How is everybody doing? Everything's fine right? We're all good. Let's talk about Illinois
About The Illini
Illinois isn't very good. They've got some talent, but it's been tough sledding for John Groce and his Fighting Illini in 2015, as a really solid lineup has fallen on dark times with the injury bug to their interior depth. Graduate Transfer big man Michael Thorne, Jr was expected to make a big impact, but tore his meniscus and is out for the year. Leron Black, every Mizzou fans least favorite player for his hard foul on Teki last year, is also out for an undetermined amount of time.
Compounding their top two starting forwards being out, Kendrick Nunn also missed a considerable number of games early, although he's back in time to be averaging nearly 20 points per game. Harrumph.
Malcolm Hill is really the straw which stirs the drink for Illinois, the Belleville, IL native is a dynamic player who can score from multiple levels, and even handles a bulk of the minutes at point guard, despite being a natural small forward. Nunn is the next scorer, but the Illini boast some talented Freshmen contribute as well. Jalen Coleman-Lands, Michael Finke and Aaron Jordan are a trio to build around from the freshman class. Illinois problem right now is just a lack of depth on the interior. Which is a good thing for the Tigers, because they aren't good inside. So we'll just throw all the guards at them and see what happens.
Now for a closer look at their basketball team, let's chat with somebody who knows them best...
Q&A With THE CHAMPAIGN ROOM
I've been at this for a few years, and there aren't many people easier to work with than Jim Vainisi, from The Champaign Room. Even though he's a Cubs fan, and an Illini fan, he's a great guy and a really good follow on twitter. So thanks to Jim for always stepping up to the plate and helping us out. He was also on the podcast, so listen to the podcast as well.
RockMNation: The Illini have won the last two matchups in this game in dramatic fashion. But obviously both programs are in very different positions than they were two years ago. Do you feel like Illinois is headed in a positive direction as a program? Or have things grown stagnant?
Jim Vainisi: Illinois’ growth as a program has absolutely stagnated over the past 12-ish months. John Groce does have some pretty valid excuses for that, but let’s take a look at his actual results to date:
- 2012-13: Groce leads underachieving team to NCAA Tournament in first season; one blown call away from a Sweet Sixteen appearance. Things are looking good!
- 2013-14: Inexperienced team comes close to NCAA Tournament, Illini settle for NIT; talented freshman class shows promise. Things are still looking kinda good!
- 2014-15: Talented, experienced Illini battle through injuries/suspensions, but ultimately collapse down the stretch and narrowly miss out on the NCAA Tournament for a second-straight year. Things aren’t looking that great anymore!
- 2015-16: Driven in large part by more injuries, Illinois is off to a pretty disastrous start and will most likely miss a third-straight NCAA tournament. Fans are now calling for Groce to be fired!
But there is one huge positive for Illinois right now -- the State Farm Center. The ongoing renovations at SFC are just about complete and the Illini now boast a state-of-the-art facility. It’s been a focal point in recruiting efforts for the past several years, so hopefully the coaching staff can continue to take advantage of it (read: start finishing in first place for some point guards).
RMN: One of the problems at both schools has been a lack of continuity, since Norm Stewart and Lou Henson have left, each program has hired four coaches. Do Illinois fans feel confident enough in John Groce they have somebody who can bring stability?
Vainisi: It depends who you ask. Like I mentioned above, there definitely is a segment of the fan base that’s already calling for Groce’s job based on some of the results we’ve seen this year. Others -- including me -- still think he deserves some more time due to an inordinate amount of bad luck. I mean, I feel pretty confident in saying that no program in the country has had more injuries/suspensions/high-profile recruiting losses/decommitments than Illinois in recent years.
The problem for Groce is that he needs to start showing some on-court results ASAP. Illinois is searching for a new athletic director as we speak, and back-to-back-to-back NIT appearances certainly won’t help his case when he’s being evaluated this offseason.
RMN: Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn have provided some big time scoring punch for the Fighting Illini, what else needs to happen with the rest of the lineup for Illinois to have an impact in the Big 10?
