By Chris Emma-

CHICAGO (CBS) — Of all places for John Groce to go after a devastating Big Ten Tournament second-round loss that surely crushed any remaining NCAA Tournament hopes, the Illinois coach pulled a Christmas Vacation reference.

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Yes, really.

Hanging his head in dejected fashion after the Michigan Wolverines manhandled his Fighting Illini in a 73-55 contest on Thursday afternoon at the United Center, Groce was asked about his team’s effort. There was a scene in the classic Christmas movie in which Clark Griswold failed in illuminating his extravagant lighting display.

So Groce pointed to this in his postgame presser.

He worked really hard, Grandma.

So do washing machines.

I was the only one in the media room to chuckle at the reference. Groce maintained that trademark scowl.

There was deeper meaning behind this quirky reference, something later explained to this slow-witted reporter. Groce believed his Illini gave their best effort, putting it all on the line in a game they needed for any shot at the tournament.

Illinois worked hard, like a washing machine. That’s their job. They didn’t do it well enough in a 19-13 season.

“We’re all going to have to look ourselves in the mirror and own this one,” Groce later said.

The mirror is the perfect place for Groce to start his evaluation. This was an Illini team made to do more. Groce just finished his third season in Champaign, and his teams don’t seem to be improving. He led a team largely built by Bruce Weber to the NCAA Tournament in his first season and followed that with an NIT appearance last season.

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Barring the selection committee sniffing glue between now and Sunday, the Illini are headed back to the Not Invited Tournament.

Plenty of chances presented themselves to the Illini this season, but they were far too inconsistent. In an early January win over Maryland, Illinois made a major statement. Even just two weeks ago against Northwestern, Illinois looked to be playing at its peak and rounding into form.

But the Illini couldn’t consistently play to their potential. Pin that on Groce.

What makes it more perplexing is this team was built by Groce. He brought in Rayvonte Rice, whose season was spoiled by an injury and three-game suspension. Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill were highly regarded out of high school, as was the inherited senior center Nnanna Egwu.

This was the year when Groce’s impact was supposed to reveal itself, when his vision for building Illinois a perennial Big Ten contender would be glimpsed. Instead, this group bowed out as the 8-seed to injury-mangled Michigan.

The Illini were such a favorite, a win wouldn’t have even helped its resume. Instead, the Wolverines had their way.

“We didn’t have any answers for stopping them,” Groce said.

Added Hill: “They kicked our ***.”

Coming to Champaign for next season is another solid recruiting class, with 247Sports four-stars Jalen Coleman-Lands, D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan offering reason for promise. But will it really matter if Groce fails to turn potential into results?

Perhaps the effort was there, but that doesn’t matter. Illinios failed to meet expectations this season. With one final chance to salvage those tournament hopes, the Illini got trounced.

But hey, Christmas Vacation was a great movie.

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Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.