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January 2013 Archives

           It's clear now that it was a mistake to make lofty assumptions based on the unexpected 13-1 start that saw Illinois rise to 10th in the nation.

            With a 2-5 slog out of the Big Ten gate, the Illini are in danger of becoming the first Maui Invitational winner to miss the NCAA tournament since Vanderbilt in 1987.

            The road doesn't get any easier Thursday (6 p.m., ESPN). Illinois travels to No. 13 Michigan State, which is feeling prickly after losing 75-70 at Indiana.

            ``What's the biggest difference right now vs. earlier in the year?'' coach John Groce said Wednesday. ``It's really two things. One, we have to impact the game more defensively; we did that better early on. But I thought Nebraska was our best defensive game of the year, and we defended ball screens really well on Sunday [vs. Michigan].''

            The other reason Illinois is struggling is the real key, he added.

            ``It's probably not what people want to hear because it's not real complex,'' Groce said. ``What's the biggest difference? Shot-making. We probably had more defensive miscues and mistakes earlier, but we overcame some of those things because we were making shots at such a high level.''

            A 37 percent three-point shooting team in its nonleague games, Illinois has dipped under 25 percent, and is making 5.6 treys a game after pouring in 9.4 during its 13-1 start.

            That has contributed to a 14-point scoring decline. More importantly, after outscoring opponents by nearly 12 points a game, Illinois is being outscored by 5.1 points a game.

            Some reasons for the offensive decline are obvious. For one, in a Big Ten that's having a banner year, the competition is a lot stiffer.

            For another, in shooting the lights out early, perimeter players Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams probably kindled unrealistic expectations that they would continue to do that.

            An even bigger concern is interior play. While Illinois' frontline trio of Nnanna Egwu, Sam McLaurin and Tyler Griffey are making strides, they're in for another challenging matchup. The Spartans lead with a pair of heavyweights, Derrick Nix, a 6-9, 270-pound senior, and Adreain Payne, a 6-10, a 240-pound junior, and follow with talented and over-sized youngsters.

            The short version is that Illinois' fast start inflated impressions of its talent. Groce, who's built a remarkable bond with his new team, won't talk about the shortcomings of players who are giving him everything they have--even if it isn't enough in a tough league.

            ``It's Jan. 30. We have who we have,'' the coach said. ``I don't sit back and say, `How do we compare with blank and blank?' I'm more like, `OK. This is who we've got. Are we making them better? Are they getting better?' That's what we can control on Jan. 30. It is what it is.''


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HOT--AND COLD

            Why has Illinois followed its exciting 13-1 nonconference start with a 2-5 Big Ten struggle? The ball is not going in the basket enough.

 

            NONCONFERENCE            BIG TEN           

3pt shooting                  36.9 percent                        24.5 percent           

3pt FGs                         9.4 per game                       5.6 per game

Overall shooting            44.5 percent                        39.3 percent

Scoring                        76.9 pts a game                   62.6 pts a game

Scoring margin             plus-11.8                             minus-5.1

 



            It probably shapes up as one of college football's toughest jobs. But Bill Cubit sounds confident he can perk up Illinois' listless offense.

            Introduced Wednesday, Illinois' new offensive coordinator said he believes a unit that finished last in the Big Ten in scoring (16.7 ppg) and yards (296.7) can be molded into a successful group.

            ``I'm looking for a long, long time here and a lot of winning,'' said Cubit, who's made a quick film study since Tim Beckman hired him. ``There is talent here. I think they all can play. You just have to put them in the right spots.''

            Cubit, 59, was hired officially at Illinois on Monday, but apparently has been surveying his new assignment since early January, when he reportedly signed on.

            He was fired in November after eight years at Western Michigan, where he was 51-47 but fashioned some potent offenses. He also has been an offensive coordinator at Missouri (2000), Rutgers (2001-02) and Stanford (2003-04), during a coaching career that began in 1975.

            ``The evaluation process for me is, `What can we do to get a good offense in here?' '' said the Sharon, Pa., native, adding that he'll run an offense that's tailored to his players' strengths. ``In this league, you have to be balanced, and you have to spread them out, too--because the talent level is not going to be up to par vs. some of the teams we play. You have to find a way. That's what we've always done.''

            Cubit said he's liked Beckman's approach since their Mid-American Conference days. He had other offers, but Illinois ``was a no-brainer,'' he said, because of his belief in Beckman and his fondness for the Big Ten's tradition.

            ``I have a lot of respect for coach Beck,'' Cubit said. ``He's given me free rein. This is what I want to do. Everywhere I've been, it's been a reclamation project. I kind of like that. I enjoying giving kids a plan and all of a sudden you're pretty successful. That's been my whole career. That's what I want to do.''

            Bill Cubit was named offensive coordinator Monday by coach Tim Beckman, confirming speculation that Cubit, who was fired after eight years as Western Michigan head coach, would be coming to Champaign.

             ``I'm very excited to have an experienced coach like Bill Cubit join the staff,'' Beckman said in a news release. ``He's has always been known to have an outstanding football mind. Bill has had many extremely productive offensive teams during his career. He has called plays for many years, and has developed several outstanding quarterbacks.''

            Cubit, 59, succeeds co-coordinators Chris Beatty, who was fired, Billy Gonzales, who coach wide receivers.

            ``I have a lot of respect for Tim and his teams,'' said Cubit, who was 51-47 at Western Michigan. ``I'm enthused about joining a great staff and being a part of the Illinois football tradition. I look forward to getting to work immediately and competing for a Big Ten championship.''

            Under Cubit in 2011, Western Michigan finished 18th in the nation in points (35.3) and 19th in total offense (458.5 yards per game).

            Presumably, the hiring of Cubit will help Beckman clear up one of his public-relations no-fly zones. Late in the season, eyebrows were raised when Beckman said Beatty called plays on first and second downs, while Gonzales handled third down. 

About the blogger

Herb Gould started with the Sun-Times in 1977 and has covered several teams, including the Blackhawks. He is a long-time beat reporter covering the Fighting Illini and the Big Ten for the Sun-Times.

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