Trouble at Home?

Illinois hasn't made matters easy for itself in recent games played at Assembly Hall.

CHAMPAIGN – By definition, home means a place where one lives.

It's where someone or something is based, founded or developed. As idioms go, home is supposed to be about comfort and relaxation and where familiarity lends itself for an successful environment to become established.

But for the Illinois basketball team, Assembly Hall hasn't exactly been a safe haven. Despite facing a group of perceived lesser opponents, the past four home games provided witness to inconsistent play and tighter scores than expected.

"We just come out flat," senior guard D.J. Richardson said. "I really can't say too much about it. We've just got to do a better job."

It took a 3-pointer from Tyler Griffey with just seconds remaining to save face against Gardner-Webb (63-62). Georgia Tech, Western Carolina and Norfolk State were all within four points of the Illini with five minutes left.

Those kinds of performances – when fans see a game still in doubt deep in the second half despite the lack of a name brand on the opposing bench – usually lead to worry about the future. While it's true that Illinois hasn't been impressive at home in the last month, the stats build a case for a team that knows how to turn it on when it matters most.

In the aforementioned home stretch, Illinois has outscored opponents by nearly nine points over the last eight minutes of the game. Georgia Tech and Norfolk State scored six and seven points over that time period and each shot lower percentages from the field (from the first half to the second), too.

Coach John Groce sees two ways of looking at that.

"If you're normally pretty positive you could say with eight minutes to go you ramped it up, your guys understand where the guts of the game were and really turned it up, which is great," he said. "Or you could flip the coin and say shouldn't they be playing that hard all the time? It's a catch-22 a little bit, but we'll take a look at the film and figure it out."

At face value, it's strange for a team to struggle like this at home, especially given the competition. But adding to the mystery is the team's play away from Champaign. Three blowouts in the Maui Invitational, including one against Butler in the title game, built momentum and landed the Illini in the Top 25. That was followed up with the Gardner-Webb game four days later.

Jet-lag and exhaustion were the common explanations for that close call.

But in similar style, Illinois defeated Gonzaga on the road Saturday, a blast of ‘see, we do belong in the national discussion" tempered only by Tuesday's performance against Norfolk State.

"At the end of the day, over the course of 40 minutes I didn't think our effort level, our energy and focus was where it's been," Groce said. "That's my responsibility. I didn't have them ready to play. We'll figure it out. These guys are tough guys. I've got great guys."

When asked point blank about the problems at home following big wins on the road, Groce shouldered the burden of blame.

"I've got to figure it out," he said. "I've got to do a better job. I've got to do a better job getting them ready to play."

While Groce goes to work to address the problems, he may take note that his leading scorer, guard Brandon Paul, plays better away from Assembly Hall. At home, he's averaging 15 points a game. On the road, he's putting up nearly 24.

Paul heard Groce taking the blame following the Norfolk State game. He came to his coach's defense.

"Coach takes responsibility for it, but he can't come out there and play for us," Paul said. "We've got to maintain focus when we come home. We should have more edge at home than away, but it seems like it hasn't been that way. Obviously we've had some great road wins and come home and not taking anything away from Norfolk State, but we kind of played down to our competition. I feel like we need to play the way we did against Gonzaga every night."

Perhaps, the recent trend is a matter of stats and circumstance. Perhaps it's attributed to still flattening out the rough spots in the first year with Groce in charge. College basketball is a results-based business, and if Illinois keeps winning at home, regardless of the score, into February and March, none of this December discussion will matter.

"We found a way to grind it out," Groce said. "I think good teams do that. I think that's a real positive.

"We've got a chance to keep getting better. That's the exciting thing. We can play better than we played (against Norfolk State). We have played better."

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