6-0….averaging 90 points a game. Illinois basketball was back and ready to compete at the top of the Big Ten.
After all, this was a different team who could do what the team last season couldn’t — score a ton of points. Gone were the fears that history would repeat itself for a third year in a row.
Nevermind who the Illini were playing, this team was for real.
Unfortunately, there’s been one big problem with this basketball team — it can’t play defense.
Score all the points you want, but if you can’t control the game with your defense it really doesn’t matter. So far this season the Illini are 11th in the Big Ten in scoring defense, giving up 63.9 points per game. That’s a number only good enough for 140th nationally as well.
On Saturday night the Illini suffered through the harsh lesson that defense wins games and championships once again, losing 77-70 to Oregon at the United Center in Chicago.
Following that loss head coach John Groce harped on the need for a better defensive effort.
#illini Groce on what concerns him most: "Defending. We have to defend better."
— Jeremy Werner (@JWernerScout) December 14, 2014
Talking about it and doing it are two very different things, and there’s been little of the latter as of late for the Illini.
It’s a program that has faced four “Power 6” conference opponents in the last five games and has lost three of those games. The only win? A 62-57 win over Baylor.
Funny, because it was the one game against a Power 6 conference team where the Illini played quality defense. The Illini held the Bears to just 33.3 percent shooting (17-51) and forced 15 turnovers in the win.
However, there were still some of the underlying issues that have plagued Groce’s teams since his arrival in Champaign. The biggest one happened to be the fact that Baylor managed to outrebound Illinois 47-33 despite the final score.
Winning six straight to open the season and doing it in emphatic fashion gave hope, but it’s becoming painfully obvious that its same story, different year in Champaign, Ill.
Last season we saw this team go 7-0 to start the season, but it was all against mid-major programs. Was this team for real? Of course not, as it proceeded to go .500 against “Power 6” teams — losing to Georgia Tech in the first game against real competition and then giving false hope in a win over No. 23 Missouri towards the end of non-conference play.
The Illini went on to go 7-11 in Big Ten play and backed in to the NIT, where it promptly lost to Clemson in a 50-49 “are we really still playing” 2nd round game.
Two years ago? It took until the Big Ten season for the familiar story to play out. In 2012-13 the Groce-led Illini went 12-0 to start the season, including wins over USC and No. 10-ranked Gonzaga. It then went on to lose to No. 12 Missouri and the momentum built earlier sunk.
Illinois went on to go just 8-10 in Big Ten play and barely got in the NCAA tournament.
Given the history of this team, any guess as to how this thing is going to play out in 2014-15?
Until this team shows it can consistently beat other teams from Power 6 conferences, and do it with defense, there’s little reason to believe this isn’t the same old song we’ve all heard and seen before.