CHAMPAIGN — Maybe they had plans for an epic Super Bowl party. Maybe they wanted to beat the traffic. Or maybe they just lost hope.
Whatever the reason, a good chunk of the 15,073 who made their way to the Assembly Hall on Sunday for Illinois’ game against Wisconsin decided to hit the exits with 8 minutes, 23 seconds remaining in the second half.
The Badgers led by 14 at the time.
By the time the horn sounded on Wisconsin’s 74-68 win, the sea of orange had pretty much faded. All that remained were empty gray seats.
Halfway through the conference season, the Illini (15-8, 2-7 Big Ten) are in a position few envisioned when they were 12-0 and ranked in the Top 10 for the first time in six years.
“They went from semi-confidently in to squarely on the (NCAA) bubble,” Yahoo! Sports bracketologist Brad Evans said after Sunday’s loss, Illinois’ eighth in its last 11 games.
The fans were leaving to watch the Super Bowl. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan asked for the score at the end of his news conference that ended a half hour before kickoff.
Illinois coach John Groce had no interest in the 49ers or the Ravens.
“We’ll watch (game) tape,” he said.
What he’ll see, once again, is another lackluster performance on the defensive end of the floor from his team.
After allowing Michigan State to shoot 87.5 percent in the second half of Thursday’s loss, the Illini offered little resistance against the Badgers (15-7, 6-3), who shot 55.6 percent in the second half and got 20 points and 19 points, respectively, from Chicago-area products Ben Brust and Frank Kaminsky on Sunday.
And for the second straight game, Illinois’ opponent shot 30 or more free throws in the second half.
“We’ve been doing this since Oct. 12. At some point we have to execute the simple things that we ask our guys to do on a more consistent basis and that’ll allow us to be better defensively,” Groce said after his team allowed 74 or more points for the third straight game. “To do that, you have to trust the system and you have to trust one another at a really high level.”
How serious is Groce about shoring things up on the defensive end? Leading scorer Brandon Paul, who has struggled defensively lately, came off the bench for just the third time in the last two seasons.
Paul ended up as one of five Illini in double figures with 13 points, but the message has been sent.
“It’s more about the defensive side right now, that was the bottom line,” Groce said.
Joseph Bertrand replaced Paul in the starting lineup and finished with a team-high 17 points and seven rebounds.
The bubble might be shrinking for the Illini, but they’re still keeping the faith, even if some outside the program are losing theirs.
“We’re fine, we’ve known each other for a long time,” said Nnanna Egwu, who filled the stat sheet with 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. “It’s a matter of getting back on the court, keep on practicing. We’ve just got to play harder, that’s the main thing.”