Illinois coach John Groce said Wednesday he remains confident the Illini can return to their winning ways as long as they can start hitting shots again.
It's an area Illinois excelled in during its 13-1 non-conference slate, which included wins over Butler and Gonzaga. The Illini shot .445 from the field and .369 from 3-point range during their non-conference schedule. They also averaged 9.4 3-pointers a game.
Since the Big Ten arrived, the Illini have become a lot less accurate, and it's cost them. Illinois has shot .393 from the field and .245 from 3-point range in seven Big Ten games, which has included two wins and five losses. They've also averaged 5.6 3-pointers a game.
"At the end of the day, probably not what people want to hear because it's not really complex, what's the biggest difference is shot-making,” said Groce, whose team was ranked No. 11 when the Big Ten season began. "To be honest with you, we probably had more defensive miscues and mistakes earlier in the year than we have the last several weeks as should be the case because we're getting better. But we overcome those things because we were making shots at such a high level. Our margin of our error was larger when you make shots at that level.”
Groce doesn't buy the idea his team is having a harder time finding good shots against Big Ten competition. When Groce watched film of Sunday's 74-60 loss to Michigan, he was happy with the quality of his team's shots. It was just the result that wasn't to his liking. Illinois shot 23-of-62 from the field and 6-of-26 on 3-pointers against the Wolverines.
"We were wide open,” Groce said. "We ran plays, executed, got shots we were getting early in the season, and we didn't make them. It's kind of it is what it is.
"That's why I talk about controlling the controller. We executed a couple things really, really well on Sunday. I thought set-play execution was as good as it's been. You got to make a couple.”
Aside from the shooting, though, Groce has seen his team progress. He complemented his team's interior play, the guards' decision-making and the overall team defense on Wednesday.
"I do think we're getting better at a lot of the detailed things, which should happen when you have a good attitude and the kids practice hard and they're in the first year of a new system,” Groce said. "Every day that goes by, as long they have the proper mindset, they should be getting better at rotating and screening and understanding what we want.”
Illinois' postseason fate is still unclear. The Illini built a strong resumé during the non-conference season, but it has fallen apart during the Big Ten season. With a 2-5 record, they don't have much wiggle room left. The only team to finish more than two games under .500 in conference and still receive an NCAA tournament at-large bid was Iowa State in 1992.
Illinois needs wins, and it schedule doesn't get any easier in the upcoming weeks. The Illini's next four games are at No. 13 Michigan State on Thursday, home against Wisconsin on Sunday, home against No. 3 Indiana on Feb. 7 and at No. 23 Minnesota on Feb. 10. They also still have to play at Michigan and at Ohio State before the conference season wraps up.