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.”