Last year, the Illini went to the NCAA tournament. They even won a game in the Big Dance.
But this season, after a seventh straight loss in Big Ten play Saturday, that destination looks far off for John Groce's group.
“They all hurt," Illinois senior guard Tracy Abrams said when asked if Saturday's loss hurt more than the previous six. "We’re competitors. It always hurts to lose, but at the same time, can’t keep worrying about the past. That’s over, and we’ve got to keep focusing on what we can do to get better, execute more and just be tough.”
What might hurt most is the Illini's last-place standing in the Big Ten following this latest loss. But all hope is not lost, and you just have to look at last year's team to realize it because the Illini had the exact same conference record through nine games last year as their 2-7 start this season.
Of course, those seven defeats in the first nine Big Ten contests of 2012-13 weren't consecutive, as this season's losses have been. But it was after that seventh conference loss a year ago that the Illini turned things completely around. After a 74-68 loss to Wisconsin in Champaign, Illinois rattled off five straight wins, finishing the regular season winners of six of the last nine games before adding a win in the conference tournament.
It's a different team this year, making whether or not that kind of turnaround can happen a legitimate question. But if this group of Illini is going to do it, it'll be because of the type of game they played Saturday against Iowa. Yeah, it ended in an 81-74 win for the Hawkeyes, but the Illini stormed back from a 21-point first-half deficit and held a lead in the latter stages of the game. It was the effort and determination that sparked the huge comeback that led to Groce telling his players to hold their heads high.
"That one stings just because of how hard our guys played. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of our toughness and togetherness in a loss since I’ve been coaching in six years as a head coach," Groce said after the game. "We’re disappointed, we’ll be the first to tell you that. We had our chances, a play or two here or there, catching the ball or taking care of the ball or not giving them an and-1. We did that a couple times late that were pivotal. But at the end of the day, as the coach of these guys here, I can live with that one. They fought their tails off. People want to ask me now, ask me every day, ‘Where are your guys at, how they feeling?’ I think they answered all your questions in about 30 minutes there. We fight here. It’s what we do."
The Ilini don't have the instant offense from the likes of Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson to carry them through a midseason turnaround like last season. But look to Saturday, when Illinois received offensive contributions from sources that haven't been scoring this year. Joseph Bertrand had 20 points, and freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill teamed up for 14 off the bench.
Illinois' problem during this losing streak had been scoring. That wasn't the case Saturday. If that can be a more permanent remedy, then perhaps a turnaround is still possible.
But what Groce is more concerned about is the toughness and the effort. And he was very pleased with it Saturday.
"I thought our guys really, really competed, played with a lot of toughness, a lot of togetherness. Really played with a lot of grit. I thought they fought for everything in the game," Groce said. "I told them in the locker room after the game that I’m proud of them, I love them. We’re going to get up tomorrow, and we’re going to continue to figure out how to duplicate that type of toughness, that type of togetherness, that type of effort that we had there for the last 30 minutes of the game. We’ve got to continue to build on that moving forward. I told them to hold their heads high. They’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about. They should be proud of how hard they played.
"We’re not into moral victories, I’m not saying that at all. But at the same time, we’re also an organization that worries about what we can control, and our attitude and our effort today was championship level. Unfortunately it didn’t turn out our way."