CHAMPAIGN — The loss at Wisconsin on Saturday was dismal, but that was on the road against a team with an undefeated Big Ten record.
Things got worse Thursday night at Assembly Hall with a 68-54 debacle against Northwestern (11-7, 2-3 Big Ten), an opponent playing without its injured star and with one of the worst records in the conference.
After a 12-0 start that provided so many in Champaign with reason for hope, the team has lost three in a row and five of its last seven games.
This is all too familiar to Illinois fans.
The Illini (14-5, 1-4) had hoped to inspire more confidence after a winless Big Ten football season and last season's basketball collapse that led to the firing of Bruce Weber as the team lost 12 of its last 14 games and missed the NCAA tournament.
Groce had challenged his player's "manhood" in practices after Wisconsin, he said.
He used a new starting lineup for the first time this season, inserting Sam McLaurin for Tyler Griffey at forward. Forward Mike Shaw and guard Mike LaTulip saw earlier playing time.
But none of it added up a victory.
Groce had asked to see more from his captains, but Tracy Abrams shot 3-for-9, D.J. Richardson made only 2-for-9. Brandon Paul led the Illini with 21 points on 9-for-16 shooting, but he made only 2-for-6 3-pointers.
McLaurin finished with six points.
Illinois defense was shredded by Northwestern's perimeter shooting (8-for-16 on 3-pointers) and backdoor shots as Reggie Hearn led the Wildcats with 22 points and Jared Swopshire added 12.
Offensively, the Illini turned the ball over 19 times and hit only 3 of 20 3-pointers. This from a team that once led the nation in 3-point shooting.
The Illini have now shot only 8-for-58 from the perimeter in the last three games.
With renewed fight in the second half, Illinois staged an impressive comeback attempt.
The game was filled with intensity as an Orange Krush fan was ejected, Groce earned his first technical foul of the season, and the Illini were assessed with another technical after Nnanna Egwu was tagged for illegally defending an inbounds pass.
But for too much of the game their intensity was missing on the court.
The Illini had trailed by as many as 17 points in the first half but closed the gap to 50-41 with a little more than three minutes remaining but could not come up with an answer to push them closer.
Star of the game: Reggie Hearn, Northwestern, 20 points
Bertrand watch: No points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal in 22 minutes
Up next: Illinois at Nebraska, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (BTN)