Toughness is a thing John Groce has prided his team on throughout the season. It's a word he uses a lot.
So when his Illini didn't show that toughness and lost a third straight game Wednesday night in Champaign, the coach was upset.
"They were tougher than us physically, and they threw us around like a bunch of rag dolls," Groce said after a 66-58 to Purdue. "And our guys better figure out very quickly the physical toughness that's required on the backboard.
"We got abused on the backboard. And give them all the credit. They knocked us around on the backboard. And then we turned it over three more times than they did. We probably needed to play with our customary seven, eight, nine. And we had 12. And that was the difference in the game. You look at the points, 17 second-chance points off 16 offensive rebounds. And then what were the points off turnovers? Thirteen to seven, Purdue. So they're plus-six and plus-12. That's plus-18, and you lose the game by eight. It's literally that simple."
While Purdue didn't do it on the back of one guy, out-rebounding the Illini 42-28, A.J. Hammons' dominance was the glaring stand out from Wednesday night's game. The Illini, a team that doesn't have too much size, couldn't do much of anything to stop the Boilermakers' seven-footer. Hammons finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and a trio of blocks. And he showed up big in crunch time, too. After a pair of huge 3-pointers gave Purdue a three-point lead with fewer than four minutes remaining, Hammons went on to control the ball and the game, scoring three points, grabbing three rebounds and blocking one shot over the next two and a half minutes to keep the Illini on the losing end of the score.
But no matter whether it was Hammons or someone else, Groce wasn't happy. And rightfully so. His forwards — Nnanna Egwu, Jon Ekey and Maverick Morgan — combined for nine rebounds. Meanwhile, Purdue forwards — Hammons, Basil Smotherman, Errick Peck and Jay Simpson — totaled 24.
"What I am concerned about is our lack of physical toughness on the backboard. It's unacceptable. Unacceptable. That we allowed that to happen at that level," Groce said. "So we better figure it out pretty quick. Obviously, we've got another one on Saturday, and they're a very good rebounding team as well. And if we're not physical and we're not tough, they can do the same thing to us on the backboard. So we've got to get that sured up between now and Saturday."
That Saturday opponent is Michigan State, the fourth-ranked team in the country. And whether injured big man Adreian Payne plays or not, the Spartans have plenty of rebounding prowess. They rank as the third-best rebounding team in the Big Ten, out-rebounding opposing teams by an average of almost six boards a game.
But perhaps more concerning for Groce than what he saw Wednesday night was the several different ways in which the Illini have fell during a now three-game losing streak. In games against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Purdue, the Illini have done something poorly. And for the coach, the problem is it hasn't been the same thing twice.
"In the three losses we haven't put the whole deal together," he said. "In the first one we weren't very good at all on either end of the floor. I thought the second one we were lights out on defense, I mean terrific. ... We defended our tails off. So that part was good. The offensive wasn't. The execution was good, we didn't convert enough plays in that game. (Wednesday), I just didn't think we were physically tough enough. So I think the thing that's a little bit disconcerting is for me that I'm concerned about is that it's been a different thing each game. It'd be one thing if it's the same thing. ... At some point we've got to have some consistency in what we're doing."