This has been a really rough year to be an Illinois fan.
Some of you reading this might pose the question, 'But Steve. It's Illinois athletics. Every year is rough.' Touché. But in this athletic year I think we've reached the point, to quote our fearless interim leader, Paul Kowalczyk, where there's "a dagger in the heart of the program." I'm dead serious. In both football and men's basketball, both programs are not good and there's not even a path to competitiveness in either situation. From personal experience as an Illinois alum and in talking with friends who both graduated and those still currently at the U of I, program apathy is at an all-time high. Illini hoops (10-12, 2-7 Big Ten) is tied for 12th in the Big Ten, the same spot the the football team (5-7, 2-6) finished. Illinois is probably only ahead of Rutgers in the Big Ten in terms of 'job attractiveness' for coaches, and why would anyone want to jump aboard this capsized ship? The whole point of all of this is to say, I don't even know what to write about anymore about this team -- every loss seems to play out the same way and I'm having trouble holding onto things to be hopeful about.
Rant aside, against one of the worst Wisconsin teams in recent memory, the Illini simply couldn't put the ball in the basket enough to win, dropping their fourth of the last five. Here's a few notes from Sunday's loss.
1. Since Illinois hasn't had enough injuries this year, let's have Michael Finke and Kendrick Nunn get banged up!
Yep, you read that right. Finke banged knees with Nigel Hayes trying to take a charge in the second half, and gimped his way straight to the locker room. For anyone that has ever played basketball before, this has probably happened to you and it feels like your knee was just shattered into 1,000 tiny pieces. Hopefully there's nothing more than a nasty bruise and Finke won't miss too much time because without him, Illinois' frontcourt consists of Maverick Morgan and the immortal Cameron Liss.
Nunn left the game briefly early in the second half with some sort of injury, although he returned after only a few minutes of stretching in the tunnel. It wasn't the best night for the ultra-consistent Nunn, who still managed 15 points on an inefficient 5-of-14 shooting. At some point does there need to be a sacrifice made to the injury gods? What did this Illinois program do to offend them? It's just downright ridiculous at this point.
2. The Illini are playing 4-on-5
Everyone and their mother knew that Illinois' point guard play would be a concern this season but it's downright nonexistent right now. Jaylon Tate and Khalid Lewis combined for 0 points on 0-for-5 shooting, three rebounds and four assists. The pair is a combined 4-of-20 from behind the 3-point line this season which means not only are they not taking threes, but they're not even realistically stretching the floor enough to keep the defense honest. Throw in a lineup with either Tate or Lewis at the 1 and Alex Austin on the wing, and it's a spacing nightmare. I'm sure Groce likes the defense that these guys provide but it limits your offense to 'Let's see if Hill or Nunn can make a tough shot while three other guys stand around.' That's not going to work in Big Ten play, and frankly, it didn't work against nonconference teams either. Pour one out for Tracy Abrams because that guy has to be pulling out his hair watching his teammates while he's on the shelf.
3. How does one evaluate John Groce?
This really is the million dollar question since this team has nothing more to play for other than "pride" and "developing for next year." I, among many, think that Groce is not the man for the job, but is it fair to cut him loose after his squad endured (probably) the most injuries in the conference? What would that say to future coaching candidates if Groce was given a pink slip when he had more guys in street clothes than in uniform on the bench? While there's certainly been enough bluster about Groce's ability to finish second on top recruits, the guys that he has gotten certainly haven't made the impact that anyone has hoped for (probably with the exception of Finke). As far as X's and O's go, I'm no expert but a 6-to-11 assist to turnover ratio isn't ideal. As I've mentioned before, any offense that relies on Hill and Nunn to consistently make tough shots is not going to be efficient or effective and that falls directly on coaching.