It’s a bitter pill, marching off into the Siberian drifts with “last place” pinned onto your jerseys.
Nor does it get any easier, John Groce’s Illini facing excursions to the edges of this sprawling, snowbound conference: Penn State on Sunday and Nebraska on Wednesday.
Eight in a row! That’s the losing streak that sends researchers back to the waning days (11 in a row) of the Harv Schmidt era in 1974.
But it didn’t feel that way Tuesday night. With just over 4,000 fans braving the storm, the Illini didn’t perform like a 2-8 Big Ten team. The spirit was there. They competed. They simply got outshot. Illinois repeatedly challenged Bo Ryan’s Badgers, and each time the visitors responded by swishing — with uncanny consistency — high-arching three-pointers. Ten of them. They outscored Illinois 30-12 from behind the arc.
Other stats were roughly even. Illinois had two fewer turnovers than the national leader in that department. Illinois attempted six more field goals. And if the Badgers had five more defensive rebounds, that was partly because Illinois missed 31 fielders while the Badgers missed 24.
Bad time to face Badgers
Operating on a now-accepted thin margin, Illinois won’t beat any team that shoots 47.8 percent from the field, 43.5 on 23 three-point attempts and 80.8 on free throws.
The home forces simply caught Wisconsin at the wrong time. The Badgers were due to break out, having gone through an 8-for-41 (19.5 percent) slump on treys in consecutive losses. Sam Dekker was shooting 18.8 percent from behind the arc in nine Big Ten games. You know what happened. Dekker enjoyed a 4-for-7 breakout, several of them rainbows from deep, and Illini rallies were snuffed in the bud.
“There’s all the difference in the world when the shots go in,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “It looks easy when you make shots.”
The Illini clung within 44-42, 51-49 and 55-52 despite the Badgers’ deadly shot-making, and stayed close until the inevitable game-ending free throws brought the final 75-63 count. Illinois, averaging 61-plus in conference play, won’t often win when the opponent scores 75. Groce wrapped it up when he said, “Hats off to Wisconsin. They lit us up like a Christmas tree.”
On the negative side, Illinois evolved into too much of a one-man team with Rayvonte Rice (24 points, nine rebounds) making one-on-one sorties. If teammates don’t step up, we’ll see more of what ignited this losing streak in the first place. Defenses will concentrate too heavily on Rice for him to be that productive every time.
Freshmen show flashes
Why don’t coaches start their best players? Forever and always, fans will ask that question.
There’s Nigel Hayes, clearly one of Wisconsin’s best five players, coming off the bench. How about Tre Demps, a super-sub winning games for Northwestern? Or London’s Gabriel Olaseni, a half-time player who has 29 points and 18 rebounds in Iowa’s last two games.
Around here, Illini Nation wants to see more of freshmen Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. They’ve been flashing positive signs. But not so much Tuesday. Hill had a particularly rough (and scoreless) 11 minutes, and Nunn may have tied a modern record by committing three fouls on one Wisconsin possession. So Groce is caught in a bind of trying to break a losing spin while helping his freshman reserves develop.
Understand, by Big Ten standards, this is an average freshman quintet ... in a below-average year for rookies in the Big Ten. Of the UI newcomers, Nunn has been the soundest defensively and the leading scorer (4.1) in less than 14 minutes on average. It’s hard to project next season’s lineup, but these rookies could once again be coming off the bench, what with three veteran transfers and two incoming forwards joining UI starters Nnanna Egwu, Rice and Tracy Abrams.
Transfers are huge these days. Statistics show that transfers like Rice, Nebraska’s Terran Petteway, Penn State’s D.J. Newbill, Minnesota’s DeAndre Mathieu and Indiana’s Evan Gordon have impacted the Big Ten far more than the current freshmen. Coaches must be careful not to overstock their squads because they may need openings when another 400-plus transfers become available in a couple of months.
The times, they are a-changin’.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.