BY CHAD DARE
Trust is supposed to be a two-way street. But for the Illinois Fighting Illini the lack of trust, especially on defense, has led to a dead end.
Numerous defensive miscues on Sunday against Wisconsin meant disaster for Illinois as the Badgers claimed a 74-68 Big Ten Conference victory over the Illini before 15,073 at the Assembly Hall.
“The guys have to trust the system more. And they have to trust one another more defensively,’’ Illinois coach John Groce said. “(We) can’t be on five different islands defensively. It’s a team game as much on the defensive end as it is on the offensive end.’’
And just how bad was the Fighting Illini defense on Sunday?
Wisconsin, which improved to 15-7 overall and 6-3 in the league, scored more than 70 points for just the second time in Big Ten play. The other time was a 74-51 win over Illinois in Madison.
“It’s a mentality. At some point, you can’t let it be acceptable for them to score the way they did,’’ said Illinois sophomore center Nnanna Egwu, who finished with 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots. “They were more efficient than we were. We let some easy things go. We just made too many mistakes on the defensive end.’’
The Badgers, who had not scored more than 49 points in their three previous games, shot 55.6 percent (10-of-18) in the second half and they were a 19-of-31 at the free-throw line.
That’s the second game in a row, where an Illini opponent shot 30 or more free throws in the second half. Michigan State was 23-of-32 in Thursday’s 80-75 win over Illinois, which falls to 15-8 overall and 2-7 in the conference.
“Unfortunately, right now, our answer at times to playing hard or when we get behind is to foul and be undisciplined,’’ Groce said. “I didn’t think our defense from an execution standpoint was very good in the second half.
“You have to defend in this league, if you don’t guard, you are going to be very ineffective.
“We haven’t done that very well the last couple of games. I feel that we have a lot holes in our defense that we have to try to patch.’’
And Groce is quick to point out that the team’s defensive principles haven’t changed this season.
“We’ve been doing this since Oct. 12,’’ he said. “At some point, we have to execute the simple things that we ask our guys to do on a more consistent basis and that will allow us be better defensively.
“To do that, you have to trust the system and trust one another at a really high level.’’
So considering this has been a problem all season, how did the Illini win its first 12 games and 13 of its first 14?
“I would say that making 10 or more 3s in eight of your first 10 games might have a little bit to do with it,’’ Groce said. “The margin for error gets larger.
“The margin for error gets smaller when you go 2-for-13.’’
In spite of making just two 3-pointers on Sunday — both by D.J. Richardson, who finished with 10 points — Groce said he was pleased with his team offensive execution, except for a brief period of the second half.
“We can do some better things at that end,’’ said Groce, noting that Myke Henry missed a dunk with Illinois trailing 35-30 early in the second half. “But all in all, the end that I’m focused on right now, is the defensive end.’’
That philosophy was noticeable when Illinois senior Brandon Paul, the team’s leading scorer at 17.6 points per game, didn’t start.
“We had to make a statement that it’s not okay to have the type of defensive efficiently that we’ve had in league play,’’ Groce said. “We are going to play the guys that graded out the highest defensively.’’
Joseph Bertrand, starting for the first time this season, led Illinois in scoring with 17 points, while Paul came off the bench with 13 as he made just 3-of-13 shots and he was 0-for-4 from the 3-point range.
Ben Brust and Frank Kaminsky, a pair of former high school standouts from Illinois, combined to score 39 points for Wisconsin.
Kaminsky, who had only played four minutes since suffering an eye injury on Jan. 15, had a career-high 19, while Brust finished with a game-high 20.
The loss was the fourth straight at home for Illinois and things don’t get any easier this Thursday as the top-rated and conference-leading Indiana Hoosiers (20-2, 8-1) come to the Assembly Hall in Champaign.
Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. with the game being shown on ESPN and heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.