Illinois Will Continue to Slump Without More Consistent OffensePosted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on January 26th, 2014
After a 12-2 non-conference record and a 2-0 start to the conference season, Illinois was considered a likely candidate to make the postseason. However, with an offense that has sputtered to average just 0.95 points per possession in Big Ten play, it appears that the Illini don’t stand a chance against the rest of the conference. Opposing defenses have figured out John Groce’s predictable offense this season and have exposed the team’s biggest weaknesses – a lack of consistent three-point shooting and a play-maker who can create offense in the half-court. An inside scoring presence wouldn’t hurt as well, as Nnanna Egwu has regressed after a decent sophomore season.
During the first two months of the season, Rayvonte Rice appeared to be what Illinois fans wanted Brandon Paul to become during his four years in Champaign – a freak athlete who could punish defenses in the paint with his body. In order to understand their offensive issues, let’s review Rice’s slide during the recent four-game losing streak. Against Ohio State, he couldn’t buy a shot and finished without a single point in what was a must-win game. He is good at what he does — penetrate the paint off of screens going to his right — but the same play has become predictable. Egwu and Jon Ekey have the ability to hit an open jumper, but neither is very effective in setting screens to free the ball-handler. In fact, most of the time their screening technique is so flawed that it could be considered an illegal pick. Even without an effective screen, Rice is quick enough to get around most defenders but he needs to have the option to kick out a pass to the corner if the opposing big man bites. The scouting reports have forced teams to back off and simply wait for Rice to barrel through the lane, often forcing him to put up an off-balance and low percentage floater.
Freshman guard Kendrick Nunn has shown a decent-looking jump shot from beyond the arc, but his playing time has been limited because Groce has opted for experience over youth by playing Joseph Bertrand and Tracy Abrams on the wing. Speaking of Bertrand, his game is also driven by isolation plays, which is an ineffective strategy because defenders like Aaron Craft or Terone Johnson just let him dribble at the top of the key to force him to pull up for a jumper.
Illinois fans may be wondering if there is a panacea to this offensive slump. Unless Nunn sees more minutes and can shoot the Illini out of a rut, Groce’s options remain limited. At some point, the guards will have a good shooting night and win a game or two, but unless there are major changes in the half-court, the Illini may just have to rely on a good defense to reach the eight-win plateau. Short of that number of wins, they won’t be considered for the NCAAs, and without scoring at least one point per possession going forward, they probably can’t pull off six more victories. They still need to play Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa – teams that can score much more easily than them — and there is little chance that Rice and company can simply outshoot the opposition. This stark lack of offensive aptitude may be more structural than just a slump and probably isn’t something that Groce can fix with the personnel he has at his disposal this season.