Illinois hopes to end losing streak against Iowa

By Johnathan Hettinger

Iowa presents one of the toughest matchups in the Big Ten.

The Hawkeyes, one of the biggest teams in the conference, have four starters 6-foot-6 or taller and lead the Big Ten in rebounding. They’ve played 10 players at least nine minutes a game in conference play. None of the contributors are freshmen. They shoot the three well, but not often, because they don’t need it. They play more up-tempo than in any other team in the conference and lead the Big Ten in scoring.

“As I watch them, I think they play the game the right way,” Illinois head coach John Groce said. “They’re older. They’re mature. They’re experienced.”

But in his team’s week off, Groce didn’t want to focus on Iowa heading into Saturday’s game at State Farm Center.

His team, which is mired in a six-game losing streak, had too many problems that required too much attention.

“This week we’ve been able to refresh our bodies a little bit and spend more time on us,” Groce said.

He is currently presiding over the worst offense by an Illinois men’s basketball team in the 3-point era, and he used this week to help get the offense in order.

“We’ve done a lot of different things,” Groce said. “We’re fully aware that our offense needs to get better. We’ve worked at that this week — hard.

Going up against one of the most experienced team in the country, Groce has called on the five veterans on his young team to step up.

“We have to bat about 80 percent,” Groce said, saying four of the five veterans have to have a solid game for the Illini to compete in conference play.

While the veterans haven’t been performing up to par, Groce said he’s been happy with the contributions of the freshmen — but they’re still freshmen.

Point guard Jaylon Tate has been one of the top freshmen for the Illini, and he stepped up Sunday when starting point guard Tracy Abrams was limited to 13 minutes because of persistent back spasms. In Abrams’ absence, Tate facilitated the Illini offense but Groce said he made too many freshman mistakes.

“He’s the best now,” Groce said. “He’ll come in and watch more film. He wants to work. He’s learning. It bothers him more than it bothers anyone.”

Groce said Abrams has suffered from back spasms all season, but Sunday was the first time they surfaced during a game. He said Abrams has been solid in practice and he is expected to be able to play Saturday.

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.