The Illinois Fighting Illini dropped their Big Ten opener to Purdue, Wednesday, by a score of 68-61. It was a tough loss for Illinois, in a game that went back and forth in the second half. At the end, Purdue was able to make the big plays, specifically DJ Byrd. He finished with 15 points but just 1 rebound, and he collected that rebound with seconds left, and a 2 point lead, as he fell out of bounds and called a timeout. It was a play that swung the outcome of the game, by preventing Illinois from getting the ball down to, with the ability to tie or win the game.
But before any of that happened, it has to be asked: why this was such a close game?
Illinois had come in no. 14 in the country, at 12-1. Their sole loss had come to a terrific Missouri team at a neutral court. Purdue, meanwhile, was just 6-6 heading in to Wednesday’s game. They had struggled to score points, even against poor competition. Illinois was a huge favorite, yet fell.
There are many reasons for why Illinois failed to win the game. First off, it is never easy to win in the Big Ten. Winning on the road in the Big Ten is an accomplishment, no matter who the opponent is. It was a hostile crowd in West Lafayette that carried Purdue through the game. It was a raucous environment that seemed to get the best of Illinois. Late in the game, Purdue appeared to have more energy, while the Illini were playing with hesitation.
The other two reasons are flaws that have hurt Illinois all season. The first of these flaws is rebounding. They do not have very much depth in their front court, and struggle to rebound against more physical teams. They lost the rebounding margin 38-31 to Purdue on Wednesday. In non-conference games Illinois had a rebounding percentage of just 50.7%, putting them at 11th in the Big Ten. Even though 50.7% is good, meaning they collected a majority of the rebounds in their games, this has come against weaker opponents. If they perform like that against a non-conference schedule of primarily cupcakes, they will not do well against strong Big Ten teams. Rebounding was a problem against Missouri, and this flaw reappeared against Purdue.
The other reoccurring issue for Illinois has been their reliance on the jump shot. Teams live or die on jump shots. However, more often than not against good teams you will die on the jump shot. Against Purdue, over 44% of Illinois’ shots were three pointers. They shot well from three early on, but they stopped falling late in the game. This dependence is partially due to the fact Illinois does not have a lot of inside scoring sources. They are missing a post player, like Myers Leonard from last year. Therefore, their identity has become a jump shooting team. They will have nights where they really struggle on three pointers, and will have to adjust, or die.
These problems are nothing new for Illinois. They still have a lot of talent, especially in Brandon Paul, who is one of the best players in the conference right now. Things will not get any easier as conference play steps up. It will be up the them to decide if they are for real or not, and quickly.