Big Ten Season Grades: Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on April 18th, 2014

Continuing our season-ending analysis, we look at the performances of Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois. Earlier this week, we handed out grades for Indiana, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue.

Ohio State

Grade: C-

This season (25-10, 10-8): What would be a successful season for most programs was a relative disappointment for the Buckeyes. Ohio State did not capture a Big Ten regular season or tournament title for the first time since 2008-09, and similar to that season, they were also bounced out of the NCAA Tournament in their first game. The issue for the Buckeyes – which was a clear problem area in the preseason – was generating offense without Deshaun Thomas in the lineup. Thomas’ replacement, LaQuinton Ross, almost doubled his scoring average, but the Buckeyes failed to find reliable offensive firepower anywhere else. In the end, Aaron Craft and Ohio State’s excellent showing on defense wasn’t enough to overcome the team’s offensive woes.

Thad Matta had a let-down of a season relative to his own success. Don't expect it to continue next season. (Gettyl)

Thad Matta had a let-down of a season relative to his own success. Don’t expect it to continue next season. (Getty)

Next season: The Buckeyes lose Craft, Amedeo Della Valle, Ross, and Lenzelle Smith Jr. They welcome in an elite recruiting class that includes D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop, and Jae’Sean Tate; and they also will get graduate transfer Anthony Lee from Temple next year. These additions along with several talented players already on their roster should have no one worrying about the state of the program going forward. This season was merely a hiccup in the Thad Matta era.

Iowa: C

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Rushed Reactions: #8 Michigan 64, Illinois 63

Posted by Walker Carey on March 14th, 2014

Walker Carey is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this report after Thursday afternoon’s Big Ten Tournament action between Michigan and Illinois in Indianapolis.

Michigan and Levert Survived Friday Afternoon

Michigan and Levert Survived Friday Afternoon

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Illinois showcased great resilience. When the Illini fell behind by 13 at the 16:13 mark of the second half, they could have easily wilted under the pressure that was being strongly applied by top-seeded Michigan. Instead Illinois switched up its defense, made some timely shots, and battled to the very end. After Michigan shot 52 percent in the first half and made its first four shot attempts of the second against Illinois’ straight man-to-man defense, Illini coach John Groce switched into a 2-3 zone for nearly the rest of the game. This switch caused major issues for the Michigan offense, as it only made four of its final 18 shot attempts. The strong defense led to an effective offense and those coupled together led to Illinois being in the game until the final buzzer sounded.
  2. Michigan is terrific at keeping its composure in late-game situations. When Michigan has needed to make a winning play this season, it has succeeded and that is one of the major reasons why John Beilein‘s squad took home the regular season outright Big Ten title. For example, Michigan needed to make a winning play with 2.9 seconds left in overtime at Purdue in late February and the team executed a play to perfection that resulted in a game-winning buzzer-beating shot from Glenn Robinson III. Michigan needed a winning play again Saturday when it trailed 63-62 with 19 seconds left. Out of a timeout, Wolverines sophomore guard Nik Stauskas drove the lane before dishing a gorgeous pass to senior forward Jordan Morgan for what turned out to be the game-winning field goal. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Ten All-Tournament Team: First Round Thursday

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 14th, 2014

There were some extraordinary performances during the first day of action in the Big Ten Tournament. There are still seven games left to be played, and many more outstanding games are likely going to be put forth. Here, however, is a brief look at the five tournament standouts from day one.

Tracy Abrams played with a renewed confidence in Illinois' first-round win over Indiana.  (B.Tse)

Tracy Abrams played with a renewed confidence in Illinois’ first-round win over Indiana. (B.Tse)

  • Tracy Abrams, Illinois: Abrams went for a season-high 25 points and also tied for a team-high seven rebounds. He was active defensively, and showed tremendous poise and leadership by only turning the ball over once as the primary ball-handler. This was the best game he’s played in quite some time after going through a horrible stretch where he only averaged 6.6 PPG and shot 23.2 percent from the field. This was the Abrams that Illinois needs to keep playing.
  • LaQuinton Ross, Ohio State: This was a slightly different version of the normally smooth forward with a lethal mid-range game. Ross instead was a monster on the boards, as he ended up with 15 (six offensive) caroms. He struggled to make shots out of his normal repertoire, but made up for it by being hyper-aggressive in retrieving his misses. He also added 19 points and two blocks on the afternoon. The junior is not always known for his toughness, but he earned his points in this one.

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Big Ten Tournament: The Future Looks Bright For Illinois

Posted by Walker Carey on March 13th, 2014

Walker Carey is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this report after Thursday’s first round Big Ten Tournament game between Illinois and Indiana in Indianapolis.

