court stops, but I think the Thorne experiment needs to be shelved.

As someone who yelled at Mav from Orange Krush many times this season that he needs to be tougher and unofficially calling him the softest big man in the Big Ten, I think he’s emerged as one of the bright spots on this team, offensively at least. I think he’s starting to understand how he can be effective on offense and is getting more physical on defense. JG’s jam is defense, just ask him why he’s been so unwilling to throw Te’jon into the mix, but I think that Johnny boy needs to let Mav take over the starting spot and prove to us Illinois fans he can play defense in this conference.

Another aspect of the rotation that questions me as a fan are the substitutions. I could go on all day on my opinion that Te’jon should be playing extended minutes, heck maybe even letting him start a game and see what happens, but I’ll wait for Jaylon Tate to have another scoreless, two assist game. I want to focus on the actual substitutions.

JG’s substitutions feel like they are way too predetermined. What I mean by that is that if Groce and Co. want Thorne out for Finke at exactly 16 minutes, he’s gonna get him in there at 16, no matter the situation.

I’ve noticed times where a player will be playing some good minutes, Leron knocking down some jumpers, Tracy feeling good, etc… But then all of a sudden JG throws ’em to the bench for “fresh” legs. It would be one thing if they were struggling, but if you got a guy vibing on the court, then god dammit John, leave him out there. It’s obviously necessary to have a set rotation for guys, but if someone is ballin’, let ’em play Coach G.

Defensive efficiency: For a coach who cares so much about defense, they haven’t been putting up the numbers that should match that. Go back and watch the Indiana game (if you dare), and you’ll see how many wide looks Indiana shooters had. The zone defense struggled to cover the open man and help defense was anything but.

Out of the 351 NCAA Division 1 basketball teams, Illinois ranks 169th in defensive efficiency (hey, we’re only one behind Gardner-Webb and 20 behind Samford!) Now, I’d be lying if I told you exactly how defensive efficiency is calculated, but when Press Virginia is number one, it’s gotta hold some sort of water.

Want some more awesome metrics to further prove how much this defense struggles to even stop a nose bleed? No? Well here you go:

  • 239th in opponent points from 3 pointers
  • 32.2% percent of those points are three-pointers, that is 234th in the country
  • 194th in opponent points per game
  • The most important, hugely correlating stat: The ONLY bald coach in the B1G ten. C’mon John, you can’t blame your teams play on your alopecia

I know that these stats can be misleading, and the difference between let’s say 100th, and 150th might be a matter of a few points. But I still think that these statistics are troubling given that our head coach has put so much emphasis on defense and will not play players because of their lack of experience and understanding of the defense that Illinois plays.

I would love nothing more than for me to end up with my foot in my mouth at the end of the year, with Illinois in the top half of the B1G, and not seeing Illinois’ rank in these metrics change by that much. But I don’t see how that can happen. These numbers are a testament to Illinois’ inability to get stops, inability to stop teams from hitting 3 pointers, and an inability to stop teams from doing significant damage off the dribble.

As I said after the IU recap, Illinois is not out of it, there’s still lots of ball to be played. A 1-2 start to some solid squads isn’t going to end Illinois bid at a ticket to the tourney, but they’re going to need to do some solid convincing. They’re going to have to win the one’s there supposed to win, win at home, AND GET A ROAD VICTORY FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.

These games weren’t gimmes at the beginning of the season, and they look like less of gimmes now. Why? Well partly because Illinois’ probably hasn’t lived up to expectation so far, but because teams like Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn. State, and Northwestern have all turned some heads with their play on the court.

It’s going to a bloodbath in the Big Ten this year for not only supremacy but for middle of the pack mediocrity as well.

Statistics taken from Teamrankings.com and NCAA.org

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