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.