College Basketball Nation: D.J. Richardson

AUSTIN, Texas -- Somewhere lost in all the pomp, circumstance, inspirational montages and endless car commercials of the NCAA tournament is the little secret someone forgot to mention to Colorado and Illinois -- in order to win, you must put the ball in the basket with at least a modicum of regularity.

That's not to say the seventh-seeded Illini and No. 10 seed Buffaloes missed all their shots. But each did miss enough -- 11 straight for CU to end the first half; 14 in a row, including 11 3-pointers, for the Illini at the start of the second half -- to build unnecessary and frustrating drama into a game that could have been void of both. (Apparently it is in the contract of both teams that, since this is March, they must provide some madness. And boy, were the coaches plenty red in the face.)

But, finally, the drama came to a close, along with Colorado's season, as Illinois' 16-point lead -- built during CU's horrid shooting stretch -- was enough to withstand a 23-2 Buffaloes run -- made possible by the Illini's putrid shooting stretch -- to eke out a 57-49 win in the second round on Friday.

"It's easy to come back. It is hard to come back and win,'' CU coach Tad Boyle said. "Our scoring droughts are tough to deal with. We played well enough to win today. We just didn't play well enough down the stretch to win.''

It's hard to say Illinois (23-12) played well enough to win, either. The Illini shot 13 percent in the second half. But they pulled it out at the end.

[+] EnlargeTracy Abrams
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsTracy Abrams scored 13 for Illinois on 4-of-10 shooting, and added 6 assists and 4 rebounds.
"It was only fitting that the game was maybe as strange a game -- as far as the ebb and flow of it -- that I have been associated with this group,'' said Illinois coach John Groce. "We have done it the hard way with this group a lot.''

"We just find ways,'' said Illinois guard Tracy Abrams.

Now it is time for Illinois to try to find a way to win against Miami, which appears to be about as intimidating as Tony Montana. The Illini get the No. 2 seeded Hurricanes here in Austin on Sunday. So they get to deal with size -- three players of 6-foot-10 or better in the rotation; speed -- Shane Larkin moves like mercury on marble; and an experienced coach -- Jim Larranaga has been there, done that, with much less talent, just a few years ago at George Mason. It appears to be a daunting task for an Illinois program that slogged through the first nine games of its Big Ten schedule at 2-7. Miami started ACC play 13-0, by the way. Oh, and the Hurricanes had a 27-point win over then-No. 1 Duke.

"I know that they have got great size and they are going to play very hard,'' Groce said.

Illinois had its win over a No. 1, too, beating Indiana 74-72 on Feb. 7. So the Fighting Illini are capable. But they also need to be held culpable for their errors. It was those errors -- all 14 of them in a row -- plus a couple of turnovers, that might leave some wondering just how big a mismatch Sunday will be. (Did anyone mention Miami won 78-49 and had nine guys score in the first half against Pacific on Friday? Well, it did.)

OK, there are a few glimmers of hope. Illini guard Brandon Paul didn't improve his shooting percentage -- he is a 40 percent guy -- but did make 9 of 10 free throws, five of which helped seal the game. In fact, for as bad as the Illini were from the field (30.8 percent), they were solid from the line (70.8 percent).

"D.J. [Richardson] was in my ear, telling me to just keeping fighting,'' Paul said.

Then there was the defense and the rebounding. Illinois has now held two tournament teams under 50 points in its past three games -- Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament and Colorado (21-12) on Friday. The Illini, despite giving up 14 rebounds to Josh Scott, were able to win the battle of the boards 37-36. And that was crucial in a game where misses were rampant -- and will be crucial again against the taller, thicker Hurricanes.

Illinois proved it could close. After failing so miserably from the field and falling behind, the Illini finished on an 18-5 run. One might say that they looked into the abyss and didn't blink. Miami looms large; if they can look at the Ibis and do the same, they just might be OK.

CHICAGO -- Quick reaction to Indiana's 80-64 win over Illinois on Friday.

Overview: When Indiana's offense is clicking, when it is breaking opponents down with spacing and fluid ball movement, there is no more entertaining and (for opposing defenses, at least) fearsome sight in basketball.

That was the state of the Hoosiers' attack for almost all of Indiana's second-round Big Ten win over Illinois, but especially in the first half, when IU opened up a 22-7 lead in the first 12 minutes and went into the locker room leading 35-21. The Hoosiers were doing what they do: flipping the ball around the perimeter, finding easy shots and lanes to the bucket and creating turnovers and long rebounds on the other end, which they quickly turned into fast-break points.

But for a few pushes in the second half, Indiana controlled the game, riding its typically brilliant offense to yet another impressive win.

Turning point: As expected -- because most Big Ten games are apparently incapable of happening without at least some measure of suspense -- the game tightened in the second half. With less than nine minutes to play, Illinois cut IU's lead to just eight points. Anyone who saw Illinois' comeback win in Champaign in February had to assume something similar was in store. Instead, IU got a handful of stops, Victor Oladipo finished a pretty drop-off pass from Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford hit a 3 from the wing, and the Hoosiers were back in charge 65-52. They handled their business the rest of the way.

Key player: Cody Zeller. The Indiana center had 14 points (on 6-of-8 from the field) and six rebounds in the first half Thursday. He dominated Illinois' overmatched bigs in the half court and beat them down the floor in the fast break, something he does better than any big man in the country. Zeller finished with 24 points and nine rebounds on 9-of-11 from the field, and that only scratches the surface of the kind of game he had. Oladipo blew everyone's mind with a late 360-degree dunk, and drew the standing ovation and a long chant when he left the court, but Zeller was just as good.

Key stat: Not only did Indiana finish well above a point per possession, but it held Illinois guards Brandon Paul, Tracy Abrams and D.J. Richardson to a combined 9-of-38 from the field. The Illini were always going to have trouble stopping the Hoosiers, but with their guards stifled, they simply had no chance.

What's next: IU moves on to face the winner of the No. 4/No. 5 game, Wisconsin versus Michigan, at the United Center on Saturday. The Illini will head back to Champaign for rest and recuperation before they gather around the television to discover their NCAA tournament seed Sunday afternoon.

Numbers to Know: Thursday recap

February, 8, 2013
Player of the Night – Nate Wolters, South Dakota State
Wolters scored 53 points, the most by any D-I player in the last four seasons. The last D-I player to score that many points was Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks, who scored 54 against Tennessee in January 2009. Wolters accounted for 53 of South Dakota State’s 80 points, or 66 percent of its scoring Thursday. He shot 17-of-28 from the field, including 9-of-14 on 3-point attempts. Wolters and Meeks are the only players in the last 15 seasons to score 53 points while shooting 60 percent on field-goal attempts with nine or more 3-pointers.

Clutch Performance of the Night – D.J. Richardson, Illinois
Richardson went on a personal 8-0 run in the final three minutes against Indiana to tie the game before Tyler Griffey won the game with a buzzer-beating layup. Richardson scored 23 points, the second-highest total of his career. Illinois is now 5-0 in Richardson’s career when he scores at least 20 points.

Passer of the Night – Frankie Dobbs, Bryant
Dobbs dished out a career-high 13 assists in Bryant’s win over St. Francis (NY). Dobbs’ previous career high was 10 assists, which he accomplished twice. After finishing 1-17 in conference play and 2-28 overall last season, the Bulldogs are now in first place in the Northeast Conference with a 9-2 conference record.

Efficient Offensive Player of the Night – Isaiah Canaan, Murray State
Canaan stepped up for Murray State in a key win over Belmont. Canaan scored 26 points – including the go-ahead 3-pointer with 35 seconds left -- while attempting just nine field-goal attempts. He also added six assists. Canaan is the only D-I player this season to score at least 26 points and dish out at least six assists while attempting fewer than 10 field goals.

Stat Sheet Stuffer – Adam Kemp, Marist
Kemp and his Marist teammates had quite the night. Not only did Kemp put up an impressive stat line of 29 points, 16 rebounds and seven blocks, but Marist won at Iona, 105-104 in double-overtime. Kemp is the first D-I player with at least 29 points, 16 rebounds, and seven blocks in a game since Rider’s Jason Thompson against Siena in January 2007. It’s quite coincidental that the only players to post those numbers over the last seven seasons both did it in MAAC conference play.
Tyler Griffey Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesTyler Griffey was an even bigger man on Illinois' campus after his buzzer-beating winner Thursday.
A heavy unease has permeated the entire country.

There are no guarantees right now. No easy nights. No assumptions except for the fact that no team is safe.

With so many letdowns, upsets and surprises, it’s risky to invest in numbers. It’s not wise to believe in “talent” alone. Nothing makes sense today.

Illinois’ illogical -- but fitting -- come-from-behind 74-72 victory over No. 1 Indiana on a buzzer-beating layup in Champaign on Thursday night was simply the latest thriller in a season packed with late-game theatrics and stunners.

I figured I’d witnessed this act in the past. At some point, Indiana would extend its 65-54 advantage with 6 minutes, 46 seconds to play, I thought.

And then it happened. Again.

A struggling team refused to die in a matchup it had no business winning. The Fighting Illini had gone from a seat in the royal palace (12-0 start) to a role as national jester (2-7 start in the Big Ten). Their NCAA tourney hopes were evaporating. Their dreams of a finish in the top tier of the league in John Groce’s first season as coach had become a laughable fantasy.

Until the final two minutes of Thursday’s game -- the only game that mattered for a team without promises.

The Illini, a team I’ve criticized and questioned all season, decided to fight. A D.J. Richardson 3 (game-high 23 points, 4-for-8 from long range) cut Indiana’s lead to five points with 2:53 to play.


Another Richardson 3-pointer with 2:05 to go. A two-point deficit for the Illini.

What’s happening?

A Victor Oladipo layup followed a Richardson jumper, resulting in a 72-70 lead for the Hoosiers. Just 52 seconds to go. A fortnight in a year filled with last-minute turnarounds.

Brandon Paul tied the game on free throws. Oladipo committed a turnover in the final seconds but glided down the floor like Spider-Man and swatted Richardson’s potential game winner.

This is crazy.

Just 0.9 seconds to play. Enough time for a shot but not enough time for a good one.

And then a wild thing happened in that final nine-tenths of a second. Indiana, a squad ranked 12th in adjusted defensive efficiency (per Ken Pomeroy) prior to the game, abandoned the area near the rim in a confusing defensive possession.

[+] EnlargeTyler Griffey
AP Photo/John DixonThis shot was the difference between 2-8 in the Big Ten and a win over No. 1 that saved the season.
Cody Zeller drifted toward the perimeter as Tyler Griffey snuck behind him, galloped down the lane and converted Paul’s inbounds pass for a layup that has to be one of the most perplexing game winners in recent memory.

Oh my! Oh my! Oh my!

This is the norm now, I guess. A 13-2 rally for the Illini in the final 3:36.

Per ESPN Stats & Information, Illinois overcame the second-largest halftime deficit in a win over a No. 1 team (12 points) in the past 15 years. It’s the sixth loss of the year for a No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll -- the fifth consecutive week this has happened.

What’s so surprising about Illinois' win is that Indiana played well throughout the game even though it committed 14 turnovers. The final four minutes cost the Hoosiers the game, but they belied the overall stats.

The Hoosiers connected on 50 percent of their field goals (52.9 percent from the 3-point line, 92.9 percent from the charity stripe). Indiana is the first No. 1 team since the 1996-97 season to shoot 50 percent or better from the 3-point line and lose, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Illinois entered the day with a BPI of 70, five slots behind Illinois State. Yet the Illini now have victories over Gonzaga, Butler, Ohio State and Indiana. If La Salle, Virginia and Iowa are still in the at-large conversation, Illinois is in the conversation.

As for Indiana … questions. The Hoosiers are still jousting with the concerns about their challenges outside Assembly Hall. This was supposed to be the tuneup for a crucial matchup at Ohio State on Sunday.

And for the bulk of this game, the Hoosiers were in control. They were not rushed. They were not hurried. They were not worried.

The Illini exploited that calm as other teams have in matchups against favored conference title contenders in recent weeks. TCU over Kansas. Indiana State over Creighton and Wichita State. Arkansas over Florida. Saint Louis over Butler. Villanova over Louisville and Syracuse. South Dakota State over New Mexico. LSU over Missouri.

Most of those matchups were road games for the ranked.

We all recognize college basketball’s parity. We all know that we’re still waiting for a great team to rise. But the limited separation within the Top 25 is based on the ongoing problems those squads have had on the road.

Away games are always tough -- I get that. But it feels as though the difficulty has been elevated in 2012-13. Every night, it seems, another proven program falls.

Those hostile venues have been the stages for many upsets, a statement backed by everything that happened in the closing minutes of Indiana’s loss at Illinois on Thursday night and everything that occurred in college basketball prior to that.

