The Daily Illini

Alabama rolls Illinois basketball in opening round of NIT


We’ve seen it before with this Illinois basketball team.

This season, it has become a common theme. Opponents hit them in the mouth, go on a run, the Illini fold and the game is essentially over. It just happened sooner than ever Tuesday night in an opening round NIT game against Alabama at the Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The Crimson Tide rolled Illinois as they jumped out to a 29-10 lead on their home floor and never looked back, winning 79-58 and ending the Illini’s 2014-15 season on a disappointing note. 

When ‘Bama forward Levi Randolph threw down a nasty first-half dunk over Illinois’ Kendrick Nunn, it symbolized how the game played out. Alabama soared, and much like Nunn, Illinois never got off the ground.

There isn’t much to say about this one from an Illinois perspective. It looked as if the Illini lost their will to compete in last Thursday’s Big Ten tournament loss to Michigan, and Tuesday’s Alabama game only furthered that notion. Their performance was as confounding as ever under a coach like Groce, who prides his team on “toughness and togetherness.”

There also isn’t any point in calling out individual players for this latest embarrassment. It was a complete failure from head coach on down.

It was an extremely disappointing ending for seniors Rayvonte Rice, Nnanna Egwu and Ahmad Starks. When the three represented the Illini at Big Ten Media Day in October, you could tell each of them had high expectations for his senior year in a college uniform. Unfortunately, those dreams came crashing down late in the first half of the final regular-season game against Purdue.

Ever since the five-minute mark of the first half in the regular-season finale against Purdue, Illinois pretty much forgot how to play basketball. In its final five halves of the season, the Illini were outscored by a 193-145 margin. Illinois finishes the year with a 19-14 record, falling shy of 20 wins for the first time in Groce’s three-year tenure.

I can’t really find words to describe it. It just doesn’t fit the narrative that Groce has scripted for most of his first three years as head coach, save for the final few games. The first half had a 2014 Chicago Bears vibe, where it was clear that the team was on autopilot.

So now Groce and his non-seniors have an entire offseason to ponder what went wrong. It remains to be seen if this late-season collapse will be damaging to the long-term health of the Groce era, or if it will just be a bump in the road that will be more than made up for by future success.

This Illini team gave fans hope early on in the season, but the way the year ended leaves fans just wishing they could forget.

Alex is a junior in AHS.

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