As we continue to revel in the glory of Illinois’ emergence from the basement of the Big Ten, we can finally put the worst start to conference play in program history behind us. One of the most infuriating parts of watching the Orange and Blue play the Hoosiers last week was the constant reminders that they were 0-8, and it was the worst start to Big Ten play ever. While this is true, it’s not the only time we’ve snapped an eight-game conference losing streak.
Second-year head coach John Groce was riding high as calendar year 2014 rolled around. He had lost key contributors Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin to graduation after a Round of 32 performance in his debut, but he replaced them with freshmen Austin Colbert, Maverick Morgan, Jaylon Tate, Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. The last piece of that puzzle was of particular interest to the Illini faithful, as he was an explosive guard from Chicago’s Simeon Academy.
With help from veterans Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu, the FIghting Illini won 11 of their 13 non-conference games, with only an infuriating loss to Georgia Tech and a 7-point loss to No. 15 Oregon marring the record. After the Oregon loss, however, Illinois defeated the Missouri Tigers in the Braggin’ Rights Game for the first time in five years, then drubbed UIC to exorcise the ghost of Robo Kreps. Conference play started out with wins against Indiana and Penn State, the former of which featured an extremely athletic timeout call:
Then, as is often the case in the Januaries of late, things went downhill. Wisconsin ran our boys out of the Kohl Center, and then Northwestern conspired with the Illini to murder the game of basketball in a 49-43 slopfest. Home losses to Purdue and Michigan State caused despair to set in around these parts, as shown below:
The first four responses proved fruitless. Wisconsin came to Champaign to complete the sweep and take what had once been a 13-2 record and set it at 13-10. It was Feb. 4th, a month since Illinois last won a game. Five days later, Illinois headed to the always-infuriatingly-empty Bryce Jordan Center to take on the team they defeated for that win so long ago, the Penn State Nittany Lions.
A hot start by DJ Newbill pushed Penn State to a 16-7 lead, but Jon Ekey responded by hitting a three and being fouled on another, draining all three free throws. Momentum swung to Illinois as they established a 31-22 advantage, but they conceded the last nine points of the half to Penn State.
The second half was an absolute battle. Neither team’s advantage exceeded four throughout. With a 49-48 lead with 12:16 remaining, Illinois settled in for an ugly home stretch. For the next eleven minutes, only ten points would be scored. A one-point advantage was Illinois’ with under a minute to play when at long last a decisive blow was struck with 22 seconds left by Kendrick Nunn’s three pointer. Penn State responded but was forced to foul, and Tracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice iced the game for the Fighting Illini, finally breaking the losing streak.
Nunn led the way with 19 points, 11 of which came in the second half. DJ Newbill, with whom Nunn had an exciting personal rivalry of sorts, matched his 19. Illinois would unfortunately lose its next two, virtually eliminating them from postseason contention. Their last gasp in the Big Ten Tournament ended when Abrams’ game-winning layup missed the mark against a Michigan team that would go on to the Elite Eight. Nevertheless, this season was seen as a modest success given the roster turnover that followed, and the consensus was that there was nowhere to go but up from here. Oh, to be so naive and full of hope again.
Anyway, after being kicked off the team due to a domestic violence-related arrest, Nunn transferred to Oakland University, where the redshirt senior is now second in Division I in points per game with 26.4. However, the Horizon League’s first place Wright State Raiders knocked off the fourth-place Golden Grizzlies 64-51, as Nunn’s 18 points were much less helpful in the context of 5-for-18 shooting (2-for-12 from beyond the arc).
Groce, meanwhile, has Akron on pace for their first season with fewer than 20 wins since 2004-05. Keith Dambrot’s Zips won 53 games over the last two seasons before he left for Duquesne; Groce’s Zips currently sit at 10-11 (3-6 MAC), fifth in the MAC East ahead of only his former team, the Ohio Bobcats. Akron’s last two games have been a 111-106 double overtime circus loss to Ball State, in which the team went 15-of-44 on three-pointers despite Jimond Ivey hitting 9-of-12 from that range on his way to 48 points. They followed that up with a lifeless 79-64 loss to Miami (OH), which included a 7 for 31 performance from beyond the arc.