Tate: It's can't get much worse

Tate: It's can't get much worse

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.

Dropping fast

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.


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Moonpie wrote on January 13, 2013 at 8:01 am

Been saying all along this team is overrated, despite the cheerleading by Tater and Bushleague Jackson.Had this happened at home, the Oracle would have found a way to blame fans.

No inside game + lack of mental toughness = going nowwhere.

But kudos to Groce for breathing some fire and considering changes after just a few games -- Weber would have needed at least a dozen. 

optimator wrote on January 13, 2013 at 12:01 pm

well cowpie, now you can bask in the glow of your crowing about this team getting pounded by wisky. kudos man. kudos. and some superfluous name calling to boot.

proud day for you sir. proud day.

PortlandIllini wrote on January 13, 2013 at 10:01 am

Curious that the link on the banner led me to another Loren Tate article entitled "It can't get much worse"  which was a 2009 story about the football team losing to Ohio State. 

Events showed that "yes, it can get worse" for the football team.

I have more confidence in Coach Groce in re-instilling the Fight in the Illini

DaisyJ wrote on January 13, 2013 at 10:01 am

Players are just a bunch of athletic CLONES. Think about it, there really is nothing to being an offensive player. Trust me, I learned to shoot when I wanted to shoot, my time, my place, my spot. I practiced non three's because the three is mostly a set shot and if I wanted to play HORSE I would not have gone out for the team. Stopping a foot earlier, faking, fading because I wanted to makes all the difference to being a scorer. Sure, old Daisy J thinks he can do anything, but break down the shots selection and most shots taken that miss were last second ideas, or where a kid got too close or where they just rushed the shot. Shooting is a lost art. Most kids do not have a great rotation or smoothness to their shot. Maybe Bertrand, and actually Henry, and Igwu has a nice quick release ( again done with thought before it is done vs being forced to release quickly because you penetrated too close.). Todays player could not hold Skip Thoreen, Dave Downey, or any other former scorers jock. They have worked on the dunk, duh, and the three. You cannot make chicken salad out of , well you know. Abrams shows signs of having a nice release, but hey he is out of control a lot of the game. And again, finally Griffey has been by Mark Tupper in the paper requested to put on the bench, something Groce should have relized 5 games ago. 

DaisyJ wrote on January 13, 2013 at 10:01 am

One more thing, there is no wonder we do not rebound. Our offense is nothing more than the guard getting a pick out front and driving. The other players are off somewhere and not included.

Why would you think they can rebound when they hug the three line.

FloridaIllini wrote on January 13, 2013 at 4:01 pm

Seems as Coach Groce can't fix this team's lack of intensity and toughness.  Did Weber recruit for these traits?  Here is a comment from Meyers Leonard's Portland coach:


"I think he needs to rebound better on both ends of the floor," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said of Leonard. "I think rebounding is difficult to coach because it's very instinctive, especially offensive rebounding. But defensive rebounding is reacting to the ball, knowing where your man is and where the ball is and reading the ball off the rim."

Seems this is was a "team trait" that is still hanging around.  His coach also said his post defense was "poor".  So far he has been a disappointment for a first round draft choice mostly for his lack of toughness.  He's getting pushed around like a kid in the pros! 

DaisyJ wrote on January 13, 2013 at 5:01 pm

Does it surprise anyone. I get tired of Brian Moline stating on the after the game shows how the best player left this team to go pro. Hardly, the best player he was not, and will not be in the pro's. To be a good rebounder you have to have to watch the ball constantly as the shot goes off whether it be your own shot, you teamates shot, or the other teams shot. Then , you have to have an understanding that if your job is to rebound, that if you do not, then you SIT.

aaeismacgychel wrote on January 13, 2013 at 6:01 pm

This was a pretty bad game and while we could go into all of the things other posters have talked about with toughness, emotions, et. al., it was pretty clear to me in the first few minutes of the game that we simply didn't show up ready to play.  For whatever the reason, we were still mentally on the bus when the game started and showed none of the effort or energy ready to play.  That's on the coach.  Sure the players should be motivated and ready to play for every game, but the coach has to keep an eye on the energy level and make sure it's the case.  So you chalk this one up to John Groce and a really off day for the players.  Listen, the game was ugly, we all know it.  Illinois is not even close to as bad as they were in this game- I think this is one of those games you just throw out and try to forget.  The important thing is for Groce is to make sure this feeling sorry for yourself game doesn't become 2 games.  We absolutely cannot lose either of the next two games to Northwestern or Nebraska.  They are absolute must wins.  We lose either and the season is pretty much over.  While I know the Wisconsin game seemed like a season killer, we can live with that loss- it won't break a season.  These next two though? Absolutely.

So all I can say is, there's no point getting riled up for what happened.  It was an awful awful game.  Much like the game OSU brought to Champaign a couple games ago.  An F game on the road will get you blown out pretty much every time in the B10.  So, let's just hope there's no carry over and let's support these guys hard for the Northwestern game at the Hall.  If we don't show up there again, then I agree, it's pretty much time to freak out.  But this loss to Wisconsin?  I'll give one free pass and pretend it didn't happen.  Let's hope the Illini do the same and come out and assert their will on the wounded Cats.

OKOMIS wrote on January 13, 2013 at 7:01 pm

The next 2 games will be very telling…. We need to go out and take care of business… No one should have reasonably thought we’d win the big 10 or be ranked top 10 or 12… unless we implode we should be mid seed, and if we make it to the 2nd weekend, I’m tickled… it would be sad if we crawl up in a fetal position and play dead like last year.. Let’s see of Groce does a better job than our last coach… I think he will..

aaeismacgychel wrote on January 14, 2013 at 1:01 pm

I think the Illini will respond better if only because Groce won't be thrown under the bus by Thomas. I think we're seeing some of the same things we did last year: Good shooting in OOC drying up, the rampant missing of open threes (I've said this for years- the thing that separates great teams from good teams and good teams from decent teams is the ability to make an open shot), and Tyler Griffey doing his usual disappearing act when competition gets tough. The difference though is that Thomas will support Groce and Groce and the team know that Groce isn't going anywhere.

