This was one Illinois needed. Maybe not in the strongest sense of the word — nearly three months remains to define this regular season — but still. After being outplayed at Miami and outclassed by Villanova in New York, the Illini needed to storm the United Center court against Oregon and look the part of an NCAA Tournament-bound team.
And they did — for nearly 16 minutes. From there, they were outplayed in every meaningful way in a 77-70 loss to the Ducks.
This season was supposed to be different from the last one, when Illinois was outgunned at the offensive end by all the good teams they faced and, despite scrapping mightily on defense, simply lacked the juice to get to the tourney. These Illini (7-3) can score the ball a bit better, no question. Are they as tough when it comes to protecting their own rim? So far, not quite.
Big picture, though, what we’ve seen thus far makes it perfectly reasonable to wonder if John Groce’s third Illini team has the makings for significant improvement. The Ducks (6-3) are a rebuilding team that isn’t expected to be better than middle-of-the-pack in the Pac-12. If they can come into Chicago and dominate the Illini down the stretch as they did a year ago in Portland, well, sure, there’s cause to worry about that a little.
“I’ve watched them play every game to this juncture,” Groce said. “I thought it was the best they’ve played, and we have to give them credit.”
Oregon coach Dana Altman confirmed that it was the best — and hardest — he’d seen his team play this season, but it was the Illini’s job to stop that from determining the final score. Yet there went the smaller Ducks, who start no one taller than 6-7, outscoring Illinois in the paint 40-20. If there’s one stat from Saturday that wraps an ugly bow on this game, that’s it.
“The only thing that we did in the Illinois game that we didn’t do in the games that we lost is play harder than our opponent,” said forward Dillon Brooks, who led the Ducks with 24 points.
The Illini led 35-22 before being outscored 13-4 to end the first half. For the second year in a row against Oregon, they had a lead in the late stages — this time, 64-60 after an Ahmad Starks three-pointer with 5:51 to go — only to fall apart from there. The Ducks ripped off an 11-0 run and that was that.
Also like in last season’s meeting, the Illini were Rayvonte Rice and a whole lot of nothing. Rice scored 29, giving him a total of 58 in two meetings with the Ducks. Only Nnanna Egwu, with 10, joined him in double figures.
Outside of Rice, who had the hot hand throughout, the Illini shot a truly awful 29.1 percent from the floor and missed 10 of 12 three-pointers. They didn’t throw the ball inside to 6-11 Egwu after his eight-point first half. They didn’t move the ball cleanly on the perimeter or drive the ball half as well as Oregon did. Offensively, it was a bad scene — and that was only the half of it.
“They absolutely annihilated us at the other end of the floor,” Groce said.
We’ll let the tourney talk wait awhile. Let’s see if this team can get its act together.