Tracy Abrams, Jared Swopshire

No. 23 Illinois continues to struggle offensively in 68-54 loss to Northwestern

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During much of the non-conference portion of their schedule, No. 23 Illinois had it rolling from beyond the arc. That success from the perimeter led some to believe that maybe John Groce’s team could compete for a spot in the top half of the Big Ten.

But once the perimeter shots stopped falling the Fighting Illini began to struggle offensively, and those issues continued on Thursday night as they fell to Northwestern by the final score of 68-54.

Illinois (14-5, 1-4 Big Ten) shot 3-of-21 from beyond the arc, and over the last three games the Illini have shot a frigid 8-of-59 from distance. When a team shoots that poorly from deep and turns the ball over 18 times it doesn’t matter if they shoot 16-of-28 from inside of the arc and score 24 points in the paint.

By comparison Reggie Hearn led five Wildcats (11-7, 2-3) in double figures with 20 points, and as a team Northwestern shot 50% from the field and 8-of-16 from beyond the arc. Northwestern hit eight three-pointers in the first half as they built a 36-21 halftime lead, and they were able to hold on despite some issues handling the Illinois pressure in the latter stages of the second half.

One big question in the aftermath of this result is what’s wrong with Illinois offensively. Entering Thursday the Illini ranked ninth in the Big Ten in field goal percentage (38.6%) and 11th in three-point percentage (25.3%) in conference play.

Brandon Paul led all scorers with 21 points on 9-of-16 shooting, but removing his numbers the rest of the team managed to shoot just 10-of-32 from the field. And with Illinois’ reliance on the jump shot numbers such as those aren’t going to get it done.

It isn’t impossible to win games when you’re struggling offensively, but the task become far tougher when you’re not getting it done defensively either. Each of Illinois’ last three opponents have shot 49% or better from the field, and after a trip to Nebraska they’ll begin a stretch of five straight games against teams currently ranked in the Top 25.

Within a month Illinois has gone from being a team poised to be a pleasant surprise in the Big Ten to one in search of answers. And given how tough the Big Ten has proven to be, this isn’t the best time to be mired in a shooting slump.

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

USC athletic director Pat Haden to step down in June

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LOS ANGELES (AP) University of Southern California athletic director Pat Haden says he will retire on June 30.

USC President Max Nikias made the announcement Friday.

Haden has run the athletic department for 5 1/2 years, leading the Trojans through a multiyear stretch of NCAA sanctions against its vaunted football program. He created a large NCAA compliance program and improved graduation rates and grade point averages across the athletic department.

The former USC quarterback also received criticism for the football program’s relative underachievement and for his handling of coach Steve Sarkisian, who has sued the school over his termination last year.

Nikias says Haden’s department also raised over $400 million during his tenure.

Nikias says Haden will start a one-year job guiding the renovation of the Coliseum after he retires.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Ivy League’s best meet in New Haven

Columbia guard Maodo Lo, right, steals the ball from Northwestern forward Aaron Falzon, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game on Friday, Nov. 20, 2015, in Evanston, Ill.  (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: Columbia at Yale, 5:00 p.m.

The two best teams in the Ivy League, with matching 4-0 league records, meet for the first time this season. The Lions were close to suffering their first loss last weekend, but an Alex Rosenberg jumper as time expired gave the Lions the win at reigning champion Harvard. Rosenberg’s one of four players averaging at least 12.2 points per game for Kyle Smith’s team, with senior guard Maodo Lo leading the way at 15.8 per contest.

They’ll face a Yale rotation led offensively by point guard Makai Mason (15.7 ppg, 4.1 apg), and the front court tandem of Justin Sears and Brandon Sherrod has been outstanding. The winner get a leg up in the Ivy race, with the rematch scheduled for March 5 in New York City (regular season finale).

THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: Central Michigan at Akron, 8:00 p.m.

Two of the top teams in the Mid-American Conference meet at the JAR, as Akron looks to extend its win streak to six straight. The Zips’ balanced offensive attack has been led by forward Isaiah Johnson (12.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg), who currently leads the team in both scoring and rebounding. As for the visiting Chippewas, guards Braylon Rayson and Chris Fowler combine to average 32.7 points per game, with Fowler also responsible for a MAC-best 6.3 assists per contest. CMU’s had some struggles on the defensive glass in league play, ranking 11th in that category, but they’ve done a better job defensively than they did in non-conference play.

OTHER NOTABLE GAMES

  • MAAC leader Monmouth is back in action, as they host a Fairfield team led by one of the conference’s best players in senior forward Marcus Gilbert. The Hawks have a deep lineup led by junior guard Justin Robinson, who at this point in time is the likely frontrunner for MAAC Player of the Year honors.
  • Looking to catch Monmouth is Iona, which is a game behind the Hawks at 9-3. A.J. English and the Gaels visit Canisius in a matchup that should not lack for offense. Iona’s more inclined to run, but Canisius doesn’t lack scorers either with guard Malcolm McMillan leading four players averaging double figures.
  • Given the fact that they’re 1-3 in Ivy League play, Harvard’s essentially in the spoiler role unless some chaos breaks out at the top end of the standings. The Crimson can help in that regard with a win at Princeton, with the Tigers (2-1) a game behind Columbia and Yale in the loss column. Princeton’s been the better offensive team this season, thanks in large part to junior forward Henry Caruso who leads the team in both scoring and rebounding.