Over the years we’ve learned that anything is possible and trends can be reversed.
But I’m bracing for what could be a serious and prolonged Illini basketball tailspin after Wednesday night’s 66-58 loss to Purdue. Maybe a full-fledged free fall.
It was Illinois’ third straight loss but more important than that, it was the second in a row against opponents in games I believe most people had penciled in as victories.
Illinois needed to beat Northwestern on Sunday and Purdue on Wednesday because it needed to bank some equity and have a 5-1 start to Big Ten play heading into what now looms as a five-game gauntlet.
As I said, anything is possible, but I would now project Illinois to be 0-5 in that stretch with Ray Rice playing hard and somewhat effectively, but seeming to lose his bounce and lack his edge as Wednesday’s game went on.
Rice, of course, is dealing with an abductor strain – a hip-groin injury he incurred Sunday against the Wildcats. To his credit, he played 36 minutes and was nearly always active. I thought he looked very good early, slicing through traffic to score Illinois’ second basket of the game, then hitting a 3-pointer a short while later.
But Rice did not score a basket in the final 34 minutes of the game and although he finished with 11 points and seven rebounds, he wasn’t his usual dynamic self. And I don’t know if he can quickly recapture that with more games coming.
This is an offensively challenged Illini team. Nnanna Egwu is in an awful shooting slump. He was 0-for-7 Wednesday even though most of his shots were very decent looks.
Jon Ekey made 2 of his 5 3-pointers, which is good, but they had to run plays for him to get open.
What had Groce so honked off was the way Illinois got man-handled on the glass in the second half. Illinois was leading the rebounding battle at halftime, 21-19. But Purdue won overall, 42-28. That means in the second half Purdue whipped Illinois on the boards, 23-7.
“Give them the credit because they got the job done, but we were absolutely awful on the backboard,” Groce seethed.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable to get beat up like that in the second half. You’re kidding yourself if you think you can win like that. You can’t let them throw you around like rag dolls. That’s ridiculous. We got abused on the backboard.”
And Illinois had a chance to pick up nine points at the free throw line with three one-and-ones and a 3-point try after Joe Bertrand was fouled shooting a 3-pointer.
But Rice, Bertrand and Ekey each missed the front end of their one-and-one attempts and Bertrand made just one of his three. So Illinois cashed in one of its potential nine free throw points in the final eight minutes of the game.
The play of freshmen Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn was encouraging, especially Hill in the first half. He finished with seven points and five rebounds and Nunn had eight points.
I say play them more.
Illinois also had 12 turnover, which is not an alarming number. But four or five of them were painful and costly.
Purdue’s big man, A.J. Hammons, did a really nice job offensively and as the backstop for their defense. He had 17 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks and he discouraged Illinois’ drives to the basket.
I would expect some very physical practices the next couple days as Illinois prepares for a Michigan State team is always physical on the glass.
Illinois was in a mess last year when it upset No. 1-ranked Indiana, but that was not a team as offensively challenged as this group.
It’s possible another miracle could be in the works. I just don’t see it.