COLUMBUS, Ohio — Illinois fell apart Saturday. Again. If you find yourself wondering how far the Illini can go after their 77-61 loss to No. 20 Ohio State, join the club.
Are they an NCAA tournament team? Are they really any better than they were last season, when their flame expired in the second round of the NIT? Is coach John Groce making a big-enough impact beyond his boundless energy and enthusiasm?
There’s no sugar-coating it: Against the better teams they have played, the Illini have wilted. And it hasn’t happened only against the really good teams. Some of us still are scratching our chins at the late-game collapse at Michigan in the Big Ten opener.
Now 10-5, the Illini basically have a victory against Baylor and a whole lot of bupkis. They are off to an 0-2 start in conference play. It’s concerning. It’s kind of scary. And against the Buckeyes (12-3), they took wilting to a whole new level.
“I thought it was the worst basketball we’ve played all season,” Groce said. “We got our butt kicked.”
Groce’s team appeared to take a real step forward before ending up several dispiriting steps back. The Illini led 37-36 at halftime and 44-41 after Kendrick Nunn’s three-pointer with 16:34 to play. From there, a total breakdown occurred. By the time Rayvonte Rice scored the team’s next field goal nearly eight minutes later, the Buckeyes’ lead was 17.
A cavalcade of missed shots, turnovers and defensive miscues defined the meaningful minutes of an important game that turned from hopeful to hopeless. The Illini couldn’t find any offense after Ohio State switched from a zone to man-to-man early in the second half. Nor could they stop turning the ball over or prevent the Buckeyes from converting field goals at an alarming rate.
“This one’s pretty simple — 20 turnovers and we gave them 60 percent from the field,” Groce said.
And make no mistake, this game mattered plenty. Buckeyes senior Sam Thompson called it a “must-win” for his team, which dropped its conference opener at home to Iowa. Thompson locked down on Rice — who had scored 14 first-half points — and held him to two field-goal attempts after intermission. Rice finished with 20 points and seven rebounds, both team highs.
Illinois got its first look at OSU freshman D’Angelo Russell, a dazzling left-handed scorer who had 22 points, a majority of them appearing effortless. The Illini have lost the last four in the series and six in a row in Columbus.
Ohio State’s football team — bound for the national title game against Oregon — took the court and got a thundering ovation during a long stoppage in the first half. This wasn’t anything new for the Illini, who were there four days earlier when football coach Jim Harbaugh was introduced to the crowd at Michigan. The reaction to Urban Meyer and his players was significant.
“They brought us great energy,” Thompson said. “We were all inspired.”
The Illini will need an inspired effort in their next outing — against No. 12 Maryland on Wednesday in Champaign — or else things will begin to look very daunting. Asked about his team’s effort to date, Groce offered a reminder that injured senior Tracy Abrams won’t be coming back this season.
The message was clear: This group has to figure things out, and fast. A season of promise is beginning to slip away.