Both Illinois and Indiana entered Thursday afternoon’s match-up with winning the conference tournament as their only hope of earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament, so Illinois’ 64-54 victory might be viewed as a ticket to play top-seeded Michigan in the quarterfinals on Friday. While true at some level, it’s misleading at another — Illinois showed in today’s win through a variety of signs that it will once again be a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten as soon as next season. The player of the game for the Illini on Thursday afternoon was junior guard Tracy Abrams. Abrams, who entered the game averaging 10.5 points per contest, exploded for a game-high 25 points (17 of which came in the second half). The Chicago native also showcased his ability to hit big shots by nailing a huge three-pointer with 2:06 to play that increased the Illini’s lead to four and all but secured the victory, as Indiana scored just two more points over the remainder of the game.

Abrams and the Illini Appear to Have a Bright Future (B.Tse)

Abrams and the Illini Appear to Have a Bright Future (B.Tse)

While Abrams led the charge in the scoring column for Illinois, John Groce’s squad also received contributions from several other underclassmen. Junior big man Nnanna Egwu was limited offensively – he managed just two points on 1-of-8 shooting – but he found a way to impact the game in other facets by collecting seven rebounds and blocking five shots. Redshirt junior guard Rayvonte Rice added 13 points and helped key the defensive effort that forced Indiana into an 0-of-10 performance from behind the arc in the second half. Freshmen guards Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn showed a bit of why John Groce felt comfortable inserting them into the starting lineup back in early February. Hill finished Thursday’s win with eight points and four rebounds, while showcasing his outside shooting prowess by knocking down both of his three-point attempts. Nunn added 10 points to the winning effort and was primarily responsible for the outstanding defensive effort on Indiana star guard Yogi Ferrell. Ferrell finished the afternoon just 3-of-13 from the field and 2-of-9 from three.

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Big Ten Tournament X-Factors for Round One

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 13th, 2014

Without going into full-fledged preview mode for all four games set to tip off on Thursday in Indianapolis, here are some under-the-radar players to keep an eye on in round one. Some are more obscure than others, but all the players I’m highlighting were not named to any of the All-Conference teams on Monday. They all have a specific skill set, however, that can be used to exploit a weak spot on the team they are playing against in the first round.

Tracy Abrams' ability to get steals will go a long way toward determining if Illinois can beat Indiana on Thursday. (Stephen Haas, Lee News Service)

Tracy Abrams’ ability to get steals will go a long way toward determining if Illinois can beat Indiana on Thursday. (Stephen Haas/Lee News Service)

Illinois: Tracy Abrams — Indiana turns the ball over 21.7% of the time, and Abrams averages 1.2 pilfers a game. Abrams had 5 steals in the two teams previous games, and if he can be the defensive catalyst that leads to 23 Indiana turnovers — like what happened on December 31 when the Illini beat the Hoosiers in overtime — Illinois will move on to the second round.

Indiana: Devin Davis The Illini are only mediocre at getting their own misses (165th nationally), and Davis has been productive with increased minutes recently. He’s gotten 20 MPG in his last two games, and has a robust 21.6% defensive rebound rate in limited minutes for the season. That would be good for 6th in the conference had he played enough minutes to qualify, and if Crean gives him the playing time in this game, he’ll prevent Illinois from getting any second chance buckets. Read the rest of this entry »

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Illinois Freshmen Lead Their Turnaround and Earns Them Another Look at the Bubble

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on March 4th, 2014

It was February 4, and Illinois had just been dominated by Wisconsin for the second time this season in front of a fairly empty home crowd; severe weather had been an issue. The loss made it eight straight for John Groce’s team — which for a consecutive season was in the midst of a major losing streak in conference play – and found themselves at the bottom of league standings with a 2-8 record. But unlike last season, there were no talented seniors like Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson in place to lead a turnaround. This team seemed doomed for a miserable last place finish. That’s when Groce put up the white flag and inserted his top two freshmen — Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill — into the starting lineup, a signal that he was moving on from the current season and looking toward the next one. What has happened since has surprised even the most optimistic of Illini fans. Since the shakeup in the rotation, Illinois has won four of its last six games — including three in a row — which includes road wins at Minnesota and Michigan State. Odds are that they’re still likely to miss out on the NCAA Tournament, but their current body of work isn’t that far off from other bubble teams within the conference.

