CHAMPAIGN — Seniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson have been asked about it, and coach John Groce has heard the topic creeping like a virus into recent conversations.
But if you’re curious whether the current two-game Illini basketball losing streak might grow into something more threatening, don’t ask.
Going into tonight’s home game with Northwestern, Groce was waving away the questions faster than they could be articulated.
“To be honest, I’m tired of that deal,” Groce said, short-stopping an inquiry about the whether the team’s confidence might be brittle.
Aware that Illinois went into a free fall and lost 12 of the final 14 games last year, Groce has made a point of saying, “We can’t change the past,” all season. So he’s prepped his team on the topic, telling them there will be no excuses this time.
“I’ll tell you what, 10 to 15 years from now if they think they’re not going to get hit in the mouth in life, we’re teaching them the wrong things at the University of Illinois,” Groce said Wednesday. “That deal? Fragile confidence? I said to the staff today, ‘That’s out.’
“Pretty soon (players) will have to deal with their kid being sick, with a family emergency. You will have to deal with things in life that aren’t easy. We have to figure that out. We have absolutely no excuses. We have to man up and play. We have to fight. That’s the expectation that we have.”
Paul was a central figure in last season’s collapse and some point to his 43-point outburst against Ohio State as the tipping point, suggesting that after reaching 15-3, Illinois dropped its guard and never recaptured its edge.
Paul had his worst game of the season on Saturday, making 1-of-11 shots and 5-of-10 free throws against Wisconsin. He finished with eight points, the first time this season he has failed to score in double digits.
On Wednesday, Paul was one of the first players on the floor for practice. Groce said he has had to hide the keys to the gym to limit Paul’s practice time and the senior said he can’t wait to face the Wildcats.
“It’s a good chance for us to come out and compete, better than we did against Wisconsin, where they kicked our butts in all aspects of the game,” Paul said. “We didn’t come out ready to play. The coaches did a great job preparing us, but it’s up to us as captains, especially myself, to go out there and lead.
“We have to come out with a better focus tomorrow night, and I think we’re going to do that.”
Groce has stressed tightening up details, especially on defense where he said Illinois has slipped in its attention to the 3-point shot.
“We know what we need to do,” Groce said. “There’s no need for wholesale changes. We need to defend the 3 better. We need to rebound better. We need to do some of the little things better.
“They know they can’t control how many questions they are asked about mindset, confidence, about being fragile. My whole deal is to man up because confidence is not a magic wand.
“As my old coach Todd Lickliter used to say, ‘You earn the right to be confident.’ Do things consistently and at the end of the day it will work out for itself.”
Groce reiterated that forward Mike Shaw will get more playing time tonight after impressing coaches with the consistency of his effort at Wisconsin.
Shaw played 19 minutes at Wisconsin — his longest stint of the season — and Shaw said Wednesday he has tried to stay positive even when he wasn’t playing.
“Being negative won’t make it better,” he said. “All you can do is be positive. This is a great opportunity. I have to take advantage of it and do what I can to help us win.
“Coach Groce has been telling me all season to stick with it. He knows it’s hard not playing after you’ve come from high school where you played a lot. He tells me every game to be ready and that’s what I try to do.”
Groce said Shaw is a good lesson for all players.
“I want him to be physical, rebound, block out, run the floor, screen and do all of the little things,” Groce said. “Guys think they will play if they make shots. He’s playing tomorrow and I don’t care if he makes a shot.”
Groce said Illinois has prepared to play Northwestern’s Princeton-style offense.
The Wildcats are shorthanded with top returning scorer Drew Crawford out for the year because of shoulder surgery and projected starter JerShon Cobb suspended for the season for academic reasons.
“We’re competing against a very precise offense,” Groce said. “Reggie Hearn has stepped up his scoring and Tre Demps, who comes in off the bench – both of them are wired to score. Kale Abrahamson has deep range and Dave Sobolewski is a tough kid who can make shots as well.”