Smile Politely

Simply embarrassing

At the most basic level, stopping your opponent and making your shots is how to win a basketball game. Illinois could do neither of those things on Thursday.

I only wish it was hyperbole to say Illinois’s loss to Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, 73-55, was the worst of John Groce’s tenure. But that is unadulterated truth. With everything to play for, well, the Illini basically didn’t show up.

The poor performance in the regular season finale carried over for the Illini, as they started just 1-8 shooting while Michigan racked up a 14-2 lead. But then Leron Black sparked a comeback after a strong putback and Illinois went on a 13-0 run to take 15-14 lead after a Malcolm Hill three. Illinois led the game for a total of 29 seconds, from 9:44 to 9:15 in the first half, and never led the game again.

After falling behind, Michigan kicked into gear. The Wolverines ended the half on a 21-4 run to take a 40-23 to halftime. In the second half, well, Hill said it best: “They kicked our ass today.” Illinois never even came close, and Michigan’s lead was always greater than 15 points.

This, of course, means Illinois’s NCAA Tournament hopes are dead. Michigan (16-15) is not even close to making the field of 68, and losing takes Illinois off the bubble entirely. This was well known, however, and no doubt the players knew it as well. So what happened?

“We didn’t have any answers for stopping them,” Groce said. “When we’ve been good this year, our defense has been good, and we just didn’t have any answers on that end of the floor…. For whatever reason we just didn’t have it.”

A coach can’t really give a better answer than that, but it’s still bullshit. When you “don’t have it” it’s because you didn’t motivate the players, didn’t prepare them, or don’t have their full confidence. I’ve been a John Groce apologist since his first game — I like the guy — but damn did watching the game today suck.

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Losing this game, and losing in such a miserable way, forces you to examine Groce as an “Xs and Os” guy, or someone who can coach his way to a win despite the personnel. That simply wasn’t the case today. His players were lost on defense, getting bit by the screen and roll repeatedly, and then they settled for bad shots and moved poorly on offense. Groce didn’t draw up the right plays today for the guys he had on the floor, and they suffered as a result.

Of course, Groce isn’t out there, and the loss comes down to the players not executing. And blame for not executing can be easily spread around. Ahmad Starks looked completely out of it on the floor and didn’t factor into the end of the game at all; Nnanna Egwu was almost a nonfactor, scoring 5 and grabbing 5 rebounds; Rayvonte Rice had 5 points in each half, a far cry from his recent, game-winning form. Black was a bright spot, but Michigan even figured out how to slow him down, forcing him into a silly offensive foul and technical foul and sending him to the bench right as he was getting hot. Likewise, the sophomore duo of Kendrick Nunn and Hill (8 and 13 points, respectively), were unable to get a head of steam going at all against Michigan.

All of the players’ failures in this game come back as a reflection of Groce’s game management and his scheming, though. And unfortunately that puts him on the hot seat. As I mentioned, I think Groce is a good guy, and a good coach, too. But after this loss, after an up-and-down season after an up-and-down season last year, you have to think that his job is a lot less secure and maybe he’s not going to lead Illinois to sustained greatness. Illinois fans expect NCAA Tournament appearances, and while he’s been successful in other areas, he’s missed out in this big area.

Now Illinois is likely going to play in the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament. But they even can’t play a single game at home in the NIT because, in case you haven’t seen, the State Farm Center looks like a pigpen.

Today’s game isn’t the end for Illinois basketball this season, but it feels like it. There’s just something final in the image of Nnanna Egwu walking off the United Center floor with the freshman Black trying to console him. It was poetic, and it may as well be the period on this chapter.

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