I still wholeheartedly believe that Illinois has a different season last year if Mike Thomas doesn't go on that radio show where he all but gave a no-vote of confidence to Weber. After that happened, Illinois imploded and went from a team that had been in pretty much every game that season to one being blown out every game. Thomas knew what he was doing- He submarined the season last year to bring in his guy. Now his guy, who had done a great job up until this point has to just calm his team down, forget this one, and move onto the next one. We have 8 games remaining on our schedule that we should win if we come out playing hard focused ball:

1/17: NW
1/22: @Neb
2/3: Wisc
2/13: Purdue
2/17: @NW
2/21: PSU
3/2: Neb
3/5: @Iowa

If we lose one of those we'll have to pull an upset to make up for it. I think we're in alright position right now, just need to win these next two games.

OKOMIS wrote on January 14, 2013 at 3:01 pm

one could argue had Weber and his team finished STRONG, had a decent run in the B1G tourney, made the NCAA and won a game or 2 then I don’t see how Thomas could have fired him… you could argue he could/should have used it as a rallying point… win one for the gipper…if his players cared for him…and certainly can’t blame Thomas for 2010…. or 2009 or 2008 or 2007… as far as this year I agree with you.. when Florida fired Zook... his players rallied arounf him to beat a highly favorite FSU and a bowel game...


aaeismacgychel wrote on January 14, 2013 at 4:01 pm

Oh, after last season ended, for sure Weber couldn't come back, nor was I suggesting it. I'm also not necessarily saying he didn't get a fair shake here. I simply think Mike Thomas incredibly mishandled that situation as an AD for clearly ulterior purposes. He wanted Weber out- that was pretty clear, so he put him in about as deep a corner as you'll ever find. All he had to say was "Stop asking questions about Weber's job status. Weber is our coach and I support him. Let's let him do his job and get our team to the tournament. I think they're going to have a successful year." That's all he had to say. Heck he could've been lying through his teeth for all I care, but you say that and you give your team a chance. Thomas basically took an emotionally young team and shined the spotlight directly on them and their coach and they folded hard and fast.

People can comment on Izzo and what he said and even personal bias, but he was right, Thomas pulled a nsaty little trick on Weber. That's not blaming Thomas for Weber's failures he had as a coach, but I think it was pretty clear that after Thomas' stunt, Illinois was completely incapable of being competitive and they folded up shop, Weber included. And yes, it's also Weber's fault for not being able to turn it into a "Win one for the Gipper", but to put all of what happened last year on Weber I think was really shortsighted by most Illini fans. You would have had to have been a pretty phenomenal coach to have gottten through that trainwreck last year. But too often during the final hallf of Weber's tenure, that phenomenal coach wasn't there.

Amen wrote on January 13, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Actually it probably can get worse, but let us hope not.  The last two teams were very physical.  I enjoy this team but muscling people around is not their game.  It does not help when and I have seen it a couple of times where an opposing player just arms wrestles our player to the floor and nothing is called.  That is very poor officiating.  To the point that there may be an undercurrent response from the big 10 regarding
BW's firing.  Maybe not from the top, but from the coaching ranks.  If the officials do not call it then more players will get pounded in the face and thrown to the floor.


tonyjb37 wrote on January 13, 2013 at 10:01 pm
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The cat is out of the bag now!!!!

tonyjb37 wrote on January 13, 2013 at 10:01 pm
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OHHHHHHHH.........NO............WE SUCK AGAIN!!!!!!!

friendofUofI wrote on January 19, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Last year when Mike Thomas fired Ron Zook and Bruce Weber I was appalled becuase of the huge waste of money in buying out each coach's contract. At this point I think Mike Thomas should be fired unless it is necessary to buy out his contract.  If he cannot be fired without buying out his contract he should be told that his contract will not be renewed.  In addition everyone at the University who let him waste millions of dollars should be fired.As a lawyer I believe that a contract should be honored. If Zook and Weber were bad coaches they should have remained as coachs until their contracts expired.  What did the University get by spending millions of dollars to buy out the contracts of Zook and Weber?  Did they get a better team?. I believe that if Zook had remained for the 2012 season he could have done at least as well as the team did with a new coach.  He could have won the two games the Illini actually won and he might have won more. The case involving Bruce Weber is even clearer.  Is he a bad coach or did he simply have a bad team?  Look at what he is doing at Kansas State.  Perhaps his main failing was recruiting. He simply couldn't recruit a good team. The current players on the Illini basketball team are doing the best that they can. They are suffering and have been up and down as much as most elevators. This is the same team as last year and is delivering the same results. If Coach Groce, who is probably doing as well as any other coach, can't do a good job recruiting players, the next few years at Illinois will be bad years. I can tell that Coach Groce is pretty intense.  Maybe he should lighten up a little bit. For the next game start his bottom five reserves. They haven't played much so lets see what they can do. They couldn't be much worse. The current starting five are good men even if they are not always very good basketball players.  I don't know what motivates them but as a former player myself I know that winning is fun. Practices should also be fun. Are the Illini practices fun or are they so tough that all of the joy of playing the game is practiced away. I hope that the Illini can remember what they were doing when they beat Butler, Gonzaga and Ohio State. Seven more victories will get them to the NCAA.