In closing, here are five quick thoughts on the upset:
  1. A young man (South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters) scored 53 points in a win Thursday, and he’s not even the top story in college basketball right now.
  2. Indiana at Ohio State on Sunday is the biggest game of the season for the Hoosiers and Buckeyes, if it wasn’t already the most significant matchup of the year for the latter.
  3. The Illini deserve a lot of credit for what they overcame in that win in Champaign.
  4. I may owe this Illinois group an apology after weeks of questioning its heart, toughness and talent.
  5. I certainly owe the game a promise: I’m through with assumptions.

LAHAINA, Hawaii -- For the first two games of the EA Sports Maui Invitational, the Butler Bulldogs looked like giant-killers, circa 2010 and 2011.

A buzzer-beater versus Marquette followed by a thumping of North Carolina in the semifinals set them up for another magical run, this time in Maui.

Unfortunately for coach Brad Stevens and his upstart Bulldogs, Illinois had other plans.

The Fighting Illini, behind strong performances from guards Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams, defeated Butler 78-61 in Wednesday's championship game.

While the game itself was periodically tight, the Illini led the entire way. With 10 minutes, 49 seconds left to go in the first half, they got their first double-digit lead and the Bulldogs got it down to single digits for only a brief stretch in the second half.

The win was a major validation for new coach John Groce, who led Ohio to the Sweet 16 last season and has brought his trademark aggressive offensive and defensive schemes to Champaign this season. The team looks completely transformed from Bruce Weber’s past few underperforming squads.

“I need to take a deep breath,” Groce said after the game. “You see the names that are on that trophy and it really puts it into perspective. The quality of this tournament. I think it’s the premier preseason tournament.”

“The thing I was probably the most proud of was our toughness,” Groce added. “Whenever you play Butler, you have to be tough. They are just so tough mentally and physically. They never beat themselves. … We’re excited. We’re not done. I think it’s a tremendous start for our basketball program. But we can still get better."

[+] EnlargeJohn Groce
AP Photo/Eugene TannerJohn Groce is off to a 6-0 start in his first season as Illinois coach after the Illini handled Butler.
Asked to describe his style in one word, Groce responded, “Attacking.”

Stevens, for one, was impressed.

“Very rarely when you have a new coach come in, do the pieces fit to that system that well,” Stevens said. “It’s so perfect the way that John likes to play and the way they spread the floor with four shooters and the way that they can shoot the ball. Anyone who thinks that’s a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, I would argue with that.”

The Illini got great shooting and rugged defense the entire tournament. They shot 40 percent from 3-point territory and made an impressive 20 of 21 free throws in the final. And the Bulldogs, who shot the lights out against North Carolina, struggled against UI's suffocating defense. Butler shot just 36 percent from the field for the game and was 7-of-28 from beyond the arc. Somewhere, Roy Williams is wishing that Bulldogs team had shown up Tuesday night.

Paul led all Illini scorers with 20 points and was named tournament MVP. Abrams added 17 while Richardson scored 14 and grabbed 9 rebounds.

While Illinois got another balanced effort on this night, Paul was the clear leader of the team. He hit a number of clutch jumpers, and when his shot quit falling, he began driving to the basket. After several years of being a player with pro potential, he’s finally performing at that level every night. What’s different this season?

“I think coach Groce’s offense really opens it up for us,” Paul said. “Not only that, just lots of work on the offseason, not only as a team but individually, and I think it’s starting to show.”

“Brandon Paul’s a pro,” Stevens said. “He’s a big-time pro. Not only because he shoots it, the way he shoots it, he creates distance on his drives. I think he’s as good of a pro prospect as there probably was in the tournament.”

Butler’s Rotnei Clarke, who plays the game reminiscent of BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, produced a game-high 27 points on 6-for-13 shooting from 3. Clarke, a transfer from Arkansas, was named to the all-tournament team and had, by far, the most memorable moments of the tournament. From his buzzer-beating 3-point heave to defeat Marquette, to his off-balance 3-point barrages against UNC and Illinois, he has given the Bulldogs a glimpse of what's to come this season.

“He’s got the green light,” Stevens said. “If he’s not feeling it, he’s got the same green light. I think there aren’t five guys that have played college basketball in the last 10 years that have put in as much time as him. So he deserves to shoot as much as he wants.”

For Butler, it’ll return in a month to a tough Atlantic 10 Conference. With Temple, Xavier, Saint Joseph’s, Virginia Commonwealth and Saint Louis all in the league, the Bulldogs are going to have their hands full. But they are also showing again that they can hang with anyone.

For Illinois, it’ll return to an even-tougher Big Ten. Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State are all contenders for the national title, while Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa are solid as well. With the strong play of the Illini in this tournament, they should be right in the mix with those last three Big Ten teams for a NCAA tournament bid.

