There are only so many ways to slice it up. And I'm not talking about Illinois' defense, which was downright atrocious against the Hoosiers on Tuesday night. The topic of concern is finding new words to describe the disgust and dysfunction that surround the Illinois basketball program. The 103-69 loss at Indiana in front of a national audience on ESPN painted a clear picture. The Illini were out-coached, out-toughed, out-played, out-classed and out-everything. They were an orange and blue punching bag once again, as they were at Michigan State less than two weeks ago. Indiana looked like they were going against a scout team in practice. The Hoosiers hit a school-record 19 threes against the Illini, while shooting 56.9 percent from the field overall. The Orange and Blue were hoping to use the win against Purdue as a momentum builder, but now it has proven to be an outlier. This is a bad basketball team.
The low point of the Groce era has been reached. This 34-point drubbing was the worst loss during John Groce's tenure. Illinois gave up 1.46 points per possession, which is their worst total in at least 11 years. Overall, it was the worst loss for the program since losing by 36 at Temple in Dec. 1991. The Illini are off to their worst start in the Big Ten (1-5) since 2007-08. They are on their way to missing the NCAA tournament for the third straight season, which would be the worst tourney drought for the program in 36 years. In essence, the "worst since" lines continue to pile up with no sign of damage control.
Groce lacks answers for recurring problems. The Illini simply ran into a buzz saw on Tuesday night with how Indiana has been playing. Illinois has been forced to deal with crushing injuries, which has undoubtedly limited the ability of this team to compete. For those reasons alone, taking a loss in Bloomington is something that was to be expected. But the way in which the Illini lost left Groce at the podium grasping for an explanation. Illinois was awful on defense, as their season numbers become uglier by the game. Of the 351 D-1 programs, the Illini are No. 331 in effective field goal percentage defense and No. 338 in three-point field goal percentage defense (40 percent). They still leave shooters open at an alarming rate, and they aren't much better at defending the interior. The Hoosiers hit 19 threes, and all of their other 18 field goals came in the paint (essentially layups). At the other end of the floor, the Illini relied far too much on "hero ball" in attempt to come back. This mostly included forced jump shots early in the shot clock, which was a concern after Illinois' previous loss to Nebraska. Yet, the Illini were back again playing offense without any sense of rhythm or structure. Lacking talent is one thing, but the Illini haven't looked like a well-coached team more often than not.
No pride, no toughness and no leadership. Groce ripped into his team during a timeout in the second half. He let it be known that during his coaching career, he has never seen a more glaring lack of pride. Groce added in the postgame press conference that he is not satisfied with the on-court leadership from his guys. He has tried to thrust Malcolm Hill into that role, but it hasn't been a successful effort. Groce said that it's the job of the head coach to be an obvious leader, but primary leadership comes from the players. However you see it, the Illini haven't battled (in most cases) like a well-led team. They also don't possess that toughness or grit that you want to see. Groce talked about not having guys like Tracy Abrams, D.J. Richardson, Nnanna Egwu and Rayvonte Rice on the court - all who took a ton of pride in grinding and playing defense. The only problem for Groce is that none of those guys are players he recruited to Illinois out of high school. In Year Four, he has had plenty of time to infuse his own talent. And that collection of players don't seem to have the qualities that embody his style.
Thorne's return was a positive. The Illini have been consistently beat up in the paint, which was a big product of Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black's absence. Thorne was back in action on Tuesday night, though, and he made an impact on the glass. The big man had nine rebounds in 16 minutes of action. Michael Finke and Maverick Morgan have posted eight rebounds combined over the last three games in 112 combined minutes. That is an unreal margin of difference. Thorne struggled to finish on his post moves and he turned it over three times. But having him back was a positive step on a night that didn't have many.
Illini have to find a way. This coaching staff has a number of valid reasons why this season has not gone according to plan. But it's obvious that the fan base is not going to excuse a complete collapse. Groce needs to show that he hasn't lost this team. Even with projected starters on the bench, the Illini have to look the part of a Big Ten basketball team. They especially can't take losses to teams like Rutgers (6-13) and Minnesota (6-12), and the Illini will battle the Gophers on Saturday in Minneapolis. Illinois has lost their last eight true road games. They're also 3-10 in their last 13 games against Big Ten opponents. The Illini laid down with their season in the balance last year at the Big Ten tournament. Now, they've done some more of the same during Big Ten play thus far - especially in losses against Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana. For a coach that harps on toughness and togetherness, that can't happen when it's his guys that are in uniform.