Kendrick Nunn entering the starting lineup has given the Illini hope. (Ruszkowski/USA TODAY)

Kendrick Nunn entering the starting lineup has given the Illini hope. (Ruszkowski/USA TODAY)

Defense has been Illinois’ strength all season as the Illini have held opponents to an adjusted 93.1 points per 100 possessions (14th in the nation), but their anemic offense, especially their complete inability to shoot the ball, wiped away the advantage their defense gave them. In the non-conference portion of their schedule, Rayvonte Rice was able to get to the rim effectively against less athletic teams or catch high-major teams off guard with his deceptive ability to use his strength while driving to the basket. But by the time Big Ten play started, there was enough tape on Illinois for opponents to adjust. Teams started packing the paint as a result, and Rice, who had averaged 18.7 PPG before the team’s slump, scored five points per game fewer during the eight-game skid. Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand, Jon Ekey, and Nnanna Egwu all failed to prove that they could be relied upon for consistent scoring too, so Groce decided to give his freshmen a shot. It seemed the best Illini fans could hope for was that Nunn and Hill would show signs of improvement by season’s end. Instead, the game came to them immediately, as the two young wings have combined for 19.8 PPG since becoming starters. Almost as importantly, Illinois’ defensive performance did not drop with the change in rotation. In the team’s last four games, Illinois has held its opponents to fewer than 0.83 points per possession (h/t John Gassaway). The results have been an improvement on offense to a point where they can once again rely on their defensive prowess to dictate the tempo of the games and turn their season around.

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Big Ten M5: 02.14.14 Edition

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 14th, 2014

morning5_bigten

  1. On a day where love is celebrated, Indiana fans are not feeling much of that emotion toward Tom Crean and his squad after they squandered a double-figure lead at home against Penn State Wednesday night. The Hoosiers were booed off their homecourt after playing as though they had never encountered a full-court press before. They turned the ball over 3 times in the last 2:06 against said press, and coughed it up 20 times total during the contest. Indiana fans have already been on edge due to some uneven performances this season, and now after this latest loss, things aren’t going to calm down anytime soon.
  2. People tend to forget that Michigan has a really young roster. That’s why head coach John Beilein admitted that they’ve had more success than he necessarily envisioned this season. The Wolverines are tied for first in the conference with 6 games left to play, despite losing Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr, and Mitch McGary. Nik Stauskas is a Player of the Year candidate, but it’s been a different player stepping forward every night that has lead to their 10-2 league record. The jury is still out as to how far they’ll go come March, but if they get their defense in order, they could be right back in the Final Four.
  3. Lost in the shuffle of Shavon Shields’ 33-point effort for Nebraska on Wednesday night was the play of backup point guard Benny Parker. Parker was an absolute nuisance of that side of the floor, as he had 4 steals and caused countless other disruptions for the Illinois offense in their 67-58 win. While not much of an offensive threat, Parker has seen his minutes increase in the wake of Deverell Biggs being dismissed from the team. Coach Tim Miles essentially counted him out in the preseason, but he’s definitely earned an increase in minutes going forward, especially with the ineffectiveness of Tai Webster in recent games.
  4. In the preseason many people thought that Ohio State would still be really good even with the loss of 2012-13 leading scorer Deshaun Thomas. It hasn’t necessarily worked out that way however, as the Buckeyes currently have a 6-6 conference record with 6 games left. The loss to Michigan Tuesday night highlighted an ongoing theme for this year’s team, the inability to make open shots. The Buckeyes slogged through a 3-for 20 effort against the Wolverines, and they proved that despite having a tenacious defensive unit, their lack of NBA-ready talent and their lack of offensive punch will probably be their undoing during the 2013-14 campaign.
  5. Illinois head coach John Groce are still left searching for answers in the wake of their most recent stumble at Nebraska Wednesday night. Tracy Abrams is one of the major culprits when looking at potential scapegoats for the team’s poor performance ever since Big Ten play started. The junior guard quietly went 0-for-4 from the field against the Cornhuskers, and committed 3 turnovers. Groce isn’t worried about the shooting, but he’s more worried about Abrams playing better defense and taking care of the ball. Veteran players like Nnanna Egwu are still bringing the effort and intensity, as are the five freshman that are on the roster. In watching the Illini however, you have to wonder whether some of the other upperclassmen like Abrams and Joseph Bertrand have already checked out once they realized that their season will not likely include an NCAA berth.
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Illinois Will Continue to Slump Without More Consistent Offense

Posted 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.

Big Ten defenses may have figured out Rice's offensive game. (John Dixon/The News-Gazette)

Big Ten defenses may have figured out Rice’s offensive game. (John Dixon/The News-Gazette)

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.

