BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — His eighth birthday tainted by another Illinois defeat, Conner Groce, decked out in a No. 13 Illinois jersey with his last name on the back, sobbed from his bleacher seat behind the Illini bench Sunday at Assembly Hall.
“He’s not real happy,” Illinois coach John Groce said about the oldest of his two sons.
Most folks wearing orange and blue share young Conner’s feelings after Sunday’s 56-46 loss to the Hoosiers, their team mired in a six-game losing streak, the longest for the program in two years. And it’s not getting any easier with Big Ten heavyweights Iowa and Wisconsin coming to town for back-to-back games.
The NCAA tournament all but out of the picture, those looking for something to be happy about with regard to Illinois (13-6, 2-6) can zero in on the team’s effort throughout the losing skid that will have spanned 23 days by the time the Hawkeyes come to town Saturday.
Look at 160-pound freshman guard Jaylon Tate giving up 80 pounds, sticking his nose in there against Indiana’s 6-foot-10, 240-pound Noah Vonleh in the post trying to take a charge.
“I just didn’t want to give him anything easy,” Tate said.
How about starting point guard Tracy Abrams going back and forth with his coach about playing even though he was battling back spasms that forced him into the training room twice during the course of the game to be treated?
“He wants to go, obviously,” Groce said of Abrams. “He’s a tough kid.”
There were plenty examples of Illinois’ fight Sunday — from Joseph Bertrand diving on the floor after a loose ball with the game nearly out of reach late to Rayvonte Rice (20 points, four rebounds) and Nnanna Egwu (eight points, five rebounds) getting on the floor to try to force a held ball in the closing minutes.
If nothing else, Groce can count on that from his players.
Even one of the few Illini fans among the 17,472 at Assembly Hall battled until the end, screaming at Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell (17 points, five assists) inside an otherwise silent arena, trying to distract him from making all of the six free throws he nailed down the stretch to put the game out of reach for the Hoosiers (13-7, 3-4).
“The effort and the fight and the attitude is not negotiable. We don’t negotiate that,” Groce said. “That’s just who we are, who we’re going to be, and we’re going to fight and figure out how to play a little bit better.”
That means getting better on the offensive end for Illinois, which is averaging 55.7 points a game during the six-game skid. The Illini shot 33 percent from the floor with just one player reaching double figures.
“We’ve got to score. We’ve got to make a few more plays. We’ve got to make a few more shots,” Groce said. “As coaches, we’ve got to look at what type of quality of shot we get. I think there were some games where we’ve had some good ones. I thought tonight our quality of shot was not great late.”
The problem has just been getting enough guys playing well offensively at the same time.
“Our margin for error’s small. I’ve said that from the beginning,” Groce said. “We’re not good enough to not have everybody hitting on all cylinders for us to be a competitive, quality basketball team. I’ve known that from the jump. We’ve got to get to where we have everybody in sync and everybody playing well simultaneously.”