CHAMPAIGN — When Illinois great Eddie Johnson addressed the current Illini team after Friday’s practice, the central message of what he was trying to get across to them was to block out the negativity.
At that point, Illinois had lost three straight, with No. 4 Michigan State coming to town. After Saturday’s 78-62 loss to the Spartans, the negativity from outside the program is going to continue to ramp up. Some of it was audible early on during Saturday’s contest at State Farm Center.
“Take him out, John!” one of the 16,618 fans in attendance yelled in the direction of Illinois coach John Groce after Nnanna Egwu, who has now gone scoreless in consecutive games, missed a putback layup attempt.
“You’ve got to know when to show up, Joe!” another yelled in the direction of Joseph Bertrand during a game in which the fifth-year senior recorded four points and two rebounds.
The skid is at four, and with three of the next four against ranked opponents, including Thursday’s game at No. 11 Ohio State, the noise outside the Illinois locker room will keep growing louder if the recent struggles continue.
“I don’t pay attention to it because it has nothing to do with our preparation for Thursday’s game,” Groce said. “I talk to them a lot about controlling the controllables. We control our attitude and our effort. I almost encourage them to stay locked in on what we’re doing with our group.”
To spin it in a positive light, there are members of this Illinois team who played key roles on last year’s team that suffered two three-game losing streaks in Big Ten play, only to bounce back and reach the NCAA tournament. They’re being counted on to help the Illini (13-6, 2-4 Big Ten) out of their first four-game slide since late in the 2011-12 season.
“I can hear those guys talking about how to handle it,” Groce said. “That’s good. Experience is a great teacher, and those guys do a good job leading.”
Frustrations from Groce himself were evident during Saturday’s game as the second-year coach was hit with a technical foul after he took off his suit jacket and threw it toward the end of the bench after a series of calls went against the Illini.
“I thought they were terrific,” Groce said when asked about the officiating and his emotional outburst.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo spent a moment talking to Groce in the handshake line after the game. The 19-year veteran has seen it all, and he’s had his share of moments similar to the one Groce had Saturday.
“I know what it’s like and a part of it was how the game went and a part of it’s when you lose three or four in a row because I sure as hell have been there before,” Izzo said. “He’s got a good team. They’ll bounce back.”
Izzo’s got a good team, too, one that broke the mark for the best start in program history with Saturday’s win.
Gary Harris scored a game-high 23 points, while Keith Appling and Denzel Valentine (11 rebounds) scored 11 apiece for the Spartans, who played without injured big man Adreian Payne.
“We got beat by a really good basketball team,” Groce said of Michigan State (17-1, 6-0).
Illinois got 15 points and three assists from Tracy Abrams.
“I absolutely love Abrams,” Izzo said.
Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey each added 12 points for the Illini.
But with Egwu struggling in recent weeks and Bertrand having an off night Saturday, freshmen Kendrick Nunn (five points, three rebounds), Malcolm Hill (eight points) and Maverick Morgan (four points, three rebounds) commanded more court time.
“They’ve got to play better,” Groce said of Egwu and Bertrand. “I love all those guys, we’ve got great guys. I’ve got a lot of confidence in both those guys. They can play better, they have played better. They’ve just got to kind of hang in there and figure it out.”
The players, it seems, have figured out how to block out the outside noise.
“It’s not difficult at all. It’s a long season,” Abrams said. “Like Coach said, there’s like 12 rounds left. We (aren’t) going to get too high, we (aren’t) going to get too low on ourselves. We’re just going to keep grinding.”