Chattanooga loss pushes Illinois to worst start in 50 years

By Alex Roux

Tweet: A loss to Chattanooga Saturday night cements the Illini’s worst start to a season since 1965, writes @aroux94

The looks on their faces said it all.

As Illinois basketball players trudged to the Prairie Capital Convention Center locker room following a 81-77 loss to Chattanooga Saturday night, their blank gazes met no one in particular, their heads angled toward the floor in dejection.

Saturday’s final horn signaled the worst start to a basketball season in Champaign since 1965 as the Illini plummeted to 1-3 for the first time in 50 years. Playing in a temporary home arena 90 miles from campus against uncharacteristically talented mid-major opponents, such a choppy start to the season almost didn’t feel real. Especially since the Illini let two consecutive games slip from their grasp.

Three nights after toying with victory at Providence and missing three good looks on the game’s final possession, Illinois looked poised to put the Mocs away after another slow start in Springfield.

But Chattanooga (3-0) rallied from a 69-60 deficit with six minutes to go, hitting five three-pointers in six possessions down the stretch to overtake an Illini team whose offense sputtered in crunch time again.

Malcolm Hill’s heroics weren’t enough. The junior dropped 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting, and did everything you’d expect out of a star player. But the inconsistency of this Illini roster was all too apparent.

Senior center Mike Thorne Jr. bounced back nicely after being shut out at Providence, burling his way to 18 points and 11 rebounds against an athletic Mocs front line. Freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands, who went off for 17 against the Friars, was nowhere to be found Saturday, held to zero points in 19 minutes of action. 

Thorne and Coleman-Lands are two of Groce’s three best players, and if Illinois doesn’t get some sort of production out of both of them night in and night out, it will struggle.

And what a struggle it’s been. For the third consecutive game at the PC3, Illinois let a small-conference opponent blow its doors off in the first half en route to a quick double-digit lead. The Illini looked totally unprepared for the Mocs’ full-court press, even though they knew it was coming and had prepared for it in practice.

The press put pressure on uncomfortable Illini ball-handlers in the first half, resulting in nine first-half Illini turnovers and a 39-32 Mocs lead at halftime. 6-foot-10 Illini freshman Michael Finke was forced to bring the ball up the floor several times for the Illini, and though he handled it well, it was far from an ideal scenario.

Illinois managed the pressure better in the second half, storming back to take the lead like they did six nights earlier against North Dakota State. But the Mocs had one final run left in the tank.

Groce credited Chattanooga after the game for its efficiency in the game’s final possessions. He’s right; five threes in six possessions is impressive. But if the Illini hadn’t started so poorly and fallen behind so quickly, the Mocs’ late flurry might not have been enough to cost them the game.

That’s what happens when you let talented, veteran mid-major teams who are already brimming with confidence take control early: your margin of error while trying to complete a comeback becomes razor-thin.

Illinois’ disturbing trend of slow starts in games has manifested itself into a perfect metaphor for the season as a whole. Losing three out of the first four games is the worst start this program has seen in decades, and the Illini’s hope of returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013 dims with each added loss.

It’s an unfortunate position for everyone affiliated with Illinois basketball to be in. Fans are rightfully sick of losing, and five of the last seven games under Groce (dating back to last year’s critical game at Purdue) have been putrid to watch. The team’s healthy players are playing hard, and even the injured ones shared that same distressed look as they exited the Springfield court Saturday.

And the coaches, who knew how tough these first few games would be, have to be feeling the heat as well. Groce knows that 1-3 is nearly unprecedented and unacceptable to many fans, as is missing three straight NCAA tournaments. Three losses to teams who we’ll probably see on NCAA tourney brackets is of little consolation to Illini fans, who perennially expect to see their team in the Field of 68 as well come March.

Just four games into a long season means there are plenty more opportunities for redemption. But much like the first three games in Springfield, those future opportunities could quickly turn sour.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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@aroux94