Jeremy Werner

Werner: No more excuses for Illini hoops

There are no more excuses for losses like Monday's 84-80 overtime loss to Winthrop. For John Groce's Illini, it's simply time to win.

CHAMPAIGN -- John Groce has had a familiar refrain the last few seasons, "I hate excuses, but..."

And then came the list of excuses -- most of which concerned the long list of injuries that crushed his team in recent years. It was easier then to give Groce the benefit of the doubt because his team never really stood much of a chance to reach its potential last season when three of its starters missed all but 15 combined games.

Following Monday's 84-80 overtime loss to Winthrop in which his team blew a 10-point lead with three minutes remaining, Groce acknowledged his team's key mistakes, including 22 turnovers and 21 fouls, that led to the loss. But he also offered some excuses, mostly that the Illini just had some bad luck in the closing minutes.

"Everything has to go wrong for us and right for them," Groce said. "A part of that 10-point run, they bank in a three at the end of the shot clock, they scoop one in with the left hand with one second left on the shot clock and then Hill loses a shoe. We're going to have to work on that. When you lose your shoe, leave your shoe behind and get matched up because if we don't get matched up we're playing 5-on-4 as it's being scrambled around. ...It just happened that way at the end, where it couldn't have went any worse for us on that 10-point run when you think of how they scored eight of those 10, it's crazy. But gives those kids credit. They're older. They kept fighting, like I told them they would. They weren't going to back down when we had three or four possession leads there two or three times. That's a good basketball team, but we got to clean up our mistakes. We had a chance to close and didn't."

That was a bit maddening to hear. Sure, tip your cap to Winthrop, a team that should win the Big South Conference and likely could be a top-100 RPI team and an NCAA Tournament team. Applaud mighty mite Keon Johnson after the 5-foot-4 guard left everything on the floor -- barely able to walk after the game -- in a legendary 38-point performance at the State Farm Center that lifted the Eagles to their first ever win over a Big Ten opponent.

Winthrop deserved to win that game and played great when it needed to most.

But therein lies the problem. Winthrop deserved to win over Illinois. Winthrop was a better team than Illinois.

This is Groce's fifth season. This is his roster -- and while the team may not be 100 percent healthy, it's 100 percent available. There are no more excuses. It's time to win.

This is Illinois basketball. Not Rutgers. Not Minnesota. It's Illinois basketball, a program that made the NCAA Tournament 22 of 27 times from 1981 to 2007. He took over a struggling program that made just two NCAA Tournaments over Bruce Weber's final five seasons. He needed time to reshape and rebuild the roster and deserved a little rope.

But that rope deservedly should be running short, no matter how much bad luck he's had, how hard he works or what Signing Class he signs. Groce has missed three straight tournaments since leading the Illini to within seconds of a Sweet Sixteen berth in 2013.

Losses like Monday's -- and yes, it's a bad loss no matter what Winthrop does from here -- could potentially crush Illinois on Selection Sunday this March.

Groce knows this because these kind of blown big second-half leads have haunted his tenure. Illinois blew big leads to Georgia Tech in 2013, versus Oregon in 2014, at Michigan in 2014, versus Chattanooga in 2015, versus Notre Dame in 2015, versus Wisconsin in 2016 and more.

Sure, those Illini teams had different personnel, but it's a disturbing trend under Groce. But he doesn't think this team has that same fate. "It's too early to say that with this team because as you add one or two guys, the team changes," Groce said. "This is not the same team I've coached the first four years. So, we don't know that yet. We could've done better today, I know that. We're going to work our butts off to make sure it's not a pattern. But today's one game. It didn't go our way today and part of it was that we added insult to injury by making some of those mistakes. Part of it is their credit. I mean, they banked in a three, our guy loses a shoe and they make a three in the corner. That was the kid's first three of the game, second three all year and the scoop shot with one second on the shot clock, that was a heck of a play by that kid. Unbelievable finish for a guy that size because we contested it really well and he went under our arm and shot it with the weak hand. Just an unbelievable finish. So give him credit. We had a shot at the end of regulation, we didn't make it. We had free throws in overtime, some of them we didn't make. We got to finish a little bit better."

There again is the rationale for the loss.

Listen, actions -- like winning -- surely speak louder than any post-game press conference loss. And again, Groce did mention what his team needs to clean up, turnovers and fouls especailly. But he spent more time explaining the hard-luck nature of this loss. Messaging to fans and, more importantly, messaging to the locker room does matter.

Senior guard Jaylon Tate said Groce's message to the team was, "We gotta be better late," before saying they had to "give credit" to WInthrop.

But sixth-year senior guard Tracy Abrams -- the only Illini player to play in an NCAA Tournament, way back in 2013 -- chimed in during Tate's response with, "We did a lot of stuff to beat ourselves."

There it is. Illinois had so many chances to win that game despite Johnson's Herculean effort and despite any Eagles luck.

"We just didn't do a lot of the little stuff that can make us win games," Abrams said. "We definitely understand the value of that. We just got to keep our head up and keep moving forward."

Illini fans are angry, and they should be. That's a bad loss.

Now, good mid-major teams can pull off upsets of high-major opponents, but usually not good high majors. It's time for Illinois to be a good high-major team again.

It's one setback. The Illini have plenty of time to make up for it. Heck, win against West Virginia on Thursday afternoon, and this loss can be quickly forgiven. The season is far from over to you eternal pessimists. But Groce's team hasn't  given confidence that it can close out such wins, so all the skeptics will remain.

He put together a roster that lacks a rim protector and lacks athleticism, so the staff needs to find a way to get the best defensive performance out of it. Right now, this isn't an NCAA Tournament-caliber defense. These players seemingly don't yet know how to or what it takes to close games consistently, including its star player Malcolm Hill -- who failed to score after halftime while the other team's 5-foot-4 star carried his team to victory.

"Obviously it's disappointing when you got a ten-point lead with three minutes to go, but we needed challenged," Groce said.

Groce's team didn't respond to the challenge. And it wasted one of the 10 or 11 losses it seemingly can afford this season on Winthrop.

There are no excuses or explanations for that. Not anymore.

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