Illinois took its lumps Tuesday night against a very good No. 7 Villanova team, falling 73-59 at Madison Square Garden in the opening game of the Jimmy V Classic.
Villanova (9-0) closed the game on a 23-9 run. The Illini (7-2) tied it at 50-50 on a three-point shot by Aaron Cosby, but they appeared to tire from there as the experienced, deep Wildcats kicked their execution up a notch. The vast chasm in the teams’ play down the stretch probably was an accurate gauge of how much better the Wildcats are than the Illini right now.
Things are looking up for John Groce’s program, which has a realistic chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament after missing out last season. But can it hang with the biggest of the big boys yet? After fairly one-sided defeats against then-No. 15 Miami and Villanova, the answer is evident.
“They don’t have any weaknesses or any holes,” Illini coach John Groce said before the game about the Wildcats, who won 29 games and the Big East title last season.
Like Illinois, the Wildcats have a lot of complementary pieces and spread the scoring around. But they were able to beat Illinois at its own game by moving the ball more crisply and decisively at the offensive end and — with a combined 33 second-chance points and points off turnovers — dominating the hustle areas of the game. The Illini entered the game as the fourth-best team in the country at taking care of the ball, but Villanova’s quickness, strength and anticipation on defense posed major problems.
The Illini answered every Villanova run except for the last one, but the Wildcats never trailed after the early minutes of the game. They opened a double-digit lead midway through the first half, but sophomore Malcolm Hill kept the Illini in it almost single-handedly, scoring 14 hard-earned points before the break. Hill finished with a career-high 20 to lead all scorers.
An off night for Rayvonte Rice (10 points, 5-for-15 shooting) didn’t help, but Villanova threw so many defenders at him that Rice’s teammates had opportunities to score. The Illini got very little from transfer guards Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks, who continue to struggle to find their grooves in Groce’s system.
The Illini have upcoming tests against Oregon in Chicago and Missouri in St. Louis during a stretch of 10 of 14 games played away from the State Farm Center. By the time it ends, they’ll have played five Big Ten games, four of them on the road. We’ll know by then if this team is for real.