CHAMPAIGN — Illinois is not playing well on defense this season. And John Groce is sick of it.
“I’ve shared with you before the Will Rogers quote: ‘Some people learn by listening, seeing, doing or by peeing on the electric fence,’” Groce said Wednesday night. “I’m tired of the last one.”
Yet again, Wednesday, Groce’s team couldn’t stop an opposing offense. This time it was Notre Dame, which shot 57.1 percent and scored 51 points in the second half, dominating the final 20 minutes en route to handing Illinois an 84-79 defeat in the grand opening of a renovated State Farm Center.
Yes, the Illini offense deserved plenty of the blame for this latest loss — the team’s fifth of the season in only eight tries — shooting a hideous 35.1 percent from the field in the second half, missing all but three of the first 21 shots it put up in the period.
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But Groce’s ire was directed squarely at what he called an “unacceptable” defensive effort.
“At the end of the day, our defense was not good enough,” Groce said. “It was bad in the second half. I thought we made a lot of mistakes. I thought we did not defend the 3-point line very well. I’m getting tired of saying it, the guys have got to start doing it. I thought we ran in at the ball. I thought our gap help was poor. I thought we left shooters. I just didn’t think it was very good. At all.
“When you give up 50-some points (in a half) … it’s unacceptable. It’s not good enough. These guys know that.”
Groce was certainly frustrated by Wednesday’s performance, but it’s putting that performance in the context of the rest of the season that seemed to upset him further.
The Illini started off the season with poor defensive play against weak competition. Twice in the first four games, Illinois allowed its opponent to shoot 50 percent or better from the field. Illini foes hit 11 or more 3-pointers in four of the first five games. Just twice through the season’s first eight games has an Illinois opponent failed to score 74 points.
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But things looked like they might have been getting better during last week’s Emerald Coast Classic. The Illini looked as good as they have all season in a win over UAB, and they impressed by hanging tight with No. 4 Iowa State before losing by only nine. The defense was better in those games, too, particularly against UAB.
That progress, though, was nowhere to be found Wednesday night against Notre Dame. And while the Irish — like the Cyclones before them — can really score the basketball, the Illini’s defensive play wasn’t up to where Groce thought it should have been after seeing what was possible last week in Florida.
“Guys have got to answer the bell on the defensive end,” he said. “And what was disappointing was that a lot of the mistakes we made, I thought we had left — you always have one or two, nobody’s perfect — but I thought we’d left a lot of those in the dust two to three weeks ago. The way we defended in Florida was much different than the way we defended in the second half today, and that’s disappointing.”
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The problems were many, and you read Groce’s laundry list of things that didn’t go right from a defensive perspective. But in addition to the Xs and Os, Groce pointed to a lack of focus and a lack of intelligent play, not following the game plan.
“What upsets me is when we make mistakes — game plan, scouting mistakes, system mistakes that shouldn’t be made regardless of whether we’re playing Notre Dame or somebody else,” he said.
So what’s the fix? Surely if it was easy, it would’ve been done before the Illini let a 10-point second-half lead slip away in a hurry on Wednesday night.
But one thing’s for sure, Groce is sick of peeing on the electric fence.
“I need to do a better job,” he said rather bluntly.