Northwestern 49, UI 43: 'Can't let this snowball'

EVANSTON — While first-year Northwestern coach Chris Collins circled the concourse at Welsh-Ryan Arena celebrating his first Big Ten win with an arm draped around his father Doug, Illinois veterans Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu tried to make sense of Sunday’s loss to the Wildcats.

The juniors have been through a lot to this point in their careers, losing 12 of 14 to close a freshman season that saw Bruce Weber, the man who recruited them, get fired. They were sophomore starters on last season’s team that started the Big Ten slate 2-7 before coming within a couple possessions of the Sweet 16.

So after a 25-point loss at Wisconsin on Wednesday and Sunday’s 49-43 clunker to the Wildcats, Abrams and Egwu weren’t prepared to jump into full panic mode.

“We know how these things go and we can’t let this snowball,” Egwu said. “We understand the ups and downs of Big Ten basketball. It’s our job to man up and face it.”

A game after allowing 95 points at Wisconsin, the 23rd-ranked Illini (13-4, 2-2 Big Ten) shored up things on the defensive side of the floor against the Wildcats (8-9, 1-3), limiting them to 37 percent shooting and 15 points below their season average.

The problem is, the Illini couldn’t hit Lake Michigan from a boat, shooting 28 percent from the floor, including a 19-percent clip in a 15-point first half.

“I felt like we did not make enough plays on offense. I didn’t feel like we were nearly aggressive enough. I thought we were way too tentative offensively,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “We’re going to have to figure that out quickly. I feel like it’s been that way for a couple games. We’ve got to be more aggressive there.”

For the second straight game, the Illini basket looked to have a lid on it with them missing from all over the floor, including a handful of layups and dunks.

There are some physical flaws to correct. The biggest issue, though, might be between the ears.

“I think part of toughness is mental,” Groce said. “We’ve got to be both mentally and physically tough. I think that’s really important. The mental is probably more important than the physical.”

Illinois was supposed to win Sunday against a Northwestern squad that had lost to Illinois State and DePaul. The scene after the game — Wildcat players celebrating with their student section, and athletic director Jim Philips exuberantly high-fiving and hugging players as they left the court — told that.

On the Illinois side, they said Sunday’s setback wasn’t a case of overlooking an opponent.

“We understand, this is the Big Ten. You can lose to any team, and you can beat any team in the Big Ten. It’s one of the toughest conferences in the country,” said Abrams, who scored a team-high 13 points. “We definitely can’t relax and have that mind-set like we’ve already got the game locked up. I don’t think our guys had that mind-set at all. Shots didn’t fall that guys normally make, that’s something we can fix.”

Having been through points in seasons where one loss turned into dismal stretches, these Illinois veterans feel like they’re well-equipped to prevent this recent slide from turning into something bigger.

“This one hurts. It’s a game we really looked forward to winning, especially coming after Wisconsin. We’ve just got to move on and look forward to Purdue on Wednesday,” said Egwu, who had six points and seven rebounds.

“I don’t think guys lose confidence. Obviously when you lose it’s emotional. It’s just about sticking with it, knowing what got you here,” Abrams said. “It’s about making a few more plays.”

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steve1770 wrote on January 12, 2014 at 11:01 pm

I think the only 2 more embarrassing outings I can think of in the past 25 years was the Austin Peay joke and the home loss to Penn State a few years ago where both teams scored in the 30's. There is NO excuse to losing to a team that is as bad as NU is. I was lulled into thinking that this team was pretty good in the non-conference but that is obviously not the case. Can't even imagine what is going to happen to this joke of a team when it has to play good teams. Oh yeah, I just thought of it -- it happened the other night in Madison. On to next year, as is the case every year. Maybe a couple of these freshmen next season will resemble Big Ten caliber players and the transfers will help. Just a complete joke. I'm still really high on Groce but this better be the first and last time something like this happens. Real programs don't lose games like this -- it doesn't matter how poorly you play, you just can't lose to teams that are as horrible as NU. There is a very real chance that NU won't win another Big Ten game all year.

tstephens7 wrote on January 13, 2014 at 2:01 am

I couldn't possibly agree more steve.  I watch a TON of college basketball and NU is completely pathetic.  This loss better be taken seriously.  I think Abrams' words after the game showed that this team has ALOT of growing up to do.  Tracy sounded like he was blowing this game off like it didn't matter that much.  Wow.  that is REALLY awful.

steve1770 wrote on January 12, 2014 at 11:01 pm

forgot about losing to a horrible UIC team at the United Center a few years ago. That's got to be right up there with today's debacle. Holy crap -- still can't believe I saw what I did tonight.

tstephens7 wrote on January 13, 2014 at 2:01 am

I'm sickened by this loss to an absolutely horrible basketball team.....listening to Abrams' words after the game is even more disturbing...the kid doesn't even sound upset!!!!!!!  And Egwu has become the most useless 6'10 player I've ever seen!...yeah yeah yeah, I know he's a good, smart kid.....but when the Hell is he going to be a difference-maker in games????  He is not any better now than he was as a freshman!!!!!!  And there is truly no excuse for that.

