Illinois basketball inconsistent again in home loss to Nebraska

By Alex Roux, Illini hoops columnist

Every game is important in Big Ten play, but this one felt like it had some added significance for the Illinois basketball team.

As Nebraska wrapped up a nearly wire-to-wire 78-67 win over Illinois at State Farm Center on Saturday afternoon, it was another deflating moment for John Groce’s hoops program in a season full of them. After the Illini’s biggest win over the season six days ago over No. 20 Purdue, the Huskers came into Illinois’ house and out-defended, out-rebounded and simply out-played the home team. Any hope of building momentum from the Illini’s previous performance vanished.

Illinois fell to 9-9 on the season with the loss and to 1-4 in Big Ten play, while Nebraska moved to 11-8 and 3-3 in the conference.

“They were just tougher and better than us,” Groce said. “We have no excuse. We just did not get it done.”

A 17-2 Nebraska first half run dealt the Illini a blow that they couldn’t recover from. As Illinois chucked up three after ill-fated three, Nebraska converted easy inside looks and bullied the Illini on the boards. The Illini shot 20 threes in the first half — an insanely high number when you’re not hitting at a decent clip — and made only six of them, while the Huskers shot 56 percent from the field.

Nebraska took a 39-30 lead into halftime and led by as many as 12 in the opening frame.

“Our shot selection was awful,” Groce said after the game.

Illinois did shake it up a bit in the second, using high screen and rolls and high-low post entries to get a few easy buckets. Malcolm Hill’s old-fashioned three-point play cut the deficit to 53-48 with 11 minutes to play, but that’s as close as the Illini got. Every time they clawed to within two possessions of Nebraska, the Huskers had an answer.

Freshman point guard Glynn Watson Jr. was brilliant for Nebraska, scoring 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting. Watson is the younger brother of former Illinois standout Demetri McCamey, and he replicated his brother’s shooting stroke for several backbreaking second half jumpers that helped halt Illini comeback attempts. Watson went to St. Joseph High in Westchester, Illinois, and tied his career-high Saturday in his return to his home state.

Watson’s teammate and fellow Chicago-area native Ed Morrow Jr. scored six points and grabbed six rebounds in his own personal homecoming. Shavon Shields had an inefficient 17 points on 5-of-17 shooting, and Kansas transfer Andrew White III came alive in the second half to finish with 21 points and 13 rebounds on the afternoon.

Hill ended with 17 points and seven assists, and Kendrick Nunn added 15 points for the Illini. But poor team shooting — 11-for-37 on 3-pointers and just 39 percent on all field goals — failed to mask a lackluster defensive effort.

For this year’s Illini team, this game felt like a fork in the road going in. It feels even more like one looking back on the result. Illinois could have taken care of business and established a foundation for a conference play recovery with a lighter schedule looming, but it reverted back to the same inconsistent play that has doomed them most of the year.

Groce said after the game that they didn’t like the pattern this season has followed after turning in another dud immediately after a positive showing. He pointed out the same thing happened following the Providence, Iowa State and Ohio State games and questioned unnamed players’ mental toughness. Freshman forward Michael Finke said immaturity might be to blame, and it’s impossible to ignore the injuries that have completely re-shaped the roster and decimated defense and rebounding.

But the unfortunate pattern Groce referred to isn’t limited to his fourth season. The inconsistency has been there every year. This is a program that was No. 10 in the country in Groce’s first year before starting Big Ten play 2-7 and rebounding to finish that season trending upward. In his second year, the Illini started 13-2, lost eight straight then rose up again, finishing a missed floater in the Big Ten Tournament shy of making the NCAA tournament. Last season’s team crumbled to a new low, dropping their last three games in embarrassing fashion just a few weeks after winning at Final Four-bound Michigan State.

One of the Illini’s biggest problems during the John Groce era — aside from bad luck and injuries — persisted Saturday: Nobody knows what to expect when Illinois takes the floor.

This year’s Illini proved against Purdue that they’re capable of putting together a game plan and executing against a good team. But now they have to show they can do that somewhat consistently, and a home loss to Nebraska only raises more doubt.

Alex is a junior in AHS.

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