Tate: Time to panic?

Tate: Time to panic?

Sports campaigns are judged according to expectations.

Illini football, under current circumstances, met a reasonable goal by earning a bowl slot. At the same time, Kevin Hambly’s volleyballers were disappointed to go out in the round of 16.

Hear from coach John Groce Tuesday at 5:10 on WDWS.

With men’s basketball, the goal since 2005 has steadily been reduced to this: An NCAA tournament qualifier is a step in the right direction, and falling short is unacceptable.

Call it the public view. That is why Saturday’s 77-70 loss to Oregon is such a concern. It caused a big slash in half-full glasses. The realization is finally setting in that:

(1) The absence of Tracy Abrams and Darius Paul may have cost the Illini a loss or two already;

(2) John Groce’s third UI edition is already behind the eight ball and carrying an all-too-familiar NCAA bubble look.

(3) There are defensive problems that may not be solvable, and three-point shooting, which looked so promising when the Illini drained 15 and 14 baskets earlier, has tailed off to 6, 7, 5, 5 and 7 in the last five games. 


Tough road ahead

Even if they defeat Hampton, Missouri and Kennesaw State, the Illini have more losses (three) than in either of Groce’s previous two nonconference stretches.

Thus, with a squad displaying shortcomings similar to the last two, the Illini will need something better than the previous 8-10 and 7-11 finishes in conference play. 

Even a 9-9 record might not be sufficient because, unless the Illini win the Big Ten tournament in Chicago, that’ll come to 13 losses — which is the same number that allowed the Illini to barely squeeze into March Madness in 2013.

From the national perspective, the Big Ten is viewed as down from the past two years. The Big Ten/ACC Challenge was an anomaly. The Big Ten prevailed 8-6 because the so-called second-division teams dominated. Big Ten leaders Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State, plus 10-1 Maryland and temporarily-ranked Illinois lost.

From the UI standpoint, it appears the leaders are still tough to catch while bottom feeders like Penn State are getting better.


OK to be worried

Here’s what we should be asking: Was there something about Illinois that allowed the Ducks to take flight for by far their best outing of the season? Can Groce & Co. correct weaknesses that allowed Miami, Villanova and Oregon to top the 70 mark in points?

This isn’t meant to create an anxiety attack among the fandom. But if you’re not worried, you’re not normal.

What we saw Saturday, in an arena where the Illini won 18 straight over the last century, was out-of balance scoring (Rayvonte Rice had 29, no one else excelled), a 40-20 scoring imbalance in the paint and Oregon’s 13-8 edge in second-chance points.

You can point to Oregon’s 46.2 shooting percentage but, if you check the shot chart, most of Oregon’s 30 goals cluttered the inside area. Groce was upset that a weak guard, Ahmaad Rorie, had four baskets in the second half — well, here’s an idea: Don’t give him open 15-footers.


Plenty of blame

How do we evaluate Groce in this continuing saga? My opinion is the Illini are fortunate to have him. He coaches with tenacity and he says the right things. His players swear by him. He is non-stop and more than earns his money.

But Groce has had some hurtful near misses on the recruiting trail. And on the bench, as good as he is, you wouldn’t expect him to beat the likes of Bo Ryan, Tom Izzo, Thad Matta and John Beilein when they have better players, would you?

Somewhere along the way, Groce must break out of the now-established transfer trend — another one might be under his Christmas tree — but a problem has risen that wasn’t previously the case.

The vast middle portion of this state — the Peorias and Springfields — are trending toward the once-productive Centralias and Mount Vernons in failing to produce Big Ten talent.

Of the 10 players who saw action Saturday, only Rice played high school ball between the Chicago metro area and greater St. Louis. Mike Finke will replace Rice next season, both hailing from Centennial. There’ll be no other scholarship players from between Interstate 80 and Belleville.

What Groce walked into was an uphill climb. And if your expectations are the NCAA Tournament, they haven’t changed. Every day is a struggle.


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

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2ndguesser wrote on December 16, 2014 at 10:12 am

One concern is not having an assistant who can recruit top quality big men and can improve their game when they get on campus. The proof is in the pudding. The fault may be with AD Thomas not granting high enough salary to obtain one, just as in football with the line coaches.

fred0202 wrote on December 16, 2014 at 11:12 am

Like Weber before him, Groce recruits kids who can run and jump. Until he gets some muscular types who can rebound and defend in the paint, the Illini will have bubble teams.