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.
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 email@example.com.