Sunday’s loss a breaking point for Illinois basketball

Losers of five of their last six games entering a rematch against Wisconsin, the Illini men’s basketball team desperately needed to right the ship, at home, against the only unranked team they would face in a five game stretch spanning two weeks.

5110a14571e72.image

If you’ve followed Illinois basketball in recent years, there should have been no surprise at the ensuing events. The Illini and the Badgers gritted through a tight first half, Illinois failing to capitalize on multiple opportunities to build a lead, before Wisconsin used a 10-2 run to close the half.

Illinois benefited from two missed free throws from Ben Brust to start the half and Badger center Jared Berggren picking up his third foul with less than a minute into the second half. The Illini cut the lead to five and looked to be surging. Tracy Abrams forced a turnover and an Illinois breakaway to send Assembly Hall into a frenzy ... until Myke Henry missed the dunk.

Brust nailed a trey out of the ensuing media timeout, Brandon Paul carelessly turned the ball over, Illinois gave up an offensive rebound on the resulting layup, fouled and sent Mike Bruesewitz to the line. Paul missed a three on the Illini’s next trip, and another Badger three extended the lead to 13.

Those opening minutes, a five-and-a-half-minute stretch, essentially summed up Illinois in a nutshell. Flashes of talent and glimmers of hope prefacing a precipitous implosion.

The Illini couldn’t come up with the defensive stops needed to crawl back in the game, their leaking sieve of a defense allowing the Badgers just their second 70-point outing in Big Ten play (with the only other time being against, you guessed it, Illinois!).

“We just gotta play harder,” center Nnanna Egwu said following the loss. “I think that’s the main thing. You just gotta go back to practice, keep practicing the same things. And at the end of the day, it’s just kinda like Coach Groce has been saying since the beginning of the year. It’s a mentality. At some point, you can’t let it be acceptable for them to score the way they did.”

But when will that point be? When will that mentality kick in?

It looked like Illinois had turned a corner under Groce’s new direction this season during its 12-0 start, but the Illini have regressed to the mean and far beneath it during this string of losses.

Egwu was right: At some point, someone will have to step up and say enough is enough. Groce can’t do it. It has to come from within. It has to come from a player, or group of players, to set the standard, to finally be so fed up with Illinois’ national perception of a laughingstock, an annual joke which will reliably falter during conference play.

Mentality starts at the top, and it may simply be that this group of seniors doesn’t have it in them. It’s certainly something they have never shown over the course of their careers to this point.

There’s a scene early in “Batman Begins” when Carmine Falcone, the mob boss in Gotham City, tells a young Bruce Wayne about the disparity of Gotham, “Sometimes ... sometimes things just go bad.”

He might as well have been speaking about the state of the Illini because for the second season in a row, it’s gone bad.

And Sunday was the breaking point.

Daniel can be reached at millerm1@dailyillini.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danielmillermc.