Ugly game shows Northwestern, Illinois still have lot of work to do
BY HERB GOULD For Sun-Times Media January 12, 2014 10:29PM
Illinois coach John Groce bemoaned his team’s lack of offensive aggressiveness in its loss Sunday to Northwestern. | Matt Marton/AP
Michigan State 4-0 15-1
Wisconsin 3-0 16-0
Michigan 3-0 11-4
Iowa 3-1 14-3
Ohio State 2-2 15-2
Illinois 2-2 13-4
Minnesota 2-2 13-4
Indiana 1-2 11-5
Purdue 1-2 11-5
Northwestern 1-3 8-9
Penn State 0-4 9-8
Nebraska 0-4 8-8
at Purdue 70, Nebraska 64
Iowa 84, at Ohio State 74
at Northwestern 49, Illinois 43
Wisconsin at Indiana, 6 p.m.
Penn State at Michigan, 7 p.m.
Michigan State at NU, 6 p.m.
Purdue at Illinois, 8 p.m.
Ohio State at Minnesota, 8 p.m.
Northwestern at Indiana, 1:30 p.m.
Michigan at Wisconsin, 5 p.m.
Penn State at Purdue, 6 p.m.
Michigan State at Illinois, 7 p.m.
Minnesota at Iowa, noon
Updated: February 14, 2014 6:30AM
Nobody said building a college basketball program was easy. But who knew it was this hard?
Illinois and Northwestern tried their darnedest to make basketball look like rocket science Sunday in Evanston.
Give the spotless lab coat to first-year Wildcats coach Chris Collins. In a battle of the two worst-shooting teams in the Big Ten, NU didn’t simply shock the No. 23 Illini 49-43. In giving Collins his first conference victory, the Wildcats shocked the portion of the college basketball world that wasn’t afraid to look.
No matter how long Collins coaches NU, this will have a special place as his first big victory. And no matter how long second-year Illinois coach John Groce calls Champaign home, Illini Nation will regard this as one of his most disappointing losses.
If Illinois is on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday, fans will point to this sloppy performance. And wince.
For now, while the fans will paint this loss with a broad brush, the Illini won’t.
‘‘I thought our defense was plenty good enough to give us a chance to win,’’ Groce said after his team had shot 28 percent, including 19 percent in the first half. ‘‘We just didn’t get it done on the offensive end. They made plays, and we didn’t make enough plays.’’
Whether Collins suddenly has become a defensive genius or Illinois couldn’t hit the broad side of a door at Welsh-Ryan Arena is an open question. What’s not subject to debate is that the Illini were an offensive disaster.
‘‘We let one get away, basically,’’ center Nnanna Egwu said. ‘‘We came out slow and couldn’t make any shots. Give them credit. They outplayed us for 40 minutes. We just couldn’t get in a groove. This one hurts. It’s a game we really were looking forward to winning, especially after Wisconsin.’’
That would be Illinois’ 95-70 disaster last week in Madison. Which raises the question: How could the Illini not be ready for the Wildcats?
‘‘We understand that this is the Big Ten,’’ guard Tracy Abrams said, dismissing the theory that Illinois took NU for granted. ‘‘You can lose to any team. You can’t come out lax, can’t have the mind-set that we already have the game wrapped up.’’
A more likely explanation is the tentativeness Groce mentioned.
‘‘We have to have everybody out there playing their role with an aggressiveness and an assertiveness,’’ Groce said. ‘‘I didn’t think we had that. But give them credit. They did a good job defensively.’’
So the Illini head home with a surprising road loss against a Wildcats team in transition.
‘‘The guys are definitely angry and disappointed,’’ Abrams said. ‘‘It’s always disappointing when you lose. At the same time, it happens. We’ve been tested a lot this year. You just have to respond.’’
Once it gets over the initial pain, Illinois will dust itself off and move along.
For Collins, though, the positive effects of an important breakthrough will linger.