Tate: Illini still fighting

Tate: Illini still fighting

CHAMPAIGN — It looks bad from any standpoint, from any perspective.

John Groce’s Illini are offensively challenged ... to a shocking degree.

To make it worse, somebody slipped a cover over the State Farm Center’s north goal for 81/2 minutes of basket-less play in the second half. The Illini were stuck on 29 points with 4:30 to go — 11-for-46 shooting to that point — and lost to Ohio State for the second time by an embarrassing 48-39 score Saturday night.

“Our offense was anemic,” Groce said. “They were disruptive with 10 steals, and they were able to get out in transition.”

Ohio State led 32-29 when the UI’s Jon Ekey missed a challenged dunk, and freshman sub Marc Loving racked eight points as the spread reached 44-29. Game over.

But this isn’t 2012. The UI basketball losses are piling up in a similar manner — 10 of 11 — and there is a Big Ten cellar spot looming. And, yet, if you watch the defensive side, there’s still plenty of fight on this squad.

That’s where the quitters show their colors. On defense. Everybody likes to play offense. It is defense that tells.

So you hold Ohio State under 50 and you should win. Except when you score six points in the first 15-plus minutes of the second half ... except when eight of your shots are blocked back in your face.

No rush

Win or lose this month, my reaction is to evaluate developments according to how they factor into 2014-15. Yep, call it the wait-till-next-year approach. This season is slipping away, and Groce can’t do anything about it.

The third starts by Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill were unproductive, and the point guard play (no assists, six turnovers by Tracy Abrams and Jaylon Tate) was especially weak compared to another energetic, ball-stealing performance by Ohio State’s Aaron Craft.

Rayvonte Rice, held scoreless earlier at Ohio State, scored on an opening breakaway but didn’t get another field goal until he shook loose three times in the last two minutes.

On the positive side, Nnanna Egwu bagged 10 of his 14 rebounds in the first half and made his presence felt on the defensive end. Groce praised the lanky junior’s effort, relating a remarkable statistic from the previous game at Nebraska: Adjusting shooting to incorporate the three-point shot, the Huskers shot just 10 percent when he was in the game and 90 percent when he wasn’t. Is that possible?

Wait and see

Problem is, Humpty Dumpty crashed in 2012 after a multiyear slide, and Groce found himself forced to take stop-gap measures after inheriting an Illini brand that was stuck in the mud. He lost his prospective center (Meyers Leonard) early to the NBA and survived one season before three four-year veterans graduated. We are now feeling the full impact.

It’s OK to be disappointed, but not surprised. When rivals shut down Rice, there’s no one to pick up the slack. There never was.

But Groce can see a glimmer that outsiders can’t. Just this week, in preparing for Ohio State, he said that his scout team featuring three transfers — Aaron Cosby, Ahmad Starks and Darius Paul — bested the varsity in a scrimmage.

All three scored in double figures for their respective teams last season, and they are deemed to be among the squad’s best offensive performers in practice.

When next fall rolls around, Groce will oversee a battle for positions that will be strikingly different from this season.

No guarantees, but it should be better. For now, our job, as has been repeatedly stated, is to be patient until more troops arrive and the young ones get a year older.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.


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Bwp 5P wrote on February 16, 2014 at 8:02 am

It would be nice if the "older ones" carried some of the load!

JamesB wrote on February 16, 2014 at 8:02 am

Good summary of the current status of our beloved Illini.  Last night was awful, just awful.  I just cancelled my order for Final Four tickets.  People shouldn't get down on Groce, he has no shooters on this team.  No offensive scheme or adjustments can mask that.  Egwu was a beast.  If he can bring that type of production every game, he will be a valuable piece on the defensive end next season.  But not having a consistent offensive threat in the post is going to be a liability.  I look forward to seeing what our current crop of freshmen look like after an offseason in the gym and the weight room.  Patience is definitely called for.

On an unrelated note, someone needs to tell Ekey you get the same number of points for a simple tip in or lay in as you do for a tip dunk or a dunk.  I'm tired of seeing him miss in close like that by going for the spectacular.

stumblefoot wrote on February 16, 2014 at 9:02 am

Me too.  When I read the game-time blog last evening and saw where Ekey had been practicing his tip-in dunks before the game, I thought to myself that what he should have been practicing was his put-back shot.  How many points has he cost the team this year trying to be spectacular instead of fundamental?

DaisyJ wrote on February 17, 2014 at 2:02 pm

We won how many games this year, now this. This downfall is not all the players. Look, when you allow Abrams to dribble all day not passing, you should expect to not score many points. When you use Nanna for picks only, you should expect him not to be setting up to score.

Game is not that hard. Groce is watching the game, not managing the game.

Hill needs to be in there. Morgan also more. Abrams NONE. Rice, stay under basket on both ends. Very simple

Moonpie wrote on February 16, 2014 at 4:02 pm

Puuullleeeaassse!!! Sir Legend Tate, stop claiming this is a tough team. Tough teams don't lose 500 in a row. And stop telling fans their "job" is to shut up and cheer. This team has the booing coming to it and fans have the right. Groce and Tate are serving up propaganda.

Moonpie wrote on February 16, 2014 at 4:02 pm

Puuullleeeaassse!!! Sir Legend Tate, stop claiming this is a tough team. Tough teams don't lose 500 in a row. And stop telling fans their "job" is to shut up and cheer. This team has the booing coming to it and fans have the right. Groce and Tate are serving up propaganda.