Illinois team desperate for wins sees young shooters fade

February 28, 2015

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Illinois is fighting for a shot at the NCAA tournament while missing the scoring that kept the team afloat in January.

With leading scorer Rayvonte Rice out almost all of that month, sophomores Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill carried Illinois' offense. But in the last two games, losses to Michigan State and Iowa, the two could barely buy a bucket.

As he tries to coax Illinois (17-11, 7-8 Big Ten) back to the tournament after falling short last season, coach John Groce says he isn't worried about either player's shooting.

Hill has been getting good looks at the basket that just haven't been falling, Groce said. And Nunn, ''He's a good shooter, aggressive, and I've got confidence he'll make them,'' the coach said.

Illinois needs that to start happening soon.

Beginning with Saturday's game at home against Northwestern (14-14, 5-10), the Illini have three regular season games and the Big Ten tournament left to finish building their postseason resume.

Just a week ago, after winning five of six and welcoming Rice back to the lineup, it looked like they were well on their way.

Coming into Sunday's game against Michigan State, Hill and Nunn were averaging a combined 30.6 points a game in Big Ten play. That's almost half of the 62.6 points the team was averaging a game at that point.

But in the losses to the Spartans and Hawkeyes, Hill has averaged 8.5 points, hitting 6 of 19 shots (31.6 percent). Against Iowa he shot 1 for 10 with two points. Nunn was 5 for 21 (23.8 percent) in the two games, including 1 for 7 from 3-point range and scored just seven points in each.

Last year's Illini, as Groce put it bluntly back in October, was a bad shooting team, the worst the coach has had. Illinois averaged 64.2 points a game, 11th in what was then a 12-team conference.

He expected this team to be different. Transfers Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby were both capable scorers, joining Rice and the maturing Hill and Nunn to give Illinois five guys who could shoot.

But Illinois now finds itself again short on offense. They are averaging 61.8 points in Big Ten games on 38.5-percent shooting.

Groce, though, says this team's troubles aren't like last season's. This team has been forced to play with many different lineups, he says. Cosby has left the team after an injury and suspension, and Rice's absence was the result of a broken hand and his own suspension.

''I think having to coach several different teams throughout the course of the year ... certainly that affects rhythm a little bit, continuity,'' he said. ''At the end of the day we've got to figure it out.''

On paper, Northwestern looks like a good bet for a win. But the Wildcats have won four straight.

That's followed by a home game against struggling Nebraska and a road trip to Purdue - another team looking to pad its record and an opponent the Illini struggle to beat anywhere. Purdue has won nine of the last 11 games between the two teams, and Illinois hasn't beaten the Boilermakers in West Lafayette since 2008.

Win two or even three of those and the Illini might still need at least one win at the Big Ten tournament to make the NCAA tournament.