ST. LOUIS -- What every Illinois critic wanted to know about the Illini was what would happen to them if they had a bad shooting day against a good team.
The Illini had lived by the 3-pointer against good teams (Butler, Gonzaga) and slipped past a couple average teams thanks to their superior athleticism and skill. The result was 12 consecutive wins to start the season.
On Saturday, the critics got their wish. The Illini’s hot 3-point shooting eluded them against one of the nation’s best teams, No. 12 Missouri.
While No. 10 Illinois dropped its first game of the season, 82-73, largely due to its outside struggles, coach John Groce found plenty of positives to take from Saturday’s game. As horrific as Illinois was from 3-point range -- 8-of-32 –- his team still hung right with Missouri, and that meant a lot to him.
“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.
“We don’t allow one game to define us. 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 what our body of work is between Oct. 12 and April 1. We want to continue to get better. My guys showed me something tonight. They showed some fight and played with great passion, and I’m real proud of them for that.”
That’s the thing. The Illini never clung to the dream of an undefeated season. They were glad to be among that small elite class for as long as they were. So when they did finally fall on Saturday, the Illini’s focus wasn’t on the disappointment of not being unbeaten anymore, but rather the lessons they could learn from a loss.
The main one coming from Saturday’s defeat was execution.
The Illini’s goal against Missouri was to take the 25 best 3-pointers they could. The Illini were seeking quality, but that’s not what they got. Of their 32 3-pointers, maybe a quarter of them were of a high grade. Most of them were the type that left Groce cringing when they were released from the shooter’s hand.
“I just don’t think our quality of 3 was great tonight, to be honest,” Groce said. “How do you get the best 3s? This isn’t brain surgery. You get them in transition. You get them off offensive rebounds and kick-outs. You get them [off] post touch. You get them off drive-and-kick. Or you get them off some sort of set play you run to put them at a disadvantage. Tonight, I thought a lot of our 3s were not coming from those means as much as they have been in the past.”
Illinois’ players recognized their shot selection wasn’t great, as well.
“We usually take a lot of good shots,” said Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul, who scored 23 points on 5-of-18 shooting. “I think we took some questionable shots tonight, including myself. That didn’t allow us to get into the offense we wanted to, and that kind of put us in the bind.”
Groce will undoubtedly work on that in practice, but he was willing to forgive it on Saturday.
“I thought our hearts and minds were in the right place,” Groce said. “They wanted to make plays. They wanted to step up and make plays. Did we trust the system? We may have to do it a little bit more, but I like to coach some guys who have some toughness to them and play with some passion and play with the effort they played tonight. We can build from there.”