ST. LOUIS – While plenty of questions remain about the strength of No. 12 Illinois and their chances to contend for a Big Ten Conference title once league play starts next week, first year coach John Groce learned plenty about his team last week.
The Illini, winners of their first 12 games and ranked as high as No. 10 in the Top 25 Associated Press and Coaches Polls, found out the hard way on Dec. 22 in St. Louis just how dangerous relying on the three-point shot can be.
One of the top three-point shooting teams in the nation entering the annual Braggin’ Rights game at Scottrade Center, Illinois went ice cold from behind the three-point line and lost to rival Missouri, 82-73.
But dropping their first game of the season did nothing to dampen the excitement and potential that Groce sees for his group come later in the season.
“We don’t allow one game to define us,” Groce said. “I know it’s an important game, it’s a rivalry game, we certainly have respect for that, but we’re going to play around 35 plus games. Our deal is our body of work between October 12 and April 1 and we want to continue to get better.
“My guys showed me something. They showed some fight and played with great passion and I’m really proud of them for that.”
Now the three-point struggles are certainly an issue the Illini should be somewhat concerned about. Illinois has relied heavily on the deep ball so far, hitting at least 10 three-pointers in the first six games of the season.
They went 10-for-24 from behind the arc to beat Butler in the Maui Invitational Championship and 11-for-25 in an upset win of then-No. 10 Gonzaga on the road. The Illini went a season-best 14-for-28 from three-point range in a win over Georgia Tech.
But the shots have stopped falling from deep of late, causing problems for Groce and Illinois. The Illini have hit more than eight three pointers just twice in their past seven games, a stretch that included a one-point win over Gardner-Webb and games against Western Carolina, Norfolk State and Eastern Kentucky that were much closer than they should have been.
Their worst three-point outing of the season came Saturday against Missouri when they made just 8-of-32 shots from beyond the arc. The 25 percent clip was their lowest of the season while the 32 shots were the most on the year.
“I didn’t think our quality of three was great to be honest,” Groce said after losing to Mizzou. “How do you get the best threes? I mean this isn’t brain surgery. You get them in transition, you get offensive rebound kick-outs, you get them off a post touch, you get them off drag and kick or you get them off some kind of set play that you run to put them at a disadvantage. I thought a lot of our threes weren’t coming from those means as much as they have in the past.”
Leading scorer Brandon Paul hit just 2-of-8 shots from behind the arc against Missouri while D.J. Richardson went 1-for-9 from downtown. Paul also pointed to poor shot selection.
“We usually take a lot of good shots but I thought we took some questionable shots, myself included, that didn’t allow us to get into the offense we wanted to and kind of put us in a bind,” Paul said.
Illinois will play Auburn on Saturday in Chicago and at Purdue on Jan. 2 before hosting No. 10 Ohio State in a key early season conference game on Jan. 5 in Champaign.
Many wondered if the Illini’s 12-0 record leading into the Missouri game was more a product of a weak schedule than an accurate depiction of their talent level. Even in a loss to No. 12 Missouri, Illinois proved their legitimacy to the non-believers.
On a night when their shot wasn’t falling and the rebounds weren’t falling into their hands, the Illini overcame a nine-point deficit in the second half to take a four-point lead with about eight minutes to play in the game.
And though they didn’t finish the game, they showed their new coach – and college basketball fans across the country – that they figure to be right in the thick of things in the Big Ten all season long.
“I want to give our guys a lot of credit,” Groce said. “I told them in the locker room, I was really proud of them and their effort. I thought we played extremely hard.
“I’m really, really proud of our guys effort, really proud of them for the toughness they displayed mentally in the second half. It’s something to build on for sure.”
That is, assuming they can find their shooting touch from the outside.