Maui Invitational Day 2 roundup

November, 21, 2012
LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Here are some observations from the second day of the EA Sports Maui Invitational.

  • After dominating Mississippi State on Monday, the North Carolina Tar Heels got a rude wake-up call versus Butler on Tuesday. On Monday evening I wrote: “North Carolina has much more talent, but the Bulldogs are scrappy and well-coached. The Tar Heels are more of a finesse team. The physicality of Butler could give the Heels problems.” That’s exactly what happened. North Carolina was outrebounded 36-27 and Butler beat them to just about every loose ball.

    After the game, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams admitted that he had the better players, but Butler and coach Brad Stevens had the better, tougher team. “They were more physical, more assertive and more aggressive,” Williams said. “They're really good. Brad's clubs are really intelligent. I like their toughness and their intelligence more than their talent, and I'm not trying to put down their talent. But I love their toughness and their intelligence.”

    UNC clearly has the talent, but does anyone on this team have the toughness the Heels needs to go deep?

    Sixth man P.J. Hairston was, for the second night in a row, the best and toughest Tar Heel on the floor. It might be just a matter of time before Williams puts him in the starting lineup.

    Most disappointing was forward James Michael McAdoo. In the tourney-opening blowout against Mississippi State, McAdoo was solid on offense, but had four mind-boggling turnovers, prompting Williams to comment after the game that “we can’t throw the basketball around.”

    On Tuesday night, McAdoo had seven turnovers to go with his 10 points and five rebounds. Williams isn’t the only one miffed by the performance of his big man.

    Most of the NBA scouts and general managers in the audience savaged McAdoo for his performance the past two games. “He looks good in a basketball uniform,” one GM told me. “But after that, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to like. He’s a pretty good athlete, but he isn’t very skilled and he doesn’t go hard all the time. There’s not one thing he does that really stands out about his game. He certainly hasn’t played like a top-five pick.”

    [+] EnlargeJames Michael McAdoo, Andrew Smith
    AP Photo/Eugene TannerUNC's James Michael McAdoo, here getting blocked by Butler's Andrew Smith, hasn't impressed NBA observers in Maui.
    McAdoo is currently ranked No. 6 on our Big Board Insider -- but could be in for a drop if he doesn’t start picking it up.
  • Illinois continued its impressive run in the tournament with an 84-61 win over local underdogs Chaminade on Tuesday. The Illini got balanced scoring -- Brandon Paul scored 13 points, D.J. Richardson had 11 and Joseph Bertrand 14. The Illini are off to a 5-0 start, but they haven’t really been tested yet. Butler should give them everything they can handle and will be the favorites to win it all after dominating North Carolina. But don’t count out Illinois. The team is playing with a lot more aggressiveness and discipline under new head coach John Groce. It has a terrific backcourt in Richardson, Paul and Abrams and size up front.

    A win in the tournament will be a huge boon to the Illini's confidence. They aren’t in the same class as Big Ten elite teams such as Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State, but they, along with Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, may be a very tough outs in the league. I won’t be surprised if the Big Ten gets eight teams into the NCAA tournament this season.
  • A number of my tweeps laughed at me Monday when I said that NBA scouts were intrigued by Butler freshman Kellen Dunham. I don’t think they are laughing anymore. Dunham bounced back from an awful game versus Marquette and really put the dagger in the Tar Heels in the second half. He ended the game with 17 points and was 5-for-9 from beyond the arc. He’s still a little tentative and passed up a few open shots in the game, but his stroke is flat-out pure. Dunham isn’t your average mid-major guard. He was ranked as a top-100 player by ESPN and was an NBA camp invitee. Dunham isn’t a one-and-done prospect, but as he continues to get stronger and more confident, he could have a future in the pros after his junior or senior years of college.
  • The Texas debacle continued Tuesday with a 59-53 overtime loss to USC. The good news? The Longhorns didn’t get blown out this time and played with more urgency. The bad news? Offensively this team is just a mess. When (or is it if?) the Longhorns get Myck Kabongo back, they’ll be better. But I don’t think he has the talent alone to turn things around. There just isn’t a lot of talent around Kabongo. Sophomore Sheldon McClellan has struggled in Maui, going just 8-for-25 from the field and 1-for-11 from 3. Freshman big man Cameron Ridley was ranked as the eighth-best prospect in the country by ESPN, but he’s looked out of shape and overwhelmed in the early going.It could be a long year, Texas fans.
  • Marquette fans, meanwhile, are hoping they have found a go-to scorer in junior Vander Blue. For the second consecutive game, Blue led the team in scoring with 18 points and three assists versus Mississippi State. Blue has always had the talent, but he has struggled with consistency and aggressiveness in the past. What’s different this year? “I'm just playing with a free mind and just playing off my teammates,” Blue said. “Junior [Cadougan] is a great guy, and everybody's going to double Davante [Gardner], so that pretty much leaves me open for shots. So I feel like if I'm making those shots, our team is a much better team. I'm not trying to do nothing that we don't do every day in practice.” Blue’s versatility, toughness athleticism and defense all intrigue NBA scouts. If he can show some offensive prowess as well, he could be a second-round pick.
  • There was a moment in time when USC big man Dewayne Dedmon was considered a potential NBA prospect. That time has probably passed. Dedmon has the size and athletic ability to be a pro. But he has no feel for the game. That’s always a problem, but it’s an even bigger problem when you’re already 23 years old. Dedmon had 8 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks against Texas but was just 3-for-11 from the field.
  • Butler will face Illinois in the EA Sports Maui Invitational Final on Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN. North Carolina will play Chaminade in the consolation game at 7:30 p.m ET on ESPN2.
I don’t put much stock into exhibitions. The goal, for most coaches, is to learn more about their respective programs and shake off the rust from the offseason.

