BY JIM COTTER
Fighting Illini basketball coach John Groce has not had a lot of experience in dealing with adversity so far in the first few months on the job in Champaign. But following a 74-51 loss last Saturday to Wisconsin at the Kohl Center in Madison in the team’s worst performance of the season, Groce suddenly is beginning to field questions on the subject.
The Illini, who fell to 14-4 overall and dropped to 1-3 in the Big Ten with the loss to the Badgers, will have a chance to redeem themselves this evening when they welcome the Northwestern Wildcats to the Assembly Hall. Despite losing three out of their last four games, the Illini are still hanging on in the latest rankings, coming in at No. 22 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll and No. 23 in the Associated Press poll.
The Wildcats come into the game with the Illini at 10-7 overall and 1-3 in conference play, but don’t let the record fool you. Northwestern coach Bill Carmody has had some adversity of his own to deal with this season, losing Drew Crawford for the season last month with a shoulder injury, while junior JerShon Cobb was lost before the season for a violation of team rules.
“They have had a couple of players step up in the absence of those two, namely (Reggie) Hearn and their little guard (Tre) Demps,” Groce said of the Wildcats. Northwestern also is getting some much needed help from guard Dave Sobolewski, who comes into the game with Illinois third in scoring for the Wildcats at 11.5 points per game.
The Illini offense has revolved mainly around senior guard Brandon Paul this season, but as Groce attested in his weekly press conference with the local media on Wednesday, he simply didn’t have it against the Badgers.
“Brandon’s done a lot for our team this year, and we wouldn’t be in the situation that we’re in without him,” Groce said of his senior leader. “We need Brandon to play better, and he knows that.”
In addition to Paul, Groce also said that the other key contributors also need to step up their game as the Illini get into a critical stretch over the next couple of weeks.
“We need other guys to play better too,” Groce said. “We need Griffey, Bertrand, and D.J. to play better as well, and they know that. They have played better, and they will play better. You cannot simply wave a magic wand over someone and make them play better.”
Groce made the effort to single out Mike Shaw, a seldom used forward to date, as someone who made some plays and showed a great deal of hustle in the loss to Wisconsin.
“The guy (Shaw) is playing like his head is under water right now,” Groce said of his sophomore. “He had one sequence earlier this week in practice where he blocked a shot, ran the floor, dove on a loose ball, and rebounded another one. That is why he is in the situation that he’s in and he’ll have a chance to be a part of the rotation against Northwestern.”
Perhaps the most important message that Groce wanted to get across was the fact that the Illini players are not losing confidence during this temporary slide.
“I want to stop that talk right now, because if these guys think that they aren’t gonna get hit in the mouth with things happening in their life, then we as coaches are teaching them the wrong things. That part about being fragile or not having confidence needs to go out the window, because that is on us to take control of the situation,” Groce said.
Tonight’s game against the Wildcats starts at 7:15 p.m. and can be seen on the Big Ten Network and heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.
The Illinois basketball program is partnering with The American Cancer Society and UI Rebounders booster club for “Illini Tie Together” during the annual Suits and Sneakers weekend. This collaborative effort will support Coaches vs. Cancer when Illinois takes on No. 5 Michigan in front of a sold out Assembly Hall on Jan. 27.
A special tie has been designed for this game; one for every player and Groce. A silent auction for those ties will be held from pregame through halftime on Jan. 27, in Rooms 133-134 of the Assembly Hall. The player ties will have their number embroidered on the back, and Coach Groce’s tie will be autographed. Proceeds from that auction will benefit Coaches vs. Cancer.
In addition, “Illini Tie Together” orange T-shirts are on sale now at Gameday Spirit Champaign locations (519 E. Green St. or 2028 N. Prospect Ave.) and online at fightingillini.com. Those shirts will also be on sale at Assembly Hall merchandise stands prior to this evening’s game vs. Northwestern as well as the Michigan game. A portion of proceeds from sales will go to Coaches vs. Cancer.
Fans are encouraged to wear either the commemorative “Illini Tie Together” T-shirt or a tie to the Jan. 27 game to show their support in the fight against cancer. Members of the Orange Krush student support group will be wearing ties courtside on that day.