What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: Thomas at The Champaign Room, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Illinois.
1) I think it's fair to say that things have gone a little sideways for Illinois this season since starting out 13-2, 2-0 in league play. How's it all gone wrong for the Illini in this six-game losing streak?
THOMAS: The biggest thing that I think is getting overlooked during this losing streak is the uptick in quality of Illinois's opponents. According to KenPom, the Illini's strength of schedule in the nonconference ranked 263rd in the nation. Essentially, it was a pretty weak schedule. Now, one month into the conference season, the team's overall strength of schedule sits at the 72nd toughest. With that sharp increase in the level of competition, I think you're seeing a not so good team take its lumps against far more talented and experienced opponents.
2) One big problem for Illinois seems to be their offense. I don't think it was ever exactly a high-powered outfit this season, but it's really hit the skids during this losing streak. Illinois' scored over 60 points just once in their last five games and their eFG% has sunk to a ghastly 46.4% (295th, nationally). What gives? Why can't the Illini score?
THOMAS: The offensive woes have been numerous and well-documented. Much of that lies with the lack of really any 3-point option on the team. Jon Ekey shoots 36 percent from that range, but this team needed him to shoot at a higher clip than that and he's finding open looks hard to find. Bertrand has the highest 3-point percentage on the team but he's reticent to shoot them recently and seems to brick the important ones.
Beyond the shooting struggles are an even more disturbing--mystifying even--trend of poor shooting from 2-point range. I think the last tracking of this figure had Illinois shooting below 38 percent on its 2-pointers during the losing streak, which is totally abysmal. You've had guys that are normally dynamite near the bucket, like Bertand, brick wide open layups and floaters. It's baffling and none of the players can seem to get on the same page on any one given game. Thus, the miserable offense.
3) Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice is obviously the main guy for the Illini this year (16.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.2 spg) -- what does he like to do on offense that makes him so dangerous? What will Iowa need to do to slow him down? Who else should Iowa fans be wary of on this Illinois team?
THOMAS: Rayvonte's most effective at driving toward the hoop, putting his head down, and then craftily finishing around the big men down low. The problem is those big men have increasingly gotten bigger and more talented with the start of Big Ten season, and his effectiveness around the basket is waning. The last couple teams have face guarded the hell out of him with general success, and guys like Olaseni and Basabe have the footwork to keep in front of him on pick and rolls.
As far as other guys, it's tough to predict who will bring any level of scoring. Bertand and Tracy Abrams are primed for breakout games, but I don't know how much success they'll have against the army of Iowa big men. Nnanna Egwu has a size advantage over every Iowa frontcourt player besides Woodbury, so you might see more of him in some post-up sets. I don't really think any of the above is particularly concerning for a quality defense like Iowa's.
4) Is there any pressure mounting on Groce or is this just a case of a team being in a funk for a few weeks? He did make the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year and he signed a strong recruiting class, so the future looks brighter. Were some struggles this year expected by Illinois fans?
THOMAS: The struggles were expected and I doubt you'd find many that were predicting this team to be tournament-bound before the season. Like any fan would, though, expectations raised significantly with the 13-2 start. Then the tailspin seemed like the sky was falling in some narratives. But as I said above, I think Illinois fell victim to a surprisingly easy nonconference schedule that skewed expectations and the record. The only pressure on Groce is whatever he places on himself as he has the full backing of the administration and most of the fans.
5) Assembly Hall has been absolute house of horrors for Iowa in recent (and not-so-recent) years; I think Iowa's won once or twice there in the last 25 years. Does that history give you any extra hope for Saturday night's game or is just meaningless historical trivia?
THOMAS: That statistic, something to be proud of for sure, is simply an artifact of history. It's the first home game with the students on campus since early December, so the atmosphere should be intimidating. But for one of the few times in the past 25 years, Iowa has a better team than Illinois and probably won't extend that streak.
6) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
THOMAS: Really, I think Illinois is going to play very well. But Iowa has been so impressive, especially on offense, that I think a good Illini performance won't change the expected result. I'd say a 70-64 Iowa victory sounds about right.
Thanks for being a good sport, Thomas, although I still hope your team loses by 50 tonight. You can check out Thomas and the rest of the TCR crew at The Champaign Room. You can also follow TCR at @Champaign_Room. The Iowa-Illinois game is in Champaign on Saturday, February 1, and is scheduled to start at 6:30 pm CT, with television coverage from BTN.