Smile Politely

The same bad joke

Illinois started its game against Wisconsin on Sunday strongly. This is not the set up to a joke, though most fans would be excused for thinking so. Against the Badgers, Illinois was again a punchline, losing 63-55.

As in the loss to Ohio State, Illinois (10-12, 2-7) started brightly, then fizzled. An 11-4 opening quickly became a punchline, as Illinois became a punching bag for Wisconsin (13-9, 5-4). Though they hung around through most of the first half, when Khalil Iverson slammed home an emphatic dunk with 4:56 to go in the first half to take the lead, it felt like there was going to be little left from Illinois.

In fact, there was little punch left in the Illini, although things never got too far out of hand for the Illini. Through the final 11 minutes of the game, though, Illinois was never closer than two possessions from the lead. Wisconsin’s depth quietly took care of the game. Nigel Hayes was probably the best player for the Badgers, but even he was somewhat subdued, with just 17 points and 3 rebounds. Wisconsin did was Wisconsin teams always do, however, they lengthened the game by taking the full 30 on many offensive possessions, and played tight defense.

Illinois lent the Badgers a hand on defense, however, coughing the ball up 11 times. Protecting the ball is usually the team’s strong suit, but even leaders like Malcolm Hill were at fault Sunday, as he turned the ball over 3 times. It was the team’s worst performance in terms of turnovers since the Nov. 21 loss to Chattanooga, 81-77, in which the Illini had 16 turnovers.

Aside from the turnovers, Hill had his best game in recent weeks, scoring 22, including multiple step-back jumpers with the shot clock winding down. Kendrick Nunn also had a good game, racking up 15 points. Overall, though, Illinois once again struggled offensively. In the first 10 minutes the Illini were 6-12 (.500) shooting; for the final 30 minutes the Illini were 12-38 (.315).

To add insult to (literal) injury in the loss, with seven minutes to play Michael Finke was hurt as he tried to draw a charge. He knocked knees with Nigel Hayes and fell to the ground in obvious pain. Although he would walk off under his own power and later reappear on the bench, he moved gingerly and was thoroughly wrapped in ice. Coach John Groce said he would have a precautionary MRI taken today.

As for Groce, well, you can’t help but feel for him right now. If Finke were to be out for any stretch, Illinois would have a hard time competing even with Rutgers. A post rotation of Maverick Morgan and no one else would be akin to a white flag of surrender for Illinois’s season. None of this is Groce’s fault, though; and while it’s popular to cite Groce’s home record against Big Ten teams (16-16) and claim he has turned State Farm Center into a place opposing teams want to visit, take a look at the table below.

Self (and Self’s recruits under Weber) are an outlier here, but Groce is not too far off anyone’s records, especially in the context of the talent Weber left him and the injuries of this year. After 4 years would anyone have said, ‘I can’t wait to get the Lou Henson bobblehead’? I don’t think so. But this season that’s exactly what fans got excited for. I’m not defending the current season, particularly, but I am also not certain that blaming Groce or making him the fall guy for these injuries is going to be productive at all.

Tim Beckman was rightfully the fall guy for the mess the football team is in, but in the last couple of weeks 9 players have announced they will transfer for their final year of eligibility and at least 6 players have decommitted. With the athletic director search reportedly heating up (finally), maybe this is an important idea to keep in mind. With all the experience guys like Jalen Coleman-Lands and Aaron Jordan are getting this year, would they better under a new coach or more likely to look for playing time elsewhere? I can’t say, and neither can anyone at this point. But context matters, even in the face of tough losses.

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