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.

As good as they’ve been, No. 3 Michigan State has yet to play their best

Bryn Forbes, Ryan Fazekas
Associated Press
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Sunday night’s Wooden Legacy title game matchup between No. 3 Michigan State and Providence was billed as a matchup of the nation’s two best players, and rightfully so. Michigan State senior Denzel Valentine (17 points, six rebounds, five assists), who already has two triple-doubles to his credit this season, and Providence redshirt junior Kris Dunn (21 points, five rebounds, seven assists) have more than lived up to the preseason expectations and more of the same was expected in Anaheim.

And while both had their moments, it was Michigan State’s supporting cast that made the difference in their 77-64 victory. The scary thing for future opponents on Michigan State’s schedule is that Tom Izzo’s team is nowhere near being a finished product.

With Valentine dealing with first-half foul trouble Bryn Forbes stepped up, scoring 13 of his 18 points to help the Spartans take a two-point lead into the half. As for the 11-0 run that Michigan State produced to take control of the game late, a host of players stepped forward in regards to scoring, rebounding and defending.

Freshmen Deyonta Davis and Matt McQuaid combined to score nine points over the final 5:32, with transfer guard Eron Harris adding six of his 12 points during that stretch. The Spartans outscored the Friars, who aren’t as deep, 22-7 during that stretch to close out the game, hunting for quality shots and hitting the offensive glass while making things difficult for Providence on the other end of the floor.

The end result was a final margin that does not indicate just how close the game was. While Providence seemed to run out of steam Michigan State received contributions from multiple players, which is undoubtedly a good sign for this group moving forward.

The Spartans will return the currently injured Gavin Schilling later this season, giving them another big man alongside Davis, Matt Costello and Colby Wollenman. He was a player they missed Sunday night, as he can defend opposing big men both in the post and on the perimeter. His absence was a main reason Michigan State didn’t have an answer for Providence’s Ben Bentil (20 points, seven rebounds) defensively.

The key for this group is going to end up being role definition, which is especially true in the case of Harris. A transfer from West Virginia, Harris came to East Lansing with the reputation of being a big time scorer. He’s struggled through the first two weeks of the season, but he got on a roll on Sunday night, finishing with 12 points, three boards and three assists. He showed he’s capable of doing a variety of things on the perimeter, and fitting into a “Swiss army knife” kind of role would make Michigan State that much more dangerous.

There’s no denying that Michigan State has been one of the nation’s best teams thus far.

But there’s also no denying that the Spartans have yet to hit their ceiling, which is definitely a positive moving forward.

Wichita State’s Anton Grady returns home with team

AP Photo/Willie J. Allen Jr.
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Wichita State forward Anton Grady was released from a hospital in Orlando on Sunday afternoon in time to return home with his Shocker teammates.

Grady suffered a spinal corn concussion on Friday when he collided head-first with an Alabama defender, snapping his head sharply to the side. He lay on the court motionless for 10 minutes after the injury and was taken off the floor on a stretcher.

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“I want to send out a big thank you to Shocker Nation and all of my friends and family for of the love and encouragement that I have received the past few days,” Grady said in a statement on Sunday morning. “I’ve been reading your tweets and posts and appreciate every last one of them. I have a lot of work to do to get back on the court, but with the help of such a great support system, I’m ready for the challenge.”

By Friday night, Grady had feeling in all of his extremities, but he has a long road of rehab ahead of him.