CHAMPAIGN — One could argue the Illini basketball team has a simple challenge: Put the brakes on a two-game stretch of blindingly awful performances.
One could overlook the first game in the current three-game losing streak because when Illinois lost to Minnesota 84-67 on Jan. 9 at Assembly Hall, it competed well into the second half but caught a very good Minnesota team playing at the peak of its ability.
But the performance in a 74-51 loss at Wisconsin was abysmal and there’s no excuse for Illinois’ inability to control a struggling Northwestern team Thursday that had just lost by 20 on its home floor to Iowa.
In some years, one might make that argument: Fix a two-game glitch.
But this year is special for the talent-rich Big Ten, and combine those losses with Illinois’ failure to capture a winnable game at Purdue in the conference opener and Illinois now finds itself 1-4 in the league, facing a hole that looks deeper every time one peers over the edge.
With the schedule about to look like a lava pit filled with swinging blades and flaming pitch forks, winning seven more league games (an 8-10 Big Ten record MIGHT be enough for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament) sounds unlikely.
After a 12-0 start, Illinois has lost 5 of 7 and the situation feels bleak and familiar.
What’s gone wrong?
Every Illini fan has their own opinion and a widespread degree of frustration and outrage is understandable. People feel like they’re being forced to watch a bad three-hour movie over and over again.
They’ve watched the decline of a program that, just recently, included the 2009-10 NIT season, an up-and-down 2010-11 campaign that included the program’s only NCAA Tournament victory in six years and the 2011-12 debacle that will be remembered for an historic collapse and the ouster of coach Bruce Weber.
I’ll cut right to the chase: What you’re watching now is the residue of recruiting misfires the past five years. What you’re watching is a team whose core is made up of fourth-year players who have never been able to sustain success, who have never been skilled shooters or ball-handlers, who are capable of rising up and playing the occasional terrific game, but have never been able to do it over and over and over again.
It’s not coach John Groce, who has done a remarkable job trying to coax confidence from this group he inherited.
You may be frustrated by the team’s drooping 3-point shooting, but when you ask for more drives to the basket, or more low-post touches, remember that Groce is dealing with players who often can’t dribble deftly enough to make to the basket and whose center is still more comfortable sliding to the perimeter.
He’s doing what he can do while having no choice but to lean heavily on those four-year players who made up Weber’s 2009 recruiting class.
He’s doing his best with Brandon Paul, whose field goal shooting percentage has never finished as high as 40 percent in a season.
And with D.J. Richardson, whose effort is always solid but whose field goal shooting accuracy has gone down every year of his career.
And with Tyler Griffey, whose value on this team is his ability to shoot the 3 but whose accuracy from that distance the past six games has plunged to 11 percent, And with Joe Bertrand, who I touted as a potential starter going into the Northwestern game and who in that contest registered 0 points and 2 rebounds in 22 minutes.
Recall what happened with the players in the past five recruiting classes:
2008 – Stan Simpson (redshirted his first season, played very little his second, transferred to John A. Logan College his third, then transferred to Memphis, where he currently is averaging 1.8 points as a senior); Dominique Keller (junior college transfer who had two seasons coming off the Illini bench).
2009 – Richardson, Paul, Bertrand, Griffey (the core of the current team).
2010 – Crandall Head (brother of Illini great Luther Head, who fought injuries and the inability to shoot and ended up transferring to Southern Methodist, joining former Illini assistant Jerrance Howard); Jereme Richmond (loads of potential washed down the drain as Richmond foolishly decided he was ready for the NBA but instead went afoul of the law when he was charged with unlawful use of a weapon, then violated his probation by testing positive for marijuana); Meyers Leonard (ultra-athletic big man from Robinson only scratched the surface of his potential before declaring for the NBA draft and becoming Portland’s lottery pick after his sophomore year).
2011 – Mike Shaw, Myke Henry, Devin Langford, Ibby Djimde, Nnanna Egwu, Tracy Abrams. (Egwu and Abrams are current starters. Shaw, Henry, Langford and Djimde have uncertain roles and therefore uncertain futures).
2012 – No freshman (includes walkon guard Mike LaTulip).
In 2013, Groce will finally be bringing aboard his first recruiting class. That includes Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice and five high school prospects – Chicago Simeon guards Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, Belleville East wing Malcolm Hill, Ohio prep center Maverick Morgan and New Jersey power forward Austin Colbert.
And in 2014, with one scholarship to offer (barring transfers), Groce has received a verbal commitment from Champaign forward Michael Finke.
That’s when we’ll be able to gauge the skills, toughness and ability to sustain success to players Groce felt would fit his system. That’s when we’ll begin seeing a new movie.
For now, though, we’re watching actors we’ve seen many times. There may be some bright spots yet, but don’t be surprised if you recognize familiar performances.