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Deja Vu: John Groce’s Illini Slumping in Early January Again

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on January 15th, 2014

Illinois’ loss to Northwestern on Sunday night was eerily similar to a horrible stretch for the Illini last season. On January 12, 2013, John Groce’s squad was thumped in Madison by the Badgers — a 23-point loss where its offense had no answers for Bo Ryan’s defensive schemes. That was followed up by a home loss to an injury-plagued Northwestern squad, which along with a previous home loss to Minnesota, represented an early three-game losing streak in conference play. On Wednesday of last week, Groce’s offense again could not find a decent shot in Madison, losing 95-70 to the Badgers, and the team looked completely off in scoring just 15 points in the first 24 minutes of the game in Evanston. Losing to an unimpressive Wildcats squad puts the Illini in a tough spot because they are about to enter a tough seven-game stretch where they will be favored to win just one of those games — a home contest against Purdue. The Illini really needed to enter that stretch with at least three Big Ten wins and the most recent loss very well could put a dent in their ultimate postseason plans.

John Groce's Team is Slumping in Early January Again This Season (AP)

John Groce’s Team is Slumping in Early January Again This Season (AP)

According to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, the Illini have a 73 percent chance of beating Purdue tonight. But the next few games include match-ups against Michigan State, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio State and Wisconsin. And their “winnable” game after that stretch is a road game against Penn State in Happy Valley — not necessarily a guaranteed win, either. Extrapolating over the next few weeks, the Illini could easily end up with 3-7 league record by February 9, with a must-win game coming against the Nittany Lions to salvage their season. They were in a similar spot a year ago, but were able to dig themselves out with a home buzzer-beater against Indiana and a tough win over Minnesota on the road (thanks largely to D.J. Richardson’s scorching shot). Is there a reason to panic yet in Champaign? Absolutely. It is troubling that Rice felt no sense of urgency over the first 20 minutes of the game in Evanston, as he was held to zero shots from the field. When he was able to eventually find his offense, he forgot to play defense by letting the Wildcats’ Tre Demps hit a couple of wide-open shots from beyond the arc. Not to pick on Rice, but as the best offensive player on the team, he needs to set the tone by driving to the basket and assuming a leadership role over the next few weeks if the Illini hope to win road games at Indiana or Penn State.

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Big Ten M5: 12.23.13 Edition

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on December 23rd, 2013

morning5_bigten

  1. After a disappointing non-conference season, Michigan will need to have a healthy Mitch McGary in the lineup to compete for a Big Ten title. McGary, who was plagued with back issues throughout the offseason, did not play against Stanford over the weekend. He will visit the doctors to understand the reasons for his back’s continued soreness, but the timetable for his return is indefinite at this point. His team was able to eke out a win against the Cardinal, 68-65, but McGary’s presence will be a requirement against powerful Big Ten competition. Back problems can nag for a while and this situation may linger throughout this season, but Wolverines’ fans still have hopes that they can make another deep run in the postseason if McGary can play injury-free by March.
  2. Speaking of McGary’s much-needed presence, the Wolverines will especially need him when they play Michigan State, led by senior forward Adreian Payne. Payne is averaging 18.1 PPG and 8.0 RPG this season, but his improvement over the last three years is more impressive than his numbers this season. Two years ago, Payne was still learning his role, playing alongside star forward Draymond Green. But after exploding halfway through his junior season, Payne still continues to polish his game on both ends of the floor. Shooting 45.7 percent from beyond the arc this year shows his progression from a player reliant on his athleticism to a well-rounded offensive threat whose jumper must be respected.
  3. Is there any highly-ranked team more under the radar than Ohio State this season? The Buckeyes used a miraculous late comeback against Notre Dame on Saturday to remain undefeated despite still trying to figure out their offensive identity. After getting off to a slow start, LaQuinton Ross has averaged over 18 PPG over the last three games and appears to be on pace to find his offensive rhythm. He scored 19 against Notre Dame and the Buckeyes will need him his consistent offensive production to provide a solid foundation if they hope to remain ranked in the top 10 and compete for a Big Ten title.
  4. Speaking of consistent offensive production, Iowa needs to develop a consistent outside shooter if the team wants to achieve all of its goals this season. Josh Oglesby, one of the Hawkeyes’ designated gunners, will return to the lineup after missing some time due to an ankle injury. During non-conference play, Zach McCabe has provided a long-range spark from deep (43%), but the Hawkeyes need another deep threat and Oglesby should help in that department. Even though he only made a pedestrian 27 percent from deep last season, he has the ability to get hot and score in bunches which should only add to the offensive firepower of the Hawkeyes.
  5. Illinois’ Tracy Abrams can be frustrating to watch during late-game possessions, but John Groce has shown that he will stick with him when the game is on the line. Against Oregon, Abrams repeatedly tried to to do much with the ball and ended up turning it over several times during the final minutes of the game. But his toughness and gritty attitude — what Groce likes about the guard — were on display against Missouri over the weekend, when he nailed two free throws to win the game with just five seconds remaining. Abrams is not likely to ever turn into a true point guard who takes care of the ball first and foremost, but he has the support of his coach and his teammates during the final minutes of games and it paid off over the weekend.
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Previewing Braggin’ Rights: Illinois vs. Missouri

