Illinois Basketball: Are Illini Headed for a Repeat of Last Year's Collapse?

Todd ThorstensonAnalyst IJanuary 21, 2013

Jan 17, 2013; Champaign, IL, USA;  Illinois Fighting Illini forward Sam McLaurin (0) reacts after being called for a foul during the second half against the Northwestern Wildcats at Assembly Hall.  Northwestern defeated Illinois 68-54.  Mandatory Credit: Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports
Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

About a month ago, the Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team looked like they had put the past behind them as they plowed through their non-conference schedule en route to a 13-1 start under first-year coach John Groce.

They were ranked as high as 10th in the country and were being heralded as one of the surprise teams in all of college basketball.

Illini fans were starting to believe that just maybe this team was for real and had overcome the adversity of last season when they lost 12 of their final 14 games and missed yet another NCAA tournament.

Now I will say that most fans—myself included—were filled with guarded optimism because they had seen this type of start to the season before, only to see the Illini run away and hide when the Big Ten schedule came calling.

However, this year there was a new sheriff in town and his name was John Groce.  There was no way that they could repeat last year's Big Ten collapse.  That was all Bruce Weber's fault, but he was gone now right?

Well it certainly looked that way to begin the season.  They came out of the gates with something to prove and an attitude that wasn't there last year.  Groce had them playing inspired basketball as they took home the Maui Invitational title and knocked off current top 10 teams Butler and Gonzaga.

And even though the Big Ten conference was being billed as the best in the nation and the toughest it's been in years, the Illini definitely looked like they may be a surprise contender.

What a difference a month makes.

Heading into Tuesday's game with Nebraska the Illini stand at 1-4 in the conference and they haven't even hit the tough part of their schedule yet.

They've already lost two conference home games by an average of 15.5 points and one of those losses came at the hands of Northwestern.  Yes, that Northwestern, the same team that had won five of their previous 44 games at Assembly Hall. 

Their other two losses include a seven-point defeat to an average Purdue team and a 23-point blowout loss at the Kohl Center in Wisconsin, where nobody ever wins.

Not a good sign to say the least.

Everyone surrounding Illini basketball has begun to get that sinking feeling of "here we go again."

All of a sudden Illinois can't make a shot, can't play any defense and they just look lost on the court.

A team that was at one time leading the nation with over 10 made three-pointers per game has now gone 26 for their last 111 attempts from beyond the arc since entering Big Ten play—that's 23 percent in case you were wondering.

Defensively, they have now given up 65 points or more in six of the past seven games and just seem to have lost the intensity that was there early in the season.

The issues that many people pointed out prior to the season are starting to show up.

Having absolutely no inside game is now catching up to this team as they are no longer draining their outside shots.

That's a big problem.

Almost everyone that follows Illini basketball knew this team had its weaknesses, but I for one was encouraged by their aggressive play early on and thought that maybe they had turned the corner. 

I thought Groce had gotten through to them, but that may have been wishful thinking.

Honestly, I believe that Groce is a good coach and will prove that over time.  It just starts to make you wonder if this group of players, particularly the seniors, just don't have what it takes.

Groce stated after the Northwestern game that "everybody’s got to play better right now and everybody’s got to pick it up. It’s just the way that it is. No one’s going to feel sorry for you.”

He's right, but I'm not so sure that will make a difference.

Brandon Paul seems to be the only consistent threat that the Illini have at this point and when he isn't getting any help, it gets ugly.

And folks, it's starting to get ugly fast.