CHAMPAIGN, Ill. Live and die by the three-pointer was a clich before it was ever applied to this installment of the Illinois mens basketball team. But clichs dont become clichs on accident.
The Illini lost their third straight game on Thursday night, their second consecutive loss to an unranked opponent (68-54 to Northwestern), while shooting just 3-20 on threes. The string of poor play is certain to send the team crashing out of the top 25 polls, a precipitous fall from their number 11 ranking at the turn of the year.
Related: Northwestern's road success continues in win over Illinois
In the Illinis last three losses, the team has made a total of eight shots from behind the arc out of 67 attempts. Thats just 11.9 percent on three-pointers since beating Ohio State on Jan. 5 25 percentage points off the teams average from the first 16 games of the season.
In other words, Illinois has died by the three-pointer.
But three point shooting is just one piece to the puzzle, according to first-year coach John Groce.
To me the whole things start with the defense. We have to get stops, he said. Were not getting as many threes in transition because our defense has so many holes in it.
Threes are cool, but you have to get stops to get those shots in transition, Groce added.
The Illini defense has been woeful of late, getting outscored 226-172 in the last three games. The reasons for the collapse are a mystery to Groce and his players, however.
Not knowing the source of their problems has not stopped the players from taking responsibility for their errors, however. After the Northwestern loss guards Brandon Paul and Tracy Abrams each shouldered the burden for the poor play.
Were spotting teams points and we cant do thatthats not how you play in the Big Ten, Paul said. We as players have to figure out what we have to do to move forward.
Abrams echoed the senior, adding that the problems lie within the group as a collective.
Its about the team, the team is one we are one. We have to do a better job of defining our role and playing our game, Abrams said.
In the last two games, Groce explained, the team has played hero ball, in which they try to make the spectacular play in an attempt to narrow a deficit. If the team played more like the style he has tried to instill, the style they played during their 12-0 start to the season, he believes this slump could be behind the Illini.
Theyre trying to find the balance here in year one, he said. We have to keep doing what we dowere doing a lot of what we were doing when we were 12-0.
One thing Paul feels he and Abrams can do, as point guards, to pull the team from the slump, is take ownership.
Tracy and I have to do a better job of facilitating our offense, the senior said. Tracy and I as captains, point guards, have to do better to get us on our game.
In Groces words, losing doesnt feel very good, but he knows things cant continue the way they are. Until we get our defense addressed the results dont change, he said.
By all accounts the Illini are trying not to make a habit of losing. With their latest loss, however, the Illini are just 1-4 in conference play. With big games against Michigan (twice), Indiana and Ohio State left on the schedule, though, time might be running out for Illinois.