Commentary

This looks eerily familiar

Illinois' second-half fade is reminiscent of collapse that got Bruce Weber fired

Updated: January 31, 2013, 6:19 PM ET
By Scoop Jackson | ESPNChicago.com

John GroceAP Photo/Jeff RobersonJohn Groce knows how Bruce Weber felt last season when a hot start was followed by a collapse.
Spiral: 1. a plane curve generated by a point moving around a fixed point while constantly receding from or approaching it. 2. a helix. 3. a single circle or ring of a spiral or helical curve or object. 4. a spiral or helical object, formation, or form.

Tailspin: a sudden and helpless collapse into failure, confusion, or the like.

Choke: 1. to stop the breath of by squeezing or obstructing the windpipe; strangle; stifle.2. to stop by or as if by strangling or stifling. 3. to stop by filling; obstruct; clog. 4. to suppress (a feeling, emotion, etc.) (often followed by back or down) 5. to fill chock-full.

I asked a former member of the regionally (not world) famous '89 Flying Illini (whose name I am holding hostage -- once you read his response, you will understand why) what he thought the problem with this Illini basketball team seemed to be.

"Unfortunately," he responded in his text, "these are the same soft-a-- cats who got Weber fired. Straight front-runners who can't handle adversity. Teams have them scouted out. Might have to sneak into the Dance."

We've seen it before. Just last year. When the men's basketball team representing the University of Illinois opened up the season on a blaze only to self-implode once they hit the back nine, 10-0 before losing 15 of their last 21. This season: Deja vu.

Illinois was 13-1 in November and December. A start that lifted the team to a No. 10 ranking in the nation. Now less than four weeks later, they are barely the 10th-ranked team in their conference (No. 9 in the Big Ten).

A team that was supposed to give Michigan and Indiana a run for the Big Ten chip is on pace to play in or possibly miss the NIT.

Heading into Thursday's game against Michigan State, they're 15-6 and 2-5 in the Big Ten.

Spiral. Tailspin. Choke?

How it went so bad so bad so fast is the question that coach John Groce's team can't escape. The man who was brought in this season to exorcise the Bruce Weber demons finds himself with 14 Linda Blairs on his roster and his head is spinning. Groce has to find a way to stop this team from doing more damage to itself than any opponent can or has done.

The identifiers are evident on stat sheets, on game tape and in the eyes of the players who are beginning to search their souls trying to find a way to prove critics wrong.

"We've got to get a little tougher mentally," Groce told reporters after losing to Michigan on Sunday. Groce acknowledged that the core of their troubles comes down to a recent trend of anemic shooting. The Illini shot 37 percent in their loss to Michigan, 38 percent in their loss to Northwestern and 35 percent in their loss to Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeIllinois guard Brandon Paul
AP Photo/Darrell HoemannPoor shooting is the most glaring problem facing Brandon Paul and the Illini.
But dig deeper into Groce's preliminary prognosis of his squad's ills and the fact that the Illini are 11th in the Big Ten in defense, 10th in rebounding margin and 10th in assists might (collectively) prove just as damaging as the shots that aren't going in.

(Note: The Illini are 12-1 when scoring more than 70; 10-0 when they shoot better than 45 percent from the field; 12-0 when they're shooting percentage is better than their opponent's, so there's unarguable truth that poor shooting is at the root of their issues.)

So where does Groce start? What does he force Brandon Paul, Tracy Abrams and D.J. Richardson to see on the court to reverse the direction of this slide? What does he make Nnanna Egwu believe is the one thing he can do to become this team's savior?

Teams can get out of shooting slumps, but shooting slumps don't happen to the same team twice exactly one year apart. Shooting slumps don't follow teams from season to season. There's more to what's happening to the Illini basketball team than that. Either ball or (continue to) fall.

Are they really "soft" or "front-runners" as described earlier? Or are they just allergic to January this year the way they were to February last year when they went 1-6? Can this February be just as bad?

Can it be all so simple?

The 11 games left will prove to be either their gift or their curse. Either Groce's gift as a brilliant motivator of young men is going to prove true or the curse of Bruce Weber is going to haunt them until their last loss of the season.

After defeating Butler and putting the rest of the NCAA on early alert by claiming the Maui Invitational Title, Groce made a very interesting comment in a post-tournament interview that can be viewed as ... well, you decide:

"It's obviously a tremendous start for our basketball program. But we can still get better. As long as the guys in my locker room believe that, and they continue to give great effort and they've been very coachable. They want to be really good. They're fun to be around every day. As long as we stay humble and don't swallow the poison of success, I think we have a chance to play better basketball."

The buzzwords. Give great effort. Want to be really good. Stay humble. The poison of success. The answers. The solutions. They're all there. Been there since Game Six. Probably before.

Now how does Groce get this basketball team to buy into his what he's been trying to tell them all season ... and hit some damn shots in the process?

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist