WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — In the end, Illinois simply will get what it deserves.
That was true here Saturday against Purdue. In a game the Illini needed to win to put themselves in position to make the NCAA Tournament, they couldn’t protect a 15-2 lead. Couldn’t protect a 26-13 lead. Couldn’t summon the offense — or the doggedness — to adequately support Rayvonte Rice’s huge 25-point effort. Couldn’t get a “W” even though the ham-handed Boilermakers turned the ball over a ridiculous 20 times.
The Illini deserved their 63-58 defeat. And if, for the second season in a row, they don’t make it to the Big Dance, well, they’ll have earned the snub.
“You have to play 40 minutes in this league,” a frustrated John Groce said.
If you’re a coach who finds himself stating that point at this time of the season, chances are you haven’t gotten to where you hoped to be.
Purdue (20-11, 12-6) likely played itself into the tournament, not only by claiming this must-have victory but by turning its season completely around after a galling December that included defeats against Gardner-Webb (who?) and North Florida (where?). The Illini (19-12, 9-9) were, by comparison, the same pretty decent team at the end of the regular season that they seemed to be early on.
They beat a good Baylor team at Thanksgiving, but they couldn’t hang with Miami or Villanova after that. They knocked off rival Missouri in St. Louis, but they collapsed in Chicago against Oregon. They looked good down the stretch of the regular season in must-win games at home against Northwestern and Nebraska, but they couldn’t claw out a needed win over Michigan State, Iowa or Purdue.
Geez, the tourney bubble was invented for teams like this one. Unfortunately for the Illini, the bubble seems to have gone kablooey right in their faces. Hey, it happens. And sometimes you’ve got it coming.
“I like our team right now,” said senior center Nnanna Egwu. “We’re playing good enough to win the Big Ten tournament.”
What else is he supposed to say? Wisconsin won’t see eye-to-eye with the big fella, though. Illinois will run into the big, bad Badgers in its second game in Chicago — if it gets that far. Groce’s team almost certainly won’t get any further than that. Does it really deserve to anyway?
“Guys are disappointed,” the third-year coach said. “I’d hope they’d be disappointed. We put a lot into this.”
So did Purdue’s Rapheal Davis (18 points), A.J. Hammons (16 points, 10 rebounds) and Jon Octeus (11 points). Along with tough-minded freshman guard P.J. Thompson, they maintained control of the game throughout the second half while Illinois shot the ball with an almost unimaginable lack of success; the Illini were 3-for-24 from the field until a meaningless closing spurt made the final score respectable.
And that’s what this Illini team is — respectable, nothing more. That’s how it goes when you win most of the ones you should but precious few of the ones you shouldn’t. That’s what happens when your senior point guard goes down with an ACL tear in training camp and you never figure out how to play without him. That’s undeniable when you’re 9-9 in a pretty down year for the Big Ten.
It is what it is. NIT, anyone?