CHAMPAIGN — When Illinois stormed out of the gate, winning its first 12 games, it raised expectations in John Groce’s first year.
They won the Maui Invitational. They rolled Gonzaga. They roughed up Ohio State. The Illini probably played above their heads.
Those expectations are dropping. Fast.
Thursday’s 68-54 loss to Northwestern — its fourth in five Big Ten games — was the latest evidence.
“We’re spotting teams points and we can’t do that and expect to make a miraculous comeback every time,” senior Brandon Paul (21 points) said. “We’ve done that a couple times this year, that’s not how it is. That’s not how it’s done in the Big Ten. It’s up and down, but we as players have to figure out what we need to do moving forward.”
The 23rd-ranked Illini (14-5, 1-4 Big Ten), once as high as No. 10 in the polls, have lost five of seven in a slump reminiscent of last year’s collapse.
It’s why Groce was hired to replace Bruce Weber after his final team lost 12 of 14 to end the 2011-12 season.
If wins against Northwestern (11-7, 2-3), which had lost 21 of 22 to ranked teams, at home are hard to come by, the rest of the Big Ten slate is going to be a bear for the Illini.
Those early, impressive wins keep you in the NCAA conversation. Losses to Purdue and Northwestern are ones that keep you out if the decision is close.
“The bottom line for us is we’re not playing very good,” Groce said. “We’ve got to coach better, we’ve got to play better. We’ve got guys in the locker room that (have) got to play better. Everybody’s got to play better right now and everybody’s got to pick it up, It’s just the way that it is. No one’s going to feel sorry for you.”
The approach for the Illini all season has been the same. The execution during this recent rough patch is where the problems lie.
The three-pointers, which were falling better than 11 times per game early in the season, aren’t falling. Illinois went 3 for 20 Thursday. And teams are shredding the Illini defense. Thursday was the sixth time in the last seven games they allowed 65 or more points. They did that twice during the 12-0 start.
“The only way you can do that is doing what we do and not changing a whole lot. We’re doing a lot of the same things we were doing when we were 12-0,” Groce said after Reggie Hearn led five Wildcats in double figures with 20 points. “We approach it the same way, we game plan it the same way, we treat them the same way, we challenge them a little more and hold them accountable in areas we don’t get the job done. We’re not going to jump off a cliff or anything like that, I don’t know what that does.”
The coaches and the support staff can only do so much. It’s up to the players to get the job done when the ball goes up.
“Us as players, we have to have a sense of urgency, especially us seniors; this is it for us,” Paul said. “You never know what happens after that so you want to take advantage of every opportunity when you get out here.”