Sloppy play is expected. Even for the best.

Illinois’ struggles in its 75-66 exhibition win over Division II opponent West Chester (Pa.) Sunday and new head coach John Groce’s postgame comments, however, might warrant more scrutiny than usual.

From the Chicago Tribune’s Shannon Ryan:
"We're going to keep doing what we're doing," Groce said. "What? I'm just going to panic and do something different? We're going to do what we do and do what we do better."

There are certainly improvements to be made.

The Illini finished their win with 21 turnovers, five of them coming from Brandon Paul, to only seven assists. West Chester outscored the Illini 46-31 in the second half, cutting a 27-point Illini lead to only 10 points, prompting Groce to reinsert his starters in the final two minutes.

"It was sporadic or random at best," Groce said. "I thought we played well for about 20 minutes of it. … Those (statistics) aren't up to our standards. These guys have some pretty high standards."

Point guard Tracy Abrams finished with a game-high 17 points to go with seven rebounds and three steals.

It's safe to expect him to be instrumental in the Illini's rotation, which Groce said he is finalizing.

Through the exhibitions, he has started the players who graded out the highest at practices and he has kept a measured chart on how rotations worked together. Groce hopes to have a set rotation, which he expects to be about nine players deep, by Tuesday.

Just days before the start of the 2012-13 season, life within Illinois basketball remains unsettled.

Bruce Weber had talent. And even though the program missed the tournament multiple times in recent years, the Illini displayed its full potential in spurts.

But an unsettling trend developed after the team reached the NCAA title game in 2005. The Illini could contend with the best in the Big Ten and beyond on their best days. Those performances, however, became infrequent. And that’s something Groce has to change. Consistency is necessary in Champaign.

Yes, Groce will enjoy a lengthy grace period as he implements his system. But he’s not starting from scratch.

Paul could be an All-Big Ten performer. D.J. Richardson averaged 11.6 points per game last year. Abrams’ performance is a plus since he’s the only veteran point guard on the roster. Sam McLaurin, a transfer from Coastal Carolina, will help the Illini in the post, their greatest weakness other than point guard depth.

The latter is most troubling, considering the Illini’s 21 turnovers against a Division II team. Illinois’ 13.4 turnovers per game were the No. 2 mark in the Big Ten last season. Without Meyers Leonard inside, opponents will put more pressure on the perimeter and attack Groce’s only proven playmakers. And if they can’t control the ball, problems will persist for a team that was ranked No. 126 in offensive efficiency.

The bottom tier within the Big Ten features multiple teams with question marks. Illinois is obviously in that group. And with Richardson and Paul in the backcourt and the potential impact of McLaurin and Nnanna Egwu (if his development continues) suggests that the Illini could climb the standings as easily as the others in the group who will vie for an NCAA tournament slot.

But, this could also evolve into another season of the lukewarm basketball that Illinois has produced in recent years.