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on December 21st, 2013

If one were to grade Illinois’ season performance before heading into Saturday’s Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri, they would probably have to give the Illini an “I” for incomplete. John Groce’s team is 9-2 with no especially bad losses, but no significantly good wins either. Their two losses against Georgia Tech and Oregon were on the road and down to the wire; a free throw made or different bounce of the ball and the Illini might currently sit undefeated with a different season trajectory. But Illinois is where it is and today’s game against Missouri provides the last chance for the Illini to notch a non-conference resume win.

missouri illinois

Nnanna Egwu and the Illini are hoping to get their first win against Missouri since 2008 on Saturday.

The Tigers have won braggin’ rights for four seasons in a row, but before that run the Illini had won nine years straight. If John Groce is going to start a new streak in the rivalry today, here are three things he’ll need his team to do:

  1. Keep charging the glass and getting offensive rebounds. Unlike last season, this year’s team is not effective at scoring beyond the arc (33.8 percent from deep). The way they’ve countered their lack of long-range shooting is by creating additional scoring opportunities from the offensive glass. The Illini have an offensive rebounding percentage of 37.1 percent (which ranks in the top 50 nationally) and three of their starters are averaging two or more offensive boards per game. They’ll need to keep this up against a Missouri team that so far has been excellent at minimizing its opponents’ offensive rebounds. Since the Illini do not rely on a perimeter attack from behind the arc, there should be fewer long rebounds for guards like Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross to grab. Illinois should stick to what it does best — drive to the rim and have others follow behind for putbacks. Read the rest of this entry »
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To Reach Its Goals, Illinois Needs More Than Rayvonte Rice

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on December 5th, 2013

The game was over. The picture was clear — with a 12-point lead at Georgia Tech and less than seven minutes left, the Illini were going to move to 8-0 on the season and make it five straight wins against the ACC in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. And it was all going to be because of Rayvonte Rice. He had built the big lead for Illinois from a three-point halftime deficit by scoring 15 points in the second half, including a 10-0 run of his own making. He was his usual aggressive self: driving to the basket, getting to the line, and creating fast breaks from steals. But once the Yellow Jackets adjusted their defense to take away those scoring opportunities for the redshirt junior, Rice’s teammates put on a show themselves — one of passivity and fecklessness that would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. From that point, Georgia Tech went on a 19-4 run to close out the game and notch its first Challenge win since 2006. In order for the Illini to put this collapse behind them and eventually get back to the NCAA Tournament in March, someone other than Rice will have to evolve into a consistent second option.

Rayvonte Rice went off for 24 points, but was unable to get help from his teammates to secure a win.

Rayvonte Rice went off for 24 points, but was unable to get help from his teammates to secure a win.

In the final six minutes of the game, the Illlini (at least those without Rice on the back of their jersey) went 1-of-9 from the field, including an oh-fer from deep, and committed two poorly-timed turnovers. With Rice unable to affect the game, this left the door open for players like Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey to carry the load and seal the win. None of this group were aggressive in trying to find their own shot and it seemed as if the team’s game plan was to simply run out the clock. Particularly disappointing was Abrams who was instrumental in willing Illinois to a win over IPFW last Friday, scoring eight of his 15 points in crucial moments of the second half. As the player with the most big game experience (he leads the Illini in career minutes), and as someone known for his toughness and moxie, he managed only to take one shot (not including the final prayer at the buzzer) while Georgia Tech was storming back.

In previous outings, it has been either Abrams, Bertrand or Ekey who has stepped up to complement the steady hand, Rice. But none of these three players have proven they can be consistent scoring threats on any given night — all three players have had multiple single-figure scoring outings this season. Therefore, the scouting report is out on the Illini — focus on stopping #24 and let someone else beat you. In order to get to the other side of the bubble by March, John Groce is going to need to motivate one of his other talented but inconsistent players to become this year’s D.J. Richardson to Rice’s Brandon Paul.

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