Even after Illinois won the Maui Invitational, upset Gonzaga in Spokane and cracked the top 10 in the polls for the first time in six years, there was still healthy skepticism about whether the Illini could sustain that success.
Halfway through the Big Ten season, it's now easy to understand why.
An Illinois team that won its first 12 games of the season is now in jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament as a result of a disastrous opening month of Big Ten play. The Illini are 2-7 in the Big Ten after Sunday's 74-68 home loss to Wisconsin, with a home game against powerful Indiana and a visit to Minnesota up next before the schedule finally eases a bit.
Marquee victories against Gonzaga and Butler in non-league play gave Illinois margin for error in its quest to reach the NCAA tournament, but the Illini have now frittered most of that away. They'll need to win six of their final nine games just to get to 8-10 in the Big Ten and give themselves hope of an at-large bid, no easy task considering road games against Michigan and Ohio State still loom at the end of the season.
What has to be especially frustrating for Illinois fans is they've seen this build-your-hopes-up-then-collapse pattern before. Under Bruce Weber, the Illini leaped out to a 12-2 record last season before fading in the second half of Big Ten play, finishing 6-12 and missing the NCAA tournament.
Identifying the cause of Illinois' struggles the past month is pretty easy: Its defense has been porous and the 3-pointers that were falling consistently in non-league play no longer are because tougher, more rugged Big Ten defenses are doing a better job taking those looks away.
Guard-heavy Illinois, which made 36.9 percent of its threes before the start of league play, is sinking barely 25 percent of its attempts from behind the arc against Big Ten opponents. That's disastrous when you have no consistent interior scoring threats and you attempt more threes than any other team in the league. It's even worse when you're 12th in the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense and ninth in points per possession allowed.
Illinois' desperation began to show on Sunday when John Groce brought leading scorer Brandon Paul off the bench after he played lackadaisical defense a few days earlier in a loss to Michigan State. The move inspired neither Paul nor his teammates as the senior guard scored a quiet 13 points on 3 of 13 shooting and the Illini allowed 70-plus points for the third straight game.
Thus, it's back to the drawing board for Illinois entering Thursday's game against potential new No. 1 Indiana.
A win gives Illinois a badly needed confidence boost. A loss only makes the optimism of November and December feel further away.
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