No, Sunday’s exhibition isn’t the end of the world, which is why Groce refuses to “panic.” “Worry” might be a better word for a team that will soon face Gonzaga, Missouri and the field in the Maui Invitational prior to the start of play in the Big Ten, a conference with more depth and substance than any league in America.

Again, Groce deserves time. And he has it.

But it’s difficult to rate the Illini above the current projections that expect the team to finish toward the bottom of the league. Turnover-filled performances, even in exhibitions, don’t exactly stir up optimism about the program. They spur more “here we go again” talk.

I don’t think the Illini warrant that response yet. But Groce has some perennial problems -- a few that emerged Sunday -- to correct in the coming months if he plans to avoid that reaction in the future.

Best-case/Worst-case: Big Ten

July, 20, 2012
As part of our Summer Shootaround series, here are the best- and worst-case scenarios for the Big Ten:


Best-case: No one's expecting much from Illinois in 2012-13, and the reasons are obvious: With zero in the way of fresh blood entering the program this season, this is essentially the same team that lost 12 of its final 14 games last season (necessitating the firing of coach Bruce Weber) only without its best player, center Meyers Leonard. I get it. But there hasn't been a mass exodus at the program. Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson will be senior guards capable of blowing up at any time (Paul especially). The supporting cast has its holes, but harnessed correctly that's a backcourt that could give plenty of Big Ten teams trouble -- at the very least.

Worst-case: What happens when you add a dearth of young talent, experienced players who pretty much gave up on their last leader and a new coach asked to bring it all together? There is no one answer. Frankly, anything is possible, and while that includes the aforementioned revival from Paul and Richardson, it could just as easily lead to Paul looking around, deciding he's the best player on his team by a lot (not that he would be wrong) and posting yet another incredibly inefficient, borderline-greedy offensive season. I don't think Illinois will totally bottom out this season, but that's only if coach John Groce can convince everyone, Paul included, that's no way to spend a year on the hardwood. If he doesn't, this could get ugly in a hurry.


Best-case: Don't look now, Indiana fans, but I'm going to do it: IU's best-case scenario is the NCAA collegiate men's basketball national championship. I know. Crazy, right? What's even crazier is that it doesn't require a huge stretch of the imagination. After all, Indiana will feature the best returning player in college basketball in Cody Zeller, who was dominant as a freshman and (according to every dispatch out of Bloomington this summer) is only beginning to showcase his newfound core strength, defense and versatility. The Hoosiers have a coterie of scorers around Zeller: stretchy wing Christian Watford, rim-attacking guard Victor Oladipo, sharpshooting floor general Jordan Hulls and do-everything Will Sheehey, not to mention a recruiting class that features at least one sure-fire immediate rotation player in point guard Yogi Ferrell. This team is deep and well-rounded and scores like crazy, and it's going to be a lot of fun to see where Zeller & Co. can go.

Worst-case: To go where they really want to be, the Hoosiers are going to have to play better defense. It's just that simple. Indiana improved some last season, but where it really excelled was offense: Tom Crean's team ranked fourth in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency but just 64th on the defensive end (IU's 102-90 tournament loss to Kentucky was thrilling evidence of this disparity). Hulls' size disadvantage makes him unreliable at the point of attack; Zeller and Watford must become better rim protectors; and in general Indiana must find some trait to sustain itself on that end of the floor. At some point in the tournament, everybody goes cold. Eventually, your D has to carry you through.


Best-case: It's Year 3 of coach Fran McCaffery's rebuilding cycle, and everything seems to be going according to plan. Iowa has made strides in each of his first two seasons. Now with two talented freshmen from the Iowa-Nebraska border (center Adam Woodbury and point guard Mike Gesell), this could be the year the Hawkeyes officially emerge from their post-Todd Lickliter morass. Other than the freshmen, the keys are rising sophomores Aaron White and Josh Oglesby and junior Melsahn Basabe, who took the Big Ten by storm as a freshmen but fell off a bit last season. If there is a collective step forward and the freshmen prove productive in a hurry, this is an NCAA tournament team waiting to happen. Right on schedule.

Worst-case: Let's not forget, of course, that senior guard Matt Gatens was by far this team's most efficient scorer, not to mention its senior leader -- the guy who almost single-handedly shot Iowa into the tournament last season. His loss is a crucial one. Just as crucial is defensive improvement. In 2011-12, the Hawkeyes were a top-35 offensive team but ranked No. 180 in defensive efficiency and No. 278 in opponents' effective field-goal percentage (eFG%). There is plenty of reason for optimism here, but if Iowa doesn't guard someone, it won't be dancing yet.


Best-case: Just last week, Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Year Trey Burke told the media he saw his team as a national title contender. That's a very optimistic best-case scenario, sure, but in such a wide-open hoops landscape, I'm inclined to agree. Burke is one of the nation's best lead guards, and he's complemented well by Tim Hardaway Jr.'s outside-in game. The Wolverines also have a pair of top 25-ranked freshman to fawn over. Like Hardaway, Glenn Robinson III comes equipped with NBA genes, while just last summer forward Mitch McGary was once considered one of the best five prospects in the class of 2012. This is unquestionably the most talented Michigan team in a decade, and if the freshmen excel early, Burke's opinion won't seem farfetched.

Worst-case: It's hard to see this team, which is indisputably more talented and almost certain to be more dynamic, somehow not being in Big Ten title contention by the end of next February. But if somehow the Wolverines are merely above average in 2012-13, it could be because they carry over last season's just-OK defensive effort (No. 60 in adjusted defensive efficiency). Or because they lack the breadth of reliable 3-point shooters (Evan Smotrycz transferred, while Zack Novak and Stu Douglass graduated) who have come to define coach John Beilein's two-guard front offense, which relies on 3-point shooting to stretch the floor. I think Beilein will make it work, and I think Michigan will be very tough to beat. But increased success is far from guaranteed.

Michigan State

Best-case: As good as Michigan's backcourt is, could Michigan State's actually be better? If Gary Harris, the No. 2-ranked shooting guard (and No. 11-ranked player overall) in the Class of 2012 lives up to his considerable hype, it's a distinct possibility. But for seniors Draymond Green and Austin Thornton (and one-year graduate rental Brandon Wood), the Spartans return everybody from last year's 29-8 redeem team, including big-bodied forward Derrick Nix, still-blossoming athletic freak Adreian Payne and impressive freshman Branden Dawson, who should recovery from an ACL tear in time to join the team for the Big Ten season. But the key to it all is point guard Keith Appling. If Appling is a star -- and I would bet he will be -- the Spartans will be right back near the top of the Big Ten, same as usual.

Worst-case: I brushed over Green's departure casually in the above paragraph, but there's really no way to overstate just how important Green was to Michigan State in 2011-12. Not only was he the team's tireless vocal leader, he was its best scorer, rebounder and passer. Without Green to solidify everything the team did, it's not unfathomable to see Michigan State take a step back into respectable but not great territory.

Editor's note:’s Summer Shootaround series is catching up on the offseason storylines for each conference. For the rest of the best- and worst-case scenarios for the Big Ten, click here.

As reporters huddled around Bruce Weber for what might have been one of his final news conferences as Illinois head coach, a Big Ten tournament official entered the room to say that time had nearly expired.

“Two minutes,” he yelled.

Weber’s team had just lost to Iowa 64-61 in the opening round of the conference tournament. The loss might have spelled the end of his tenure at Illinois, one that reached its peak with an appearance in the national title game in 2005. But in a win-now landscape, 12 losses in his team’s last 14 games blemished his legacy.

[+] EnlargeBruce Weber
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesIllinois head coach Bruce Weber couldn't get his team turned around late in the season.
“One minute,” the tourney official announced.

Weber’s flushed face, hoarseness and measured pace suggested that the trials of recent months had truly taken a toll. With each query, he tried to maintain a sense of normalcy.

But when asked about the support he’s received throughout his challenges this season, Weber’s eyes welled up, his voice cracked and tears collected on the bottom rim of his eyelids.

“I can’t explain to you how many people have contacted me. I mean, literally thousands. Guys who don’t even know me,” Weber said.

“We’re going to be closing the Illinois locker room,” the Big Ten tournament official announced again.

Weber’s remarks concluded with talk of a meeting with Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas. No specifics. A brief smile.

And with that, Weber walked into a room and closed the door, unsure of his fate.

The struggles that plagued his program this season were crippling again Thursday.

The Illini committed 12 turnovers. NBA-bound Meyers Leonard scored a team-high 18 points (9-for-11), but he should have had more, given the number of times his teammates failed to find him.

Brandon Paul, the team’s leading scorer entering the game, recorded four points (2-for-11) in what he called one of the worst performances of his career.

“We just have, I feel, like every piece that a team could possibly need, where we’re just missing that one thing,” Leonard said.

There were missed dunks and layups. There were several bad shots that seemed to follow the same pattern