DaisyJ wrote on January 13, 2014 at 9:01 am

When the coaches plan is to use Egu to pick, then he is a superstar picker. Quite frankly why Groce cannot see this has be a big waste is beyond me. Folks, NCAA basketball is concerned that the last 5-7 yrs the scoring has gone done not up. It is easy to see why. Kids have no one on one moves, no fakes, no drop shoulder then fade, no pivot half hooks, but they can all shoot a 3 ball set shot and stand by the three line waiting for the ball. How fun to watch. Called motion baby, love it, it is the mistake almost all teams make.

Abrams and Rice have not included the other teammates, as once they have the ball, their head is down and to the hole they go.

Andy wrote on January 13, 2014 at 7:01 am

I agree Egwu "man up and face it"...why don't you try it with the basketball in your hands looking at the hoop! I hope Illinois can bounce back against Purdue, we need a win for some confidence, before heading into the weekend against Mich st. I understand we shot poorly but there was not much motivation on either end of the floor until towards the end of the game. Lets get a W..Go Illini !!

beekay wrote on January 13, 2014 at 9:01 am

Illinois is 21-6 against Northwestern since the year 2000.  Four of those six losses have come in the last four seasons.  We groan when a guy like Cliff Alexander chooses KU over the Illini, but we can't even control the in-state game against an inferior opponent like we used to.  Incidentally, KU is 29-3 against in-state opponent Kansas State since 2000, last losing to them in 2011.  If you're a prize recruit, which program appeals most to you -- the one that is consistently taking care of business or the one that isn't?

billdave wrote on January 13, 2014 at 12:01 pm

  Illinois has great defense and can rebound, but it doesnt translate to the offensive end.  Now guys are standing around and not moving on offense to get open, which slows down tempo and makes a team predictable.  Everyone that seen the game knew from what the last minutes showed that a press would have folded Northwestern.  The pace was way to slow for the Illini.  If your going to miss some shots you need more opportunites to get the ball back, a press can speed up game and cause turnovers.  Illini coaches need to get better prepared and expose other teams weakness. Cant go through the motions and hope for the best.

Moonpie wrote on January 13, 2014 at 12:01 pm

And yet, this could be seen coming. Is everyone still drinking the Bush League Jackson and and Sir Tate Legend Kool-Aid? Mentally and physically tough? Really? This team has been hyped, but the real games are under way now. The Illini have no bigs to speak of and lack desire, apparently. Sir Legend will have to work hard to spin all this. 

townsend1306 wrote on January 13, 2014 at 1:01 pm

I read the same comments from the same people, moonpie, Daisey, they lost to Northwesthern Ok, all you people do is dog out kids, young men who give their ALL FOR THE TEAM!!! . show some support when they have a lost not how bad they play. This same group of people dogged out Ron Zook, he got players to the NFL, he won BOWL GAMES, but you wanted to run him out of town and look at the team now ! Why Would Big Cliff come here if he read some of your comments. none of you every played anything, YOU HAVE BAD GAMES OR A SLUMP IT HAPPENS GET OVER IT !!!. Let the coaches do what they have to do without all those nasty comments. Don't TEAR DOWN BUILD THEM UP !!! OUR TEAM, GOOD OR BAD !!! And lets call them the " THE FIGHTING FLYING ILLINI " and get a mascot!!!!!!!

DaisyJ wrote on January 13, 2014 at 8:01 pm


Skip Thoreen averaged 25 pts and 12 rebounds a game his senior year. He was not nearly as athletic as Egu, not nearly. Dave Downey the same, scored 53 in one game against Indiana. Makes Eekey look like a second stringer. Both of these so called "KIDS" as you say spent months refining their offensive skills, working one on one and shooting thousands upon thousands of shots. They had the determination to be better, to be skilled. The kids of many teams, not just the Illini, have been sucked into thinking they are stars because they can dunk a ball or they can shoot a set shot three they think they are now stars. FAR FROM IT,,,and it shows on the court.