Four straight losses. It's a new experience for the Illini under John Groce.
Granted, the Groce Era is just a year and a half old, but still, the Illini are trending in the wrong direction in the thick of Big Ten play.
Illinois started its conference schedule with back-to-back wins, besting Indiana in overtime before blowing out Penn State. It even earned the team a top-25 ranking. But it's been a nightmare ever since: a 25-point loss at Wisconsin, an upset loss at Northwestern, a loss at home to Purdue that infuriated Groce and the most recent defeat: Saturday's 78-62 loss to No. 4 Michigan State.
"We've got some work to do," Groce said following Saturday's game in Champaign. "We're six rounds in, 12 rounds left."
A defensively oriented team all season, the Illini have been offensively inept during this skid. They currently rank as the Big Ten's second-lowest scoring team with just 69.3 points per game. They've averaged just 54.3 in the past three games, and that low-scoring trend would stretch back to the loss at Wisconsin had the Badgers' massive lead not led to a high-scoring second half. But the defense is slipping, too. Rebounding totals have strongly favored both Purdue and Michigan State in the past two games, and three of these four losses have ended with the opposing team dropping point totals well above the Illini's season average for points allowed (which currently is 63.7).
And things could get worse before they get better. Next up? Ohio State on Thursday.
If there's a silver lining to this rough patch, it's that the Illini have been in a similar situation quite recently. This four-game losing streak is a first under Groce, but just last season Illinois played a stretch that saw it finish loser in seven of nine games to open Big Ten play. The Illini responded, rattling off five straight wins, kicked off with an upset of No. 1 Indiana. The streak turned around the season and got the Illini to the NCAA tournament.
It's what Groce is hoping his team can do this year, and he said he's confident his upperclassmen — Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand and Nnanna Egwu — will respond as they did after last year's rough patch. And his team, or at the least those veterans, have displayed that mentality. Asked whether it's hard to stay positive during a period of losing, Abrams said no way.
"It's not difficult at all, it's a long season," Abrams said Saturday. "Like coach said, we've got 12 rounds left. We aren't going to get too high and we aren't going to get too low. Just going to keep grinding."