MADISON, Wis. — Saturday was the dreaded day when it appeared a basketball team forgot how to play the game.
The Illini were last seen wandering around the Kohl Center, trying to figure out what hit them.
All that hard work. All those months of intense coaching and encouragement. All the confidence that built up throughout a 12-win getaway ... those positives draining away while Illini Nation grimaced at the memory of last year’s Nebraska trip as a similar collapse ran its course at Wisconsin’s Kohl Center.
Now John Groce truly understands what he is up against, that the X-and-O’s aspect must take second fiddle to his duties as a psychologist. If there’s a bad gene flowing in the Illini DNA, how do you block it? If uncertainty locks up performance, is there a key.
And Illini fans will again be asked for patience as it becomes again clear that, yes ... making the NCAA tournament would be a major accomplishment for this team.
This is, after all, the same squad that started 15-3 and finished 2-12 last season (minus a first-round draft choice) ... and Saturday’s display was reminiscent of the latter.
“Wisconsin dominated every phase,” an unhappy Groce said. “Execution aside, their competitive spirit was better, and that’s not acceptable.”
Heat is on
Who can explain the first 17 minutes of Saturday’s debacle? No crying on the UI bench, as happened in the 80-57 blowout at Nebraska last February, but rather glassy-eyed disbelief as Groce subbed wildly to slow the Badgers’ momentum.
Unranked Wisconsin rocketed ahead 14-0 and built it to 34-9 before the Illini, 2 for 18 from the field, awakened in the final 2:35 with four pre-intermission field goals. The final score, 74-51, barely projected the difference between these rivals on this January day.
For the Badgers, this was a turnaround from a stretch of poor shooting. They showed 21 percent on threes and 41 percent on free throws in unimpressive Big Ten wins against Penn State and Nebraska. Then they came out as hot as Illinois was cold. And it carried deep into the second half as, with 8:00 to go, the Badgers were 9 for 20 on treys and still over .500 from the field as the score reached 61-37.
Looking back at that incredible opening segment, the stone-cold Illini went nearly seven minutes before Brandon Paul’s free throw at 13:13, and they scored their first basket on Joseph Bertrand’s runner at 12:36.
Wisconsin kept draining shots from all angles and overwhelmed the Illini on the boards (43 to 24). Conversely, Illinois missed the first six treys, running its two-game streak to 0 for 14, and only began to produce baskets after the outcome was settled.
So, after entering a week at No. 12 nationally, the Illini lost by 17 points to Minnesota and by 23 to Wisconsin. Imagine the quandary voters must be going through as they try to apply a ranking to a team that’s gone 2-4 after a 12-0 start.
From the Wisconsin perspective, this was expected, and the packed house roared through every minute. They could smell it from the moment Illinois made four early turnovers, or when Jared Berggren blocked Nnanna Egwu’s jumper, or when the home forces started draining bombs.
Forget the fact that Illinois, and only Illinois, owns three wins against Bo Ryan in Kohl. Look at the big picture. Ryan is 176-16 in home games and has the best-ever Big Ten win percentage based on 135 wins and 54 losses.
It is impossible to put a number on how important the home court is when the crowd is this loud and supportive. It must have been that way at North Carolina State, where the Wolfpack downed No. 1 Duke ... and as it always is at Syracuse, and at Indiana where Minnesota was devoured. It isn’t always the case, but it is unquestionably true that the 17,249 in Kohl give their favorites an advantage.
The Badgers aren’t 23 points better than Illinois, as we’ll see Feb. 3 in Champaign, but they certainly were in this environment.
Where does Groce go from here? How do you put Humpty Dumpty back together again?
Groce would only credit one player, deep reserve Mike Shaw, who was “the only one who played like his head was under water.”
D.J. Richardson hustled his way to 16 points, but Paul never got going in a dismal, 1-for-11 game that included five missed free throws.
Egwu, who had shown improvement lately, drew three fouls in five minutes of first-half play, and was whistled for No. 4 in the second minute of the second half. Both he and his sophomore teammate Tracy Abrams had minimal impact on the game.
If you thought Purdue or Minnesota was the low point, you’re wrong. This was it. Now, the main job is putting this out of their minds before Northwestern comes to town.