WERNER: Illini all too familiar that these losses matter in March

Illini are a work in progress but will the final product be enough to dig out of an early hole?

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Malcolm Hill collapsed to the ground and buried his head into his forearm. John Groce keeled over, put his hands on his knees and for a few seconds stared at the ground.

The weight of a mid-November loss that could’ve been -- nay, should’ve been -- a win already is proving a powerful force on the Illini junior guard and Illini coach. Because both are all too familiar with the weight of an early-season game that slipped away.

“It stings. I’m really hurting,” Hill admitted after Illinois missed three shot attempts on the final possession -- a Hill contested lay-up attempt, a Michael Finke putback dunk attempt and last-second Hill three-point attempt -- of Wednesday’s 60-59 loss at Providence.

It stings like blowing a second-half lead to Oregon last season. It stings like blowing a late 12-point lead in a loss at Georgia Tech two seasons ago.

Of course, there are plenty of Big Ten games Illinois can point to, as well. But these early, nonconference games against quality opponents count just as much in March. And losses like Wednesday’s are the kind that have haunted Illinois come March.

“They all matter,” Groce said. “Every opportunity matters. Every practice matters. Every game matters. The guys know that."

Loss likes Wednesday are the kind of losses that have sent Groce and Hill, a junior, to the N.I.T. rather than the NCAA Tournament in their two Marches together.

“Every game counts,” Hill said. “The past two years I’ve been here, we missed the NCAA Tournament by about one or two games. These are wins we need. But we play another day. This is only game three. This is good that we’re getting experience to play these NCAA teams early and just get a feel for how we are. I think this will make us a lot better down the road.”

Growing pains

Still, Wednesday’s loss wasn’t due to effort, heart or scouting.

Illinois effectively shut down Providence superstar guard Kris Dunn (10 points in 29 minutes) as nearly two dozen NBA scouts watched from the sidelines.

A team -- that due in part to injury relies on seve players who did not play for Illinois last season (four freshmen, two fifth-year transfers and a walk-on transfer -- that allowed 28 three-point field goals over its first two games showed a more mature approach to advanced scouting, limiting Providence to 38.3 percent shooting.

“We played with a purpose, or if I wanted to be politically incorrect, a brain,” Groce said. “Last weekend, we gave them scouting, and I just thought we were clueless at times. I think those guys learned the importance of it after watching film. A lot of these guys are rookies and they figured out, ‘Hey, I might want to know if they’re a left-hand driver or a right-hand driver or whether I’m supposed to make this rotation. Maybe that is important.’”

Two of Illinois’ best players were relegated to towel-waving duty most of the night due to foul trouble. Big man Mike Thorne Jr., who had 46 points in his first two games, was held scoreless (0-5 FG) by a Providence defense intent on stopping him, and the Illini center fouled out in 13 minutes. Leron Black looked bouncy in pregame but overanxious during the game, fouling four times in five minutes.

But the Illini bench stepped up in a big way.

Junior center Maverick Morgan continues to give improved minutes (six points, three rebounds in 21 minutes).

Redshirt freshman Michael Finke looked unsure of himself early but hit his first shot attempt with 0:58 left in the first half and quickly found a rhythm, scoring all 12 of his season-high points ove his next four minutes on the court. He provided the offensive jolt Illinois needed to start the second half, scoring the Illini’s first eight points of the half.

Freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands (17 points, 5-7 threes) continued to show the stroke that put him on the short list of best shooters in the Class of 2015.

But there’s a downside to inexperienced, improving players: growing pains.

Morgan had two costly turnovers. Coleman-Lands (who has practiced fully for only about two weeks since returning from a stress fracture in his lower left leg) turned it over, trying to force a pass into traffic, with 2:13 remaining.

Finke, who had the type of game that gave Illinois a chance, couldn’t quite handle and put down the putback dunk attempt that may have sealed the game.

“I had a point-blank dunk right there,” Finke said. “That’s no excuses. I’m going to take full responsibility for that one.”

Better in long-run?

Groce and Providence coach Ed Cooley embraced outside the media room following the game. Cooley embraced Groce, sighed, bent over and gave Groce a look that suggested, “Yup, we got away with one.”

Illinois, a 7.5-point underdog, had a favorable situation, given the circumstances.

“At the end of the day, if you told me you’re going to be on the road, a couple guys down, last possession you have a left-hand lay up -- the same one Hill made last year against Penn State at home on the same play -- and a dunk and another shot after that, I probably would’ve taken it,” Groce said. “Unfortunately for us, and fortunately for Ed and his crew, they didn’t go down.”

Both of the Illini’s losses came to possible, maybe even likely, NCAA Tournament teams. North Florida, which has made 34 three-point attempts through two games, should roll through the Atlantic Sun. Providence has the talent to make the field of 68 for the second-straight season.

The North Florida game stings more because it was a “home” game. Use of quotes there is necessary since Illinois is playing its first four home games in front of about 5,000 in Springfield instead of 12,000-15,000 in Champaign due to final touches being put on the fourth of five phases of the State Farm Center Renovation. But neither loss will necessarily fulfill everyone’s requirement for a “bad loss” come March.

Still, they are losses. And the quantity of losses has hurt Illinois more in the past two seasons -- Illinois had 19 wins following the Big Ten Tournament each of the past two seasons -- than the quality of losses.

The Illini have stumbled against a schedule that pitted Illinois against defending NCAA Tournament teams in three straight games, the only Division I team in the country to do so. But a quantity of wins are difficult to come by in a loaded Big Ten, making the next few weeks, including next week's games in the Emerald Coast Classic (vs. UAB and vs. Iowa State/Virginia Tech) and the State Farm Center opener against Notre Dame, so critical.

There are a lot of new parts trying to find a way to work as one fluidly functioning mechanism. And there were a lot of good parts sitting on the bench while Wednesday’s game was decided: two due to foul trouble (Thorne Jr. and Black) and two due to injury (Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate).

“Right now, we’re just getting used to each other and building our camaraderie and chemistry,” Coleman-Lands said. “This definitely helps, playing teams like Providence. It’s on to the next one, learn and just improve.”

Groce just hopes the growing pains and lessons -- if there are any from Wednesday's gut-punching loss -- make his team dangerous enough at some point to make up for these early losses.

The Illini are “a work in progress,” as Groce said on Tuesday, but will the finished product be strong enough to dig out of an early hole?

“At the end of the day, after the sting will be over, we have to figure out what we can learn from it and be better heading into Saturday’s game,” Groce said. “We have a really challenging schedule and my hope is that it makes us better moving forward certainly for the long-term.”

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