Big Ten

Poor defense in loss to Notre Dame an unfortunate trend for Illini

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Poor defense in loss to Notre Dame an unfortunate trend for Illini

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.

[MORE BIG TEN: Illini's housewarming party crashed in loss to Notre Dame]

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.

[MORE BIG TEN: Northwestern gets road win over Virginia Tech in overtime]

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.

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.