Northwestern 68, UI men 54: 'We're not playing very good'

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.”

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bketts wrote on January 18, 2013 at 8:01 am
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“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.”


Based on Paul's defense in the first half, he doesn't mean this.


 

aaeismacgychel wrote on January 18, 2013 at 11:01 am

I'm going to disagree with this assessment. Illinois' defense was deplorable, but I thought out of everyone, Brandon Paul probably played the best and with the most urgency. And here's the problem with Brandon Paul. When the chips are down, he gets dumped on for every single Illinois shortcoming, because he's clearly Illinois' best player. Why? Because he's one of the few on the team willing to try doing everything it takes to win a ballgame. We just focus on the negative way way way too often with him, mainly because when nobody else on the team is doing anything he tries to take over even if it includes forcing the ball. And he forced a lot against Northwestern, mainly because he felt like he had to. His defense was there though. He wasn't the one being beat off the dribble constantly. He and DJ were the two that pretty much held their own on that end of the court. You want to get angry with someone for not playing defense, get angry at Tyler Griffey. There were at least 4 occasions where he was solely responsible for losing track of his guy and allowing for an easy layup. He's an effing senior who has seen Northwestern's offense for 4 years! That should not happen! At least Egwu and to a much lesser extent, Abrams have an excuse for being torched by Northwestern in that they aren't as familiar. That first half was as poor a defensive half as I've ever seen. Griffey, Egwu, and Bertrand especially were scorched whenever they were on the court. You can blame Brandon for a lot of things, but he was at least trying hard out there. And you cannot fault his defense in this one. He's one of the only ones you can't put this terrible defensive effort on.

I don't know why Brandon gets so much flak from the fanbase. He's in the Top 2 of the team in every single major offensive and defensive category. He just tries too hard. He forces things too much when things are going bad for the team. Is that his fault or is it the fault of nobody else willing to step up as well? What an awful game...

tntsher wrote on January 18, 2013 at 2:01 pm

You're right, Brandon does get dumped on the most because HE IS the best player! I agree that he is working as hard or harder than everyone, B U T, he is almost always out of control. He has a total of 0, that's ZERO assists in the last THREE games....TOTAL! That is totally unacceptable for a guard in college bb. I liked early in the year when I saw him being more agressive and driving the lane. I think it also opened up his outside shooting. But early on, he was also dishing off to teammates when the defense collapsed on him and getting some assists. Now, he starts down the lane (as does Abrams I might add) with NO thought of the pass and both of them end up: 1- getting the ball blocked...2- turning it over with a walk or simply no shot...OR 3- when we are lucky, getting bailed out with a foul call and missing a big % of ft's. This 1 on 1 (nba) mentality is sickening to watch  for fans of college (team) basketball. If I were Groce, he would sit after every out of control drive he makes. Oh, and BTW, I haven't checked, but I will bet that he is also leading the team in turnovers.........by a large margin! 

aaeismacgychel wrote on January 18, 2013 at 3:01 pm

He leads in turnovers though in TOper40 he actually isn't as bad as Tracy Abrams. I do understand frustration with the turnovers, and I do believe he forces too much without necessarily looking for his teammates, but there's an issue there too. It's hard to try getting the ball to a Tyler Griffey who's not looking for his shot because of lost confidence, or a Tracy Abrams or Joseph Bertrand who forces an ill-timed three. I really don't know if Paul forcing it is a worse option at this point, and I think unfortunately that's Brandon's thought process as well. I think Groce has to start writing up a few offensive sets just to try getting some sort of offensive flow. Way too much standing around at this point and while I know he wants to give offensive freedom to the players, a set play from time to time might help get a bit more flow to the stagnant offense and take some of the pressure off Brandon.

JDG613 wrote on January 18, 2013 at 5:01 pm

I'm glad someone brought up our point guard.  I have no doubt that TA is a VERY good athlete and an excellent basketball player, but he is NOT a point guard.  A point guard sets up his teammates so THEY can score.  Ours, instead, tries to dribble through 4-5 defenders to get his own spinning, twisting shot (that misses far more than not).

Maybe we don't HAVE a true point guard on the team, and if so, then it makes sense to put someone there who can at least moderately handle the dribble, but if there's another point on the team, put him in.  We don't need his scoring, we need the assists!!

When TA has the ball, the defense can close down on him without worrying too much about leaving someone open, 'cause it's unlikely that a pass is coming anytime soon.  He looks to be a good 2 guard, but not a 1.

SEMOIllini wrote on January 18, 2013 at 9:01 am

Maybe they play with too much urgency---by immediately hoisting up a wild 3-pointer or trying to go 1 on 1 and driving out of control into the lane--praying for the refs to bail them out with their whistle.  Talk is "cheap" from Brandon Paul--he might try moving more without the ball to get open and maybe try "passing" the ball to a teammate instead of shooting an NBA 3-pointer with a hand in his face.  Then spend time watching film---of Purdue out working the Illini on defense and N'Western following their coach's game plan on offense--it might help.  A look in the mirror might help remind the whole team how athletic they are and that they may not be using all of their ability to out hustle less talented opponents to loose balls and missed shots.  Offense is great, 3s are exciting, but tough hard-nose defense is how you win games in the B10.