Vainisi: Hill and Nunn are two potential All-Conference pieces for the Illini, but they each make their impacts in different ways. Hill fills more of a playmaking/distributing role and he rarely makes a bad decision with the ball in his hands. I’ve always liked to compare him to a slightly more athletic version of Iowa State’s Georges Niang (although Hill isn’t as good of a passer). Nunn, on the other hand, can kinda be classified as a bit of a ‘chucker’ at times. Someone has to take the shots, afterall. But that isn’t a bad thing since he typically makes more shots than he misses.
Everyone else on the roster can help out by staying healthy because the Illini can’t afford any more injuries to the supporting cast. But more specifically, at least one of Illinois’ post players needs to step up during conference play; with Leron Black out indefinitely, that’ll most likely have to be redshirt-freshman Michael Finke. Finke is a very gifted offensive player that can already score from just about everywhere on the court. However, he’s being exposed on defense at times because he’s playing slightly out of position.
RMN: Missouri is young and inconsistent, do you feel they've shown enough against high major opponents to be competitive in this game? And what, if anything, scares you about it?
Vainisi: I’ll be honest -- I haven’t seen Mizzou play yet this year. But I can tell you that Terrence Phillips and Kevin Puryear make me a bit uneasy after taking a look at the stats. Illinois is pretty much dreadful all-around on defense, but they’re particularly bad at defending three-pointers. Part of that may have to do with perimeter defenders overplaying driving lanes so I think Phillips could definitely take advantage. The Illini also lack a real rim protector with Mike Thorne Jr. presumably out for the year and that’s why I see Puryear having a better than usual game.
RMN: Last, how do you see the game playing out, and what is your final score prediction?
Vainisi: This might actually be one of the worst Braggin’ Rights games ever played. Don’t get me wrong, I’m expecting this to be pretty closely contested as usual, but there’s no way in hell that the quality of play will be worth the price of admission. In the end, though, I’m expecting Illinois to pull away thanks to Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. I don’t think Mizzou will have anyone to counter them in the last five, six minutes of the game.
Illinois 76, Mizzou 68
Thanks again to Jim, and the Champaign Room for the help this week. Follow Jim, do it.
So the game is going to happen regardless of whether we watch or not. I'm actually going to head down to ScottTrade to watch the game in person. What can I say, I'm a glutton for punishment. But if the game is going to happen, you might as well try to win it, right?
1) Free Throw Attempts
Mizzou is a young team and they foul a lot. They also foul a lot around the rim which usually means you are sending the other team to the line for free points. They need to stop doing that. If Illinois is able to make more free throws than MIzzou takes, it's going to be a long night in St. Louis for the Tigers. They've got to find a way to get to the line and convert easy points.
2) Scoring Droughts
3) Freshmen, man... Sophomores too
We need less "freshmen" play from Terrence Phillips and Kevin Puryear. Neither was particularly impactful against NC State, but the sophs (outside of Tramaine Isabell) were pretty awful as well. Mizzou is not going to succeed this year without meaningful impacts from both classes. They need Jakeenan Gant, Namon Wright, K.J. Walton, Kevin Puryear and Terrence Phillips to play well.
So that's it really. I'm not going to spend a lot of time waxing poetic about the ways Mizzou can win. They don't have 100 paths to victory. We've seen this team play a bunch of Power 5, or high major, opponents and they haven't won yet. They played their best against Xavier, they played a good 28 minutes against Northwestern, everything else has been a dud. Mizzou has to find a way to get competitive and get competitive fast, otherwise it's unlikely they're playing for the same guy next year. I don't want to be the guy speculating on somebody's job status, but I hear the rumblings of fans are completely unhappy with how this team has played to date. It's fine to beat the teams you're supposed to beat, it's not fine to be uncompetitive against the teams in your own conference. So Missouri needs to turn the corner and doing it quickly. Illinois isn't a very good team this year, if the Illini had their health this is a game which could get out of hand in a hurry, but they're not. If Mizzou can't find a way to be competitive in this game then I'm not sure where you find hope the rest of the season.
I don't think Mizzou wins, I do think they're more competitive. I'll take Illinois, and I think this game plays at a higher pace than what has been projected, I'll say the Illini make it to the 80s, but Mizzou only to the high 70s. I'll say 86-78.
Honestly, I'm just happy to use Jack's great photoshop on a post again.