Barfknecht: Illini hope collapse is behind them

Illinois coach John Groce said his team can’t worry about the past. “We’ve had good practices the past couple of days, so I think they’re looking forward,” he said.

The last time we checked in with the Illinois men’s basketball team, everything was sweetness and light.

Entering the third week of December, the Fighting Illini were 12-0 and ranked No. 10 nationally under first-year coach John Groce. The start was the sixth best at a school with a lot of good history.

Since then, things haven’t been so wonderful.

Illinois comes to Nebraska on Tuesday night after going 2-5 in its past seven games. The Illini (14-5, 1-4) are on a three-game skid with losses by 17 points at home to Minnesota, 23 points at Wisconsin and 14 points at home to Northwestern.

So what happened?

The first place to look is the 3-point line. When Illinois was 12-0, it was No. 1 nationally in 3-pointers made per game at 10 and was shooting 38.6 percent from behind the arc.

The past seven games, the Illini have averaged five made 3s a game and shot 25.4 percent.

The defense hasn’t been up to par, either, Groce said, noting: “If we continue to defend this way, the result will not change.”

Effort isn’t the issue, he said. It’s poor execution in guarding the 3-point line and pressuring the man with the ball.

Now, let’s discuss the elephant in the room.

Last season, Illinois had a similar hot start, then melted down in Big Ten play, losing 12 of its final 14 conference games.

The most embarrassing loss in that slide occurred at the Devaney Center.

Nebraska, in its only win in last season’s final six weeks, hammered the Illini 80-57. The visitors were so emotionally raw and shaken that day that center Meyers Leonard cried on the bench in the second half. Some teammates wept in the locker room after the game.

The miserable end to the season led to coach Bruce Weber’s firing, leaving Illini fans hoping for a clean slate.

But are the bad memories and scar tissue from last year’s league season contributing to current problems?

“I don’t really know,” Groce said. “I can guess. I would hope not. I would hope we would be tougher than that.

“If we’re sitting here thinking what happened five years ago or four years ago or two years ago or one year ago has anything to do with tomorrow night’s game, then we’re not nearly tough enough.”

Yet four starters and nine letter winners are back from the team with all of those bad memories. Groce says his players have to choose whether to look ahead or behind.

“I can talk to them about that,” he said. “And I can try to exemplify that myself.

“But at the end of the day, that’s a conscious choice each individual makes — whether to look through the front windshield and keep the car moving forward or whether to look in that rearview mirror.”

Illinois players should expect no hand-holding from Groce in dealing with 2012’s demons.

“Tough guys understand that you’ve got to get to the next play, get to the next game, get to the next practice,” he said. “We’ve had good practices the past couple of days, so I think they’re looking forward.”

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