Sunday night's game between Wisconsin and Illinois could be considered a study of how two different teams handle adversity. The Badgers (16-10, 8-5) have endured a mid-year coaching change and will be trying to avoid their disappointing performance against Michigan State derail their late-season march toward another NCAA Tournament.
Meanwhile, the hits keep on coming for Illinois (12-14, 4-9), as they have all year. With two key players out for the season, plus many more injured for a smaller stretches, John Groce and company now have a brand new AD and one player in legal trouble. How can a season go according to plan in that scenario? Still, outside of a thrashing of Purdue early, Illinois has chugged along playing competitive, albeit uninspiring, basketball.
As the second meeting between these teams, which coach will make the better adjustments based on Wisconsin's prior 63-55 win in Champaign? Joining B5Q to help preview this matchup is Trevor Vallese of The Champaign Room.
B5Q: On top of all the injuries Illinois has endured this season, Leron Black has been suspended indefinitely for pulling knife on a bouncer. He wasn't playing currently due to a knee injury (of course). Does it feel like the deck has been stacked against John Groce in C-U? How much of a leash does Groce get under new AD Josh Whitman to reverse the stench from this season?
The Champaign Room (Trevor): Whitman hasn’t even been AD for a full 24 hours and there’s already a significant legal issue to deal with in Leron Black. It’s a tricky situation for him to inherit here in Champaign, because as Whitman stated in his press conference this past Thursday he doesn’t even know John Groce on a personal level yet, and certainly hasn’t evaluated his contract or future with the Illini. It’s my belief that Groce will get another year to try and right the ship, however, especially because of the slew of injuries and outside situations that he’s been forced to manage. But make no mistake, next year will definitely be do-or-die time; if Groce can’t get this team to the NCAA tournament in 2016-17, that would be four-straight years of missing the Big Dance and I think he should go. But Groce will most likely get this extra chance simply due to the fact that Whitman needs time to adjust to his new role and firing the head basketball coach a few weeks into his job would create a chaotic and probably unsuccessful coaching search this offseason.
B5Q: Illinois' previous loss to Wisconsin prompted a couple of lineup change, one being Maverick Morgan replacing the dinged up Michael Finke. The other was starting senior transfer Khalid Lewis over Jaylon Tate. Is Lewis truly the best setup man for this team going forward? How much of his success is skewed by getting big minutes in two wins over Rutgers?
TCR: In terms of the Finke-to-Morgan change, Maverick was forced to play almost all 40 minutes at the center position since Finke went out. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise however; he’s averaging 15 points and 6 rebounds per game while shooting 64 percent from the field since the beginning of February. Finke is now almost completely healthy, but Morgan will most likely remain in the starting lineup for the rest of the season simply because of his production level at that spot.
As for point guard, it was an interesting switch when Tate was sent to the bench and relieved by Khalid Lewis, who wouldn’t even be at Illinois right now had it not been for Tracy Abrams’ injuries. Quite frankly, he was thought of more as a warm body who could contribute with some assists and help with the lack of depth. But he’s actually developed into a pretty nice facilitator as of late and is showing he can handle being a Big Ten player. He won’t drop 20 on you, but his other numbers have seen a significant rise as of late, and not just against Rutgers either; he scored four buckets and recorded multiple assists at Michigan State and against Iowa too.
B5Q: There is talent on this Illini roster, including several guys that Wisconsin recruited to some degree. What have you seen in those close calls against Ohio State, Providence, and Northwestern that this team really needs to improve so it can win tight games bring some optimism to the season?
TCR: I think that’s been the toughest part of this season for the majority of Illini fans. The team is in games late against good opponents, they just aren’t able to finish. Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn, who will both be seniors next year, are the top scoring duo in the conference. Jalen Coleman-Lands is one of the best freshman in the Big Ten, offensively-speaking, and Michael Finke and D.J. Williams have shown flashes of brilliance that will hopefully translate to full-season performances once they mature. Other guys like Morgan and Lewis have also come on as of late too. And yet, this team sits at two games under .500. For me it has to come down to defensive toughness and coaching. Illinois is 261st in the country in points allowed per game and are 317th in the country in rebounds per game. Basketball is no doubt a mental game, and anyone who tells you these guys aren’t quite as motivated because of their poor record and lack of fan support is lying. So when they’re down by two on the final possession at Northwestern, or down by one on the final possession against Providence, it seems as though they tend to tighten up and panic instead of banding together and playing logically. Plus Groce has made some questionable play calls in crunch time. The combination of injuries, outside issues, and poor game planning has come together for the perfect storm in Champaign.
More Opponent Q&A
More Opponent Q&A
B5Q: Malcolm Hill is a guy you can always count on to get buckets at some point in the game. He will be a part of a loaded senior class for Illinois next season. What are realistic expectations for Hill and his classmates next year? How will U of I historians remember the duo of Hill and Kendrick Nunn?
TCR: I think people will remember Malcolm Hill very fondly despite the team’s overall lack of success during Groce’s time here. Hill is getting up there on the all-time scoring list and he’s still got his senior year remaining. It’s a fact that’s brought up often amongst the Illini community, but think about this: despite being two of the better scorers in recent Illinois history, Hill and Nunn have never been to the NCAA tournament. Now they’ve got just one more shot to do it in their senior year. It’s looking like the chances will be better for this team in 2016, however, because they return pretty much everyone and all the younger guys who have shown promise will be another year older. If I look at this roster construction on paper for next year, I think this should be a tournament team, something like a 9 or 11 seed. But maybe I’ve been drinking too much orange Kool-Aid.
B5Q: With Black and Mike Thorne Jr. out, it's no surprise Illinois' rebounding numbers have gone down the toilet. Is Morgan the crunch-time big, or will Finke and D.J. Williams see more time?
TCR: Williams is a guard and score-first type of player, so while he has picked up some rebounds in his limited minutes I doubt he'll be getting too much action in the front court from here on out. Finke is still healing from the leg injury he suffered against Wisconsin a few weeks ago, but he’s much healthier now and even though he’s not 100 percent I expect his rebound totals will start to climb again as he gets reacclimated to playing. Morgan is pretty much the go-to guy for rebounds, but that’s by necessity and not choice. He’s improved drastically as the season has worn on but he probably wouldn’t start on many other power-five teams. The injuries this team has gone through have taken the biggest toll on their rebounding numbers.
B5Q: I assume we've seen the last of Thorne and Tracy Abrams in Illini uniforms. Are either of them going to pursue an additional year, and if so, how do you like their odds?
TCR: Not so fast, my friend. Tracy Abrams is definitely going to pursue an additional season and I think the odds he gets it are really good. Abrams suffered a torn ACL in 2014 that kept him out all year, and then tore the ACL in his other leg in 2015 that sidelined him. This seems like a very clear-cut case where the NCAA would grant him a sixth season to finish out his career at Illinois, but then again it’s the NCAA we’re talking about so no one can be sure of anything. Thorne on the other hand is done; he played against Indiana last month before re-injuring his knee, and that game unfortunately put him over the plateau of one-third of the Illini’s games, so he’s ineligible to apply for another year. He probably wouldn’t have received one anyways, though.
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