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January 16, 2014

Despite struggles, Groce says he won't make big changes

CHAMPAIGN - John Groce is a man who sticks to his plan. But the Illinois coach's plan hasn't worked during the last nine days.

Following a 66-58 loss to Purdue (12-5, 2-2 Big Ten) on Wednesday, Illinois (13-5, 2-3) has lost three straight Big Ten games and - with a five-game stretch that includes four top-14 teams and a trip to Indiana - it is in danger of a lengthy Big Ten free fall.

Granted, Groce's players were in position to win their last two games. But the Illini shot 28.1 percent (on a normal number of good shot attempts) in a 49-43 loss to Northwestern on Sunday. The Illini also left nine possible points on the court by missing the front end of three one-and-one opportunities and going 1-for-6 from the line during the closing minutes.

Not much a coach can do about those things.

Yet, a coach does control the scouting, substitution patterns and playing-time disbursement. Despite the losing streak, Groce said he won't change his approach heading into Saturday's primetime tipoff with No. 4 Michigan State (16-1, 5-0).

Why? The Illini coach said there is no constant team problem during the losses against Wisconsin (defense), Northwestern (making shots) and Purdue (rebounding).

"The thing I think that is a little disconcerting for me that I'm a little concerned about is that it's been a different thing each game," Groce said. "It'd be one thing if it was the same thing. We've got to put it all together, which we have at certain times especially late in the nonconference. I thought we were starting to become a complete basketball team.

"At some point we have to have some consistency at what we're doing."

It better be soon. Illinois started the Big Ten 2-7 last season only to bounce back to make the NCAA Tournament. But with the gauntlet that lies ahead and a shallower, less experienced roster, Groce might have to pull off some magic for Illinois to make its second straight trip to Match Madness.

Starters struggle

With a bench of five freshmen, Illinois was expected to rely on its starters. That becomes a problem, however, when those starters struggle.

Leading scorer Ray Rice has been slowed during Big Ten play, most recently by a groin strain. He is shooting 33.8 percent from the field during the five conference games, including 25.0 percent the past two games since suffering the injury.

Illinois' frontline starting post players, Nnanna Egwu and Jon Ekey, on Wednesday combined to shoot 2-for-14 (2-for-8 from three) for six points. They also combined to grab eight rebounds as Illinois was outrebounded 23-7 in the second half (42-28 for the game).

"That's unacceptable," Groce said. "They were tougher than us physically, and they threw us around like a bunch of ragdolls. Our guys better figure out pretty quickly the physical toughness that's required on the backboard."

Ekey was a nonfactor for most of the game until he hit two key threes late in the game to keep the Illini alive. The Illinois State transfer and the Illini's most dangerous sharpshooter during nonconference play is averaging 5.8 points per game and 6.0 rebounds during Big Ten play, and shooting 31.3 percent from the field including 29.2 percent from three.

Egwu was held scoreless for the first time since Jan. 12, 2013, and shot 0-for-7, including 0-for-3 from three. Egwu is now shooting 13-for-49 (26.5 percent) over his last six games, including 0-for-11 from three.

Many want the 6-foot-11 center to stop chucking up the longballs. The difficult part for Groce: Egwu makes threes in practice and he's taking open threes in games but they're not going in during games.

While Egwu's offensive struggles could earn him a spot on some benches, his defensive presence (three blocks, two steals and several deflections on Wednesday) keep him on the court.

"He's just got to stay with it," Groce said. "That kid, he works so hard. Geez, boy. He's just got to stay with it. He just has to kind of hang in there.

"This is probably a little unchartered territory for him. He knows he's not playing as well as he's capable of, but he's a big part [of the team]. The thing that doesn't show up on the stat sheet that he does particularly well … just so many things he covers up for our team defensively off the ball with his size, length and mobility that don't show up on the stat sheet."

Freshmen use

The Illinois bench is less productive than and as inefficient offensively as any Big Ten bench this season. Following are the bench usage percentage and bench points per game of each Big Ten team.

Bench minutes percentage/Bench points per game

Purdue: 43.1 percent/30.5 ppg

Iowa: 41.4 percent/35.9 ppg

Indiana: 34.7 percent/24.8 ppg

MSU: 30.9 percent/22.3 ppg

Ohio State: 30.7 percent/22.2 ppg

Nebraska: 29.9 percent/21.8 ppg

Northwestern : 29.8 percent/19.2 ppg

Michigan: 29.4 percent/19.8 ppg

Minnesota: 27.5 percent/22.1 ppg

Illinois: 25.6 percent/13.2 ppg

Penn State: 22.9 percent/15.0 ppg

Wisconsin: 21.5 percent/15.4 ppg

Yet a few of the five freshmen reserves have shown glimpses of growth, which was evident Wednesday.

Shooting guard Kendrick Nunn began showing defensive progress last month but has upped his offensive game lately, scoring eight points Wednesday and hitting two three-pointers. He is the Illini's fourth leading scorer during Big Ten play with a 6.6 point per game clip. Yet, he played few minutes down the stretch when Illinois needed baskets.

Freshman Malcolm Hill has been radically inconsistent this season but has had little opportunity to improve on the court lately, accumulating five or fewer minutes in seven of the last nine games. He made the most of his time Wednesday putting up seven points and five rebounds in 10 first-half minutes. But mysteriously, Groce played Hill just three minutes in the second half even though Hill was the team's most effective rebounder and gave the offense a boost. He stuck with Ekey as the Illini were crushed on the glass.

"Well, we went with the older guys late," Groce said. "But I loved how [Hill] played. I thought he was great on the glass. He competed.

"Both him and Kendrick, they had a swagger about them that I liked. We just got to continue building on that. I like the progress those guys are making."

Hill isn't a natural fit at the "four" position, but he produced on Wednesday and deserved more tick in given Ekey's struggles. For a team struggling offensively, the prolific scorer from Belleville East should be given more time to develop because he has the ability to provide a boost the team so sorely needs.

Unlike the Hill vs. Ekey argument, backup center Maverick Morgan, despite improvements, is not a feasible replacement for Egwu. Morgan doesn't add much offensively and is not much more than a big body defensively at this point in his career. With Egwu on the bench, Purdue attacked Morgan to get easy buckets on the rim. Illinois simply must hope for Egwu to figure it out.

Groce needs answers. He simply doesn't have many available. That's the risk he took when adding three transfers: Aaron Cosby, Darius Paul and Ahmad Starks. The plan was for Starks to play this season and give the Illini a much-needed shooter and ballhandler. But the NCAA's decision to deny his hardship waiver crushed Illinois' depth. It's also tough seeing Cosby, a sharpshooter from Seton Hall, and Paul, a post player from Western Michigan, sitting at the end of the bench when the Illini so sorely need them.

Despite the struggles, Groce shouldn't pack it in, chalk this up to a "rebuilding year" (which it always has been) and give all the playing time for freshmen. His job is to win games, and Illinois still has an opportunity to bounce back, like they did last season, no matter how remote the possibility seems.

The saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Illinois isn't broke yet. But indeed Illinois is in danger of seeing its season shattered. Groce might need some alternative routes if he doesn't want his team to keep going down the current, treacherous path.

Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at espncu.com. You can contact him at jeremy@espncu.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU

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