CHICAGO — John Groce loves Chicago and St. Louis. He loves ’em and he needs ’em.
That’s where the top basketball recruits perform in numbers. Incoming Illini speedsters Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate provided a flashy demonstration in leading Simeon at Pontiac this weekend. Down south, Belleville East’s highly promising Malcolm Hill racked 106 points in a three-game splurge.
So it helps when the big crowds and the young prospects see winners at the United Center and Scottrade Center. That hasn’t been happening.
Current Illini seniors lost four straight to Missouri in St. Louis, and the Illini were 1-5 in Chicago before defeating 5-7 Auburn on Saturday afternoon.
Directing that 81-79 triumph before 18,136 orange-clad fans was Chicago Mount Carmel product Tracy Abrams, who shook out of his recent doldrums with a spectacular, hard-driving performance. He led the Illini in practically everything, garnering a personal-high 27 points with 13 free throws, eight rebounds and four steals.
“As a coach, I like the five assists with one turnover. That’s what I’m into. We’ve been seeing this from Tracy for the last two days. He’s a tough dude, battling in there among the trees,” said Groce before making a hurried exit to see Simeon in the finals at Pontiac.
Groce was thrilled with the support from a live-wire crowd.
“Hats off to Illini Nation,” he said. “They gave us a lift when we needed it. I love coming here for a number of reasons, and we’ll be here again in March (Big Ten tournament). We are lucky Chicago is so close.”
But the coach wasn’t entirely satisfied with the Illini performance. Especially on defense.
“We were rolling offensively from the beginning but we struggled defensively throughout and we let them hit high percentages in both halves. We didn’t have any bite early and we let them become comfortable. We finally toughened up in the last eight minutes.”
Toughness is Groce’s watchword, and the 13-1 record will now be put to the test in a grinding, 18-game Big Ten schedule.
“It’s coming at us, one fistfight after another. We want to establish a culture of togetherness and a work ethic in which every day matters,” he said.
“We had a five-point lead against Missouri with eight minutes left and we didn’t finish. Today we did. If you don’t have toughness, it doesn’t matter whether you run five-man motion or ball screens. It doesn’t matter.”
The Illini never trailed after breaking a 39-39 tie Saturday. They held Auburn without a field goal for seven-plus minutes, St. Louisan Tyler Griffey scoring on both sides of the half as the margin reached 53-44.
What had been an exhilarating exchange of baskets resumed with Auburn cashing treys to rally back within 68-67. Here again the defense stiffened and Abrams put the Illini up 80-73 before two late bombs made the result appear closer than it was.
Failing their boards
This was a game in which the one-pointers outdid the three-pointers.
The nation’s leading three-point team, which had been averaging nearly 10 per game, went 4 for 15 and was outscored 33-12 from the arc. That’s four straight Illini games with single-digit treys.
“We’ll continue to shoot threes because we’re good at it,” reassured Groce. “But a lot of it has to do with the way people guard us.”
The UI’s persistent emphasis on penetration led to 40 free throw attempts and, despite missing 13, the Illini outscored Auburn 27-10 on charities and 19-6 on points off turnovers.
These numbers offset another mediocre backboard effort, Auburn pulling down 14 offensive rebounds to finish in double figures for the eighth straight game.
There doesn’t appear to be much the Illini can do about this weakness. The three busiest big men — Nnanna Egwu, Griffey and Sam McLaurin — combined for four offensive boards, and Brandon Paul had none in a 13-point, six-turnover game. The Illini have been outrebounded by 33 (10 Saturday) in the last two games.
“They beat us on the boards,” said Groce, noting that his two points of emphasis after Missouri were transition defense and rebounding. The former was better. The latter is a serious concern.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.