Tate: Hard to explain season slipping away

Tate: Hard to explain season slipping away

The physical superiority of Pat Chambers’ young Philadelphia-packed basketball team was evident early at the State Farm Center on Saturday.

Penn State’s Nittany Lions sprang quicker and higher, launching jumpers with room to spare. The same team that shot 41.5 percent through 25 games exceeded 50 percent for the first time by draining 29 of 51 attempts (56.9).

“Fresh legs, fresh minds,” Chambers said.

Thus did Illinois fall short, 83-70, of winning consecutive Big Ten regular-season games for the first time since late in the 2015 season.

And we must deal with the question everyone is asking: Can this squad, 14-12 overall and 4-9 in the conference, overcome its shortcomings in the last five games (plus the Big Ten tourney) sufficiently to remove the burgeoning pressure on fifth-year coach John Groce?


Tough start too much
The team that spanked Northwestern on Tuesday came out flat Saturday.

The first two post passes by Kipper Nichols (his first start) and Te’Jon Lucas were intercepted.

Maverick Morgan had his first shot stuffed, and Michael Finke double-dribbled.

For nearly the first seven minutes, Malcolm Hill’s two baskets were the only UI points.

That’s what flat means. Still, Illinois clung even at 27 before the game swung on a Josh Reaves putback and 10 unanswered points by a red-hot Payton Banks.

“It’s great to see Banks break out of his slump,” Chambers said.

The 6-foot-6 junior from California was 1 of 9 in his two previous games. He cashed 24 points, while freshmen Lamar Stevens (21) and Tony Carr (19) offered high optimism for the Nittany Lions’ future.

‘Lack of energy’ troubling
In both UI-PSU contests this season, the winners sped to big leads. The Nittany Lions rocketed ahead by 20 in winning at home and led 62-43 under the 10-minute mark Saturday with the home crowd (listed at 13,010) virtually dozing.

Lucas sparked another belated rally, with breakaways generated by defensive plays, to cut the margin to 62-57. However, Banks and Stevens countered with consecutive three-point drives, and the game trudged to a boring finish with a siege of late-game free throws (28 attempts in the last 6:32).

Groce acknowledged Penn State’s athleticism, comparing the Lions to elongated Florida State. The coach decried a “lack of energy” and said he “thought our older guys would be better.”

It doesn’t get easier
The reality is that Penn State’s athleticism went far beyond a 27-20 rebound advantage. It was clear in the matchups. The Nittany Lions got good shots and cashed in. The better team won.

Up next Saturday is a trip to Iowa, where the Hawkeyes have won five of six Big Ten games. A loss there would drop Illinois to 4-10 in the conference and kill any chance of reaching .500, a mark that actually has been unrealistic since mid-January.

Last season, failures were laid on injuries and off-court problems. The return of Tracy Abrams, Leron Black and Mike Thorne Jr. was perceived as uplifting but has infrequently proven so. It is now realistic to assume that any decision on Groce’s future must take into consideration a conference standing comparable to last season’s 5-13.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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Dudesickle wrote on February 12, 2017 at 4:02 am

This season is starting to remind me of the last season under Bruce Weber. I am beginning to wonder if the problem is coaching, or if the Illini just don't have enough talent.

jdstieg wrote on February 12, 2017 at 5:02 am

I believe it's both.  Not enough talent and definitely poor coaching.  That's a real bad combination.

beekay wrote on February 12, 2017 at 6:02 am

It's coaching.  I mean, there isn't final four talent on the floor, but there's enough talent to be way better than this.  Think of it this way - Malcolm Hill will be the most celebrated Illini player never to play in the NCAA tourney.  You've got that marquee player and the rest of the team lacks so much talent that it negates him?  No, it's not that bad.  These players weren't walk ons.  They were talented players with the potential to be improved into better players and a better team.  I watched Malcolm early in the game yesterday come down on offense and go stand in the corner.  We dribbled around up top for most of the shot clock and Malcolm just stood there in the corner...motionless.  A stationary player is the easiest player to guard.  That's one example of a coach who does nothing for his team.  And we all know that JCL is a long range shooter.  But he has speed.  I've seen him run the court.  So you can't tell me that he's too slow to play defense.  And yet, he's a horrible defender.  Can't cut off the dribble drive or close out on a shooter.  That's a lack of coaching.  Malcolm should have transferred to give himself a chance to play in the tourney.  Because now he'll just be that one guy who scored a lot for the worst Illini coach in the modern era.

Wiseguy1130 wrote on February 12, 2017 at 12:02 pm

The players don't have elite talent, but the main problem is coaching.  The tolerance of lackadaisical play is incomprehensible. Hate to make another Princess Bride reference, but they are often playing like they've "been mostly dead all day".

Would not be helpful to try to bring in new assistants to salvage Groce. No assistant with any talent is going to come into a situation where the head coach is barely hanging on.

I do like Moonpie's recommendation to AD Whitman, help Groce find a CU realtor.


PortlandIllini wrote on February 12, 2017 at 1:02 pm

There is a world of difference between a team with "less than final four  talent " which plays hard every game and occasionally surprises us with a upset versus a team which consistently is not ready to play and doesn't execute on the floor.

I am certainly tired of Coach Groce's  trite 'explanations' after every loss.  Yes Coach, everybody knows you DO have to play hard for fourty minutes in the Big Ten.   If they are not,  it's a coaching problem.

Moonpie wrote on February 12, 2017 at 2:02 pm

Ancient Tate still clings to the fantasy, which barely has a pulse, of the Plunging Illini winning out and -- what? Making the NIT? Woohoo! For that the UI subsidizes his McMansion on the prairie?

I agree with others here: Lack of good coaching from The Grimacer and not enough talent. It is well established that he signs the wrong players and can't ink the right ones.

Will The Rookie AD prolong the agony for yet another year because the Ancient Scribe clings to a cheerleading fantasy that two unproven recruits will somehow magically save the program?

But of course, by having the traitorous audacity to publicly voice our views, we are somehow hurting the program and inhiiting Coach Grimace's ability to recruit.

Well, we have ample evidence that he needs no help in failing to recruit.