John Groce isn’t pretending that his Illini basketball team played particularly well Tuesday night at the Assembly Hall.
He knows they didn’t. And he likes knowing that his players knew it without having to be told.
“You can’t fool them,” he said.
But for everyone that says the 72-64 victory over Western Carolina proves something negative about Groce’s 13th-ranked Illini, understand that this is a head coach who will stand up for his team.
“I don’t talk about (the ranking),” Groce said. “It’s a number. We’re not going to apologize for being 9-0.
“My job is to get them to play good basketball. I can’t control how people vote. We can control game play, executing better, making sure our team has great attitude and consistently plays with toughness.
“Tonight we didn’t do that and I have to take ownership with that and figure it out.
“The reason we’re in the position we’re in is that we’ve been pretty tough, we’ve been together, and our defensive numbers haves been top 35 in the country.
“You see Sports Center and you don’t see many charges taken or a great defensive stop or a guy diving on the loose ball. They show dunks and 3s and fast breaks. You forget what puts you in position to play at the pace people like right now/
“I try to remind them all the time that the toughness, togetherness and the way we have defended, that’s our calling card. That needs to be our identity and that slipped tonight.”
This might have been an easier game to win had Illinois finished on the offensive end. It wasn’t that they didn’t get good shots, but they didn’t finish good shots. They rattled open 3-pointers that bounced out and they missed a number of close-in looks. And Western Carolina was effective rebounding the ball and taking it to the basket in the second half.
“They were the tougher team for the bulk of the game and that’s disappointing,” Groce said.
Back to back 3-pointers by D.J. Richardson and four straight points by Tracy Abrams were crucial in the final four minutes of the game.
But a much better effort will be needed on Saturday night if Illinois is going to be competitive with unbeaten and 10th-ranked Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash. Tipoff is at 9 p.m. (Central).
That game will be on ESPN2, but Tuesday night’s game was relegated to BTN.com and many fans were not happy.
Times are tough all over, and none of us are spending money covering games the way we once did. That’s the reality of the times and the reality of our business.
But count me among those who feel that Big Ten men’s basketball games are meant to be televised live on the BTN and if that means using overflow stations to do it, so be it.
I’ve been a supporter, but the Big Ten Network loses some of its luster when basketball games – especially those involving nationally ranked teams – are relegated to a dot-com.
I realize these decisions are made before the rankings come out, but still. It seems to be a disservice to the schools and to the conference when its ranked teams can’t be properly marketed on the network.
Really looking forward to the Gonzaga game on Saturday. It will take a much better effort than Illinois showed Tuesday. My guess is Groce will have them ready to compete.