- Associated Press - Monday, March 23, 2015

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - Players and coaches share the blame for the collapse that left Illinois out of the NCAA Tournament and at home after a quick exit from the National Invitation Tournament, Illini coach John Groce said Monday.

Illinois (19-14, 9-9 Big Ten) handled injuries and suspensions to make the most of its first 31 and a half games, right up until halftime of the regular-season finale at Purdue, Groce said.

From that point on the “toughness and togetherness” he so often preaches disappeared, Groce said.

“Who’s responsible for that? Me, and everybody who’s involved,” Groce said. “Certainly not blaming that exclusively on the players.”

Illinois entered the Purdue game with a shot at the NCAA Tournament, and even after that loss headed to the Big Ten Tournament knowing it still had a chance with a win or two. But a first-round loss to Michigan left the Illini in the NIT, where they were blown out by an Alabama team that had just seen its coach, Anthony Grant, fired.

The three losses to close the season left some fans on social media and sports talk radio questioning the direction Illinois is headed under a third-year coach who until not long ago most seemed to love.

Groce said he understands their disappointment.

“One of the great things about basketball here is people care a great deal,” he said.

He isn’t sure yet whether any of the 11 underclassmen on the roster might transfer, but says he’ll get a better idea after he starts meeting with players next week.

The team will lose three seniors: guard Rayvonte Rice, who was Illinois’ leading scorer and rebounder; guard Ahmad Starks, who frequently handled point guard duties; and starting center and defensive standout Nnanna Egwu.

Point guard Tracy Abrams is expected to return from the knee injury that kept him out all season, as is 6-8 forward Darius Paul, who spent the season at a Texas junior college after pleading guilty to underage drinking. A resisting arrest charge was dropped but he had also previously failed two team drug tests.

Groce didn’t name names, but said he’ll be looking to some of his returning players to establish themselves as team leaders.

“We’ve got guys now that have been here two, three years that need to step up in the leadership department,” he said.

The team will travel to Belgium and France in August for a handful of exhibition games.

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