BY JIM COTTER
Illinois head coach John Groce tried to ignore the subject of his team losing confidence this past week, but judging by the play of the 23rd-ranked Illini on the court Thursday night against Northwestern, it may be hard for him to avoid the issue when it comes up again.
The Wildcats came in to Champaign coming off a 20-point defeat at home to the Iowa Hawkeyes last weekend and totally dominated the Illini — leading from start to finish en route to a 68-54 win in front of a stunned capacity crowd at the Assembly Hall in Champaign.
The Illini certainly didn’t help their cause in the game, committing 18 turnovers as they continually had a habit of making bad decisions, while also having a difficult time defending Northwestern’s Princeton style offense.
“Obviously us playing not very well, and them playing well led to the outcome of the game, but I appreciate our team’s effort in the second half. This is the second game in a row that we let the opponent be the aggressor, and that has to change,” Groce said of his team’s effort.
The Illini, who look like an entirely different team lately than the one that can claim wins over Ohio State, Gonzaga and Butler earlier in the season, are trying to avoid a collapse similar to the one that transpired last season under then-coach Bruce Weber.
After starting the season at 12-0, the Illini now have lost five of the last seven, and are currently in the midst of a three-game losing streak.
“The players are still acclimating to the system, and we want them to be aggressive, but need to balance it by playing within the system.” Groce said.
Groce made a change in the starting lineup, going with senior transfer Sam McLaurin over Tyler Griffey, who had been struggling with his shot during the past few games.
“McLaurin did things intangible-wise that the team needed, and we wanted to give Griffey some different work, and he responded well as a result,” Groce said.
Groce also received his first technical foul of his Illini tenure, but declined to elaborate on what may have been the cause of the infraction.
Another aspect of the Illini offense that has disappeared is the long-range shooting. Early in the season, the Illini were among the best in the nation from beyond the arc, but after Thursday night’s woeful 3-for-20 from 3-point range, it is a cause for concern.
“Needless to say, it’s a very good win for us, coming in here and defeating them in their house,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. “Our defense was solid tonight, and we made shots, which always helps, especially on the road.”
With the win, Northwestern improves to 11-8 overall and moves ahead of Illinois in the Big Ten standings at 2-3. The Wildcats were led in scoring by Reggie Hearn, who had 20 points. Jared Swopshire and Alex Marcotullio each added 10 for Northwestern, who shot just over 47 percent from the field for the game.
Illinois, who falls to 14-5 overall and drops to 1-4 in conference play with the loss, was led in scoring by Brandon Paul, who scored a game-high 21 points. Tracy Abrams was the only other player to score in double figures for the Illini with 10 points.
“From the tip of the game, you have to be the aggressor. When you dig yourselves a hole like we have done the past couple of games, it is hard to get out of,” Abrams said.
Paul, who tried to bring the Illini back in the game, admitted that as a captain, he needs to step up and rally the team.
“Me and Tracy have to do a better job of facilitating the offense, and as captains, that job falls to us,” Paul said.
The Illini won the battle on the boards, out-rebounding the Wildcats 30-24,
The Illini will have a few days to think about the loss before again taking the court, going on the road to Lincoln, Neb. to face the Cornhuskers, a team that embarrassed them a year ago at the Devaney Center.
Game time with Nebraska next Tuesday night is set to tip off at 7:30 p.m. central time, and will be televised on the Big Ten Network. The game can also be heard on WDAN AM 1490 and WDNL 102.1, as well as statewide on the Illini Sports Network.