Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice (24) shoots over Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser (21) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Rick Danzl)
Updated: February 5, 2014 12:10AM
CHAMPAIGN — A snowstorm kept away about three-quarters of the announced crowd of 16,618 at State Farm Center on Tuesday night. Unfortunately for Illinois, the Wisconsin Badgers were among the brave few who made it to the arena.
You know what that means: Another loss for the Illini, this one by a score of 75-63.
The circumstances surrounding this game were vastly different than when the teams first met in Madison on Jan. 4.
Combined, the Illini and Badgers were an impressive 28-2 entering that contest. Since then, they’ve been the Big Ten’s worst team (Illinois) and its most disappointing (Wisconsin), somehow losing 13 of 15 games between them.
The Illini (13-10, 2-8 Big Ten) were blown out by 25 points that night in Madison, and now they’ve officially gone longer than a month without a victory. In the process, they went from ranked in the Top 25 to historically unsuccessful.
In case you haven’t read the warnings provided by your kindly media friends in recent days, please pay attention: Illinois now has its first eight-game losing streak in 40 years.
“We’re trying everything,” coach John Groce said. “And I mean everything.”
A month is a heck of a long time. To put it in context, Illini shooting guard Rayvonte Rice led all Big Ten players in scoring at the start of this losing streak. Five players around the league have passed him since, though Rice was terrific against the Badgers, scoring 24 points and grabbing a game-high nine rebounds.
At this point, it would take an unbeaten month — maybe longer — before Groce’s team could even imagine being ranked again.
The NCAA tournament? Let’s not even go there.
The NIT? Let’s go ahead and call it NIT or bust.
But understand this: Groce remains as confident and driven as ever. With not only the season slipping away, but surely some of the momentum created last season when a first-year coach led his squad on a surprising run to the Big Dance, Groce is grabbing Illini Nation by the chin and refusing to let that chin sag.
“We’re in the [same] position right where we were from the beginning, knowing that we’re going to do something special here,” Groce said this week. “It’s going to happen. It’s not a matter of if. It’s when.”
It might seem far off to Illini fans who’ve been frustrated with this team’s absence of dependable offense or late-game execution. Certainly, it would seem far off to anyone who has been paying only casual attention to a string of January (and February) failures that have led Illinois into the conference basement.
There are those who believe — with good reason — that next season could be entirely different. The best players from this team will be back. The newcomers could be outstanding. You want something fair to put on Groce? He absolutely should get his team to the NCAAs a year from now.
He’d never reveal his own timeline, other than to say the effort to get somewhere better is constant.
“We’ve just got to stay the course,” he said. “The important thing to me is that we continue to develop a winning culture, and we have that.”
It’ll be a long way up. It’s funny to note that Wisconsin (18-5, 5-5 Big Ten) now has its first three-game winning streak in Champaign since 1906-08. Funny because it’s not like that 1908 makes them anything like the sad-sack Cubs. The Badgers are trying to climb back to where they are always in the league standings: the top four, where they’ve finished an amazing 12 seasons in a row.
The Illini just want to find that next rung on the ladder. This losing streak has been hard.
“It’s real frustrating,” Rice said. “This whole team is competitors.”
In its deepest funk in four decades, it’s hard to see Illinois as being very competitive at all.