College Basketball Nation: Jon Ekey

Weekend Homework: The Illini mess

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
9:30
AM ET
Perhaps Illinois fooled us.

For a stretch in December, John Groce’s program rattled off a promising winning streak. Victories over Missouri, Illinois-Chicago, Indiana and Penn State suggested that the program had gathered momentum after welcoming a variety of new faces.

But Illinois hasn’t been the same since Wisconsin buried it with a 20-0 run during a 95-70 loss in Madison on Jan. 8. A loss at Northwestern, ranked 170th by Ken Pomeroy, followed. Then, the program stumbled again in a 66-58 home loss to Purdue on Wednesday.

“It’s just unacceptable,” Groce told reporters following the loss. “They [Purdue] were tougher than us physically and they threw us around like a bunch of rag dolls. Our guys better figure out very quickly the physical toughness that’s required on the backboard.”

Through Thursday, Illinois is shooting 35.6 percent from the field (last in the Big Ten) and 25.3 percent from beyond the 3-point arc (12th in the Big Ten) in conference play.

And if that hole isn’t daunting enough, Saturday’s matchup against Michigan State will kick off a brutal five-game stretch that includes road matchups against Ohio State and Indiana, plus a pair of games against contenders Iowa and Wisconsin.

This 2-3 Big Ten start could conceivably morph into a 2-6 or 2-7 stretch.

There were certainly concerns about Illinois entering the season. Transfers Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey, a batch of talented freshmen and veterans Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand were charged with coming together and building a bond on the floor in time to compete in the toughest league in America.

The win over Indiana on New Year’s Eve suggested that they were ready for that. This streak, however, has sent the team in the other direction.

Illinois has to get back on a positive path, or this season could be a disaster.

There’s certainly a correlation between the team’s struggles and Rice’s struggles. He’s 12-for-41 in this three-game losing streak. Abrams has gone 14-for-39.

Illinois won’t recover unless its top two players are effective. But it’s bigger than that.

Something definitely has to change soon.
As part of our Summer Shootaround series, here are the best- and worst-case scenarios for each team in the Missouri Valley:

Bradley

Best-case: Geno Ford inherited a massive rebuilding project last season, and it showed on the court. The Braves finished 7-25 overall and 2-16 in the Missouri Valley. This season, Ford is adding just two players (unranked recruit Ka'Darryl Bell and little-touted juco transfer Tyshon Pickett) to a roster missing obvious breakout candidates or young talent. Still, Ford will have had an entire season and the summer to work with his players. This best-case scenario is less about wins and losses than about establishing a system and building positive steps for the future. It's a long way up from here.

Worst-case: Bradley's offense fails to improve. Per Ken Pomeroy, the Braves ranked No. 301 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, No. 321 in effective field goal percentage, No. 318 in offensive rebounding rate and Nos. 300 and 320 in 2-point and 3-point field goal percentage. All of those things have to improve, and significantly so, to fend off an ugly repeat of 2012.

Creighton

Best-case: A deep NCAA tournament run. That's the expectation, and it should be, because Creighton returns 2012's most lethal offensive player, forward Doug McDermott. McDermott was peerless as a sophomore, averaging 22.9 points and 8.2 rebounds on 60.1 percent from the field and 48.6 percent from beyond the arc. The rest of the Bluejays' supporting cast (except point guard Antoine Young) is back, and there's no reason to expect 2012's fifth-most efficient offense to regress now. If anything, it's going to improve, and Creighton will be the MVC title favorite and an Elite Eight-type threat come March.

Worst-case: The defense doesn't improve. We know CU is going to score; we know McDermott is going to pour in the points. What we don't know is whether the Jays can stop anyone. They didn't last year, ranking No. 178 in adjusted defensive efficiency overall and eighth in Valley play. That weakness held this high-flying offense back last season, and the worst case scenario in 2012-13 is another year of brilliant scoring with little in the way of defense to back it up. "Defense wins championships" is a cliché because it's true.

Drake

Best-case: The Bulldogs have quietly hovered around the .500 mark in the four years since Mark Phelps took over for Keno Davis. Will 2012-13 be the year they get over the hump? The transfer of Rayvonte Rice (who averaged 16.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game last season) sure didn't help, but versatile forward Ben Simons (a 6-foot-8, 42.5 percent 3-point shooter) does return, supported by a cast of capable returners and seven newcomers, including two juco transfers.

Worst-case: It's easy to see this team taking a step back without Rice. If Simons and Jordan Clarke have similar seasons to 2012, that's all well and good, but it's not clear that that will be enough to lift Drake out of the 18-win region and into legitimate MVC contention. The worry is that Drake simply is what it is.

Evansville

Best-case: The name Colt Ryan might not mean much even to most die-hard fans, but Ryan had a very good junior season for the Purple Aces both as an efficient scorer and a turnover-averse assist man. The 2012-13 season will be Ryan's last, so he'll need help from junior guards Ned Cox and Troy Taylor as well as 6-8 forward Ryan Sawvell, who scored at a tidy pace and rebounded the ball effectively in limited minutes as a freshman. The most optimistic projection involves a big coming-out party for Sawvell as a sophomore, which helps lift Evansville out of last season's 16-win, 9-9 MVC territory.

Worst-case: Even slight improvement from the aforementioned regulars isn't enough to vault the Aces out of the middle of the MVC chase. It's hard to see this team regressing, but there is no guarantee it can live in the same neighborhood as Creighton and Wichita State.

Illinois State

Best-case scenario: The last time Illinois State went to the NCAA tournament (1998), its new coach, longtime Vanderbilt assistant Dan Muller, was completing his still-standing record of 128 consecutive starts for the program. Now he's back to build on former coach Tim Jankovich's sporadic progress, and he has a chance to succeed right away. Leading scorer Jackie Carmichael (who finished fifth in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage, by the way) is back, as is impressive sophomore Jon Ekey, along with the rest of a starting five that went 9-9 in the MVC and 21-14 overall. If Muller can get his new charges on the same page from day one, there's good reason to expect ISU to contend for an NCAA tournament bid.

Worst-case scenario: Adapting a group of veteran players to a new head coach is always a murky proposition. When the process goes well, you get the 2012 Missouri Tigers. When it doesn't, things can degenerate quickly. This will be the defining challenge of Muller's first season.

Editor's note: ESPN.com’s Summer Shootaround series is catching up on the offseason storylines for each conference. For the rest of the best- and worst-case scenarios for the Missouri Valley, click here.

SPONSORED HEADLINES