Loren Tate: Illini leave it all on the court
CHAMPAIGN — In the end, it enters the books as the seventh straight Illini setback.
Iowa’s Hawkeyes, staggered by the UI’s incredible 51-27 midgame rally, counterattacked from a 66-61 deficit to prevail 81-74 Saturday night at State Farm Center.
The more we see, the less we know. For 12-plus minutes, the Illini stumbled, fumbled and trailed, 34-13. What followed was a stretch of nearly 20 minutes in which John Groce’s gang drained 19 of 24 shots, only to close the last nine minutes with Joe Bertrand’s runner as the only field goal in 11 tries.
The ugly, the good and the bad.
When Bertrand and Rayvonte Rice were spearheading that midgame stretch, the Illini offered a temporary snapshot of what is possible. They drove, they shot, they battled. But just when it looked like last year’s Indiana game, they were outscored 20-8 at the end.
Iowa went off into the wintry night with a 6-3 Big Ten record, and the 2-7 Illini have a short window before taking on Wisconsin here Tuesday.
With postseason hopes slipping away, it’s appropriate to wonder how this slump might affect the future. For all the praise heaped by Groce for his squad’s effort — and it was impressive — we know recruits are reading the scores and considering their options.
Up to now, Groce has been forced into stop-gap measures, bringing six transfers into the program. His long-range plan is different, and rebuffs by senior blue-chippers Cliff Alexander and Quentin Snider won’t change that plan. He has solid seniors Leron Black and Michael Finke on the way, and commitments from juniors D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan.
But he has yet to crack the super-elite. That’s why two of the nation’s most desirable juniors, 7-foot Texan Elijah Thomas and Cleveland’s 6-9 Carlton Bragg, received visits last month.
Both have indicated interest. But this is the big time. Groce is bucking the likes of perennials Louisville and Kentucky, 2014 standouts Arizona and Florida, not to mention Big Ten rivals.
Five-star prospects seldom wind up at schools in lengthy losing streaks. This isn’t Groce’s fault, but it’s the world he lives in.
State of despair
This column has made an annual fuss about this state’s failures in its favorite sport. Abe Lincoln’s prairie has become a basketball wasteland, and it’s more of the same this season. About the only positive development is that Northwestern has already topped last year’s Big Ten win total (Saturday’s win at Minnesota was No. 5). Can you think of anything else?
Prior to Saturday’s loss to Iowa, the Illini still had the state’s highest rating percentage index (RPI) of 61, well ahead of Northwestern at No. 95. But the RPI, remember, gives November results the same weight as those in January. It’s obvious that teams change — Northwestern was awful early — and now that we’re deep into conference play, the UI is as likely to finish last in its league as DePaul, UIC, SIU and Loyola.
What’s happening in these parts? Since 2008, only the Illini have danced, and they made the tournament in odd years 2009-11-13. No other state quintet has cracked the NCAA lineup since SIU in 2007.
Of the UI’s 13 wins this season, 11 came against teams ranked No. 90 or worse, only Missouri (41) and Indiana (70) falling into the “quality” category ... and Missouri, which started 10-0, is 5-5 after losing at home to Kentucky on Saturday, and faces consecutive trips to Florida and Ole Miss.
UNLV and Fort Wayne, two-point losers to Illinois, have tumbled to Nos. 106 and 136 respectively. Valparaiso is at 143, Auburn at 174.
Indiana’s down, too
But here’s the kicker. Basketball in Hoosierland is just as bad. What we have is a two-state wasteland. Notre Dame and Purdue have fallen out of the Top 100.
You’ll never guess the top-rated team in these once-powerful states: Indiana State! Yep, the Terre Haute Sycamores check in at RPI No. 59, but almost certainly need to defeat Wichita State in the Missouri Valley tournament to advance from an otherwise destitute conference. By the way, Southern’s Salukis were 6-15 when they knocked off Indiana State, 79-60, on Wednesday.
Am I dreaming? Or is this the natural result of in-state stars scattering to the four winds? The story of wandering Chicagoland players is well-documented. And if you hadn’t noticed, two Michigan schools, which are a combined 16-1 in Big Ten play, have former Indiana prep stars Gary Harris, Branden Dawson, Glenn Robinson III, Zak Irvin and Mitch McGary.
Just imagine, Selection Sunday will advance 68 teams and probably none from Illinois or Indiana. If that happens, it’ll be the first time since 1972, when only 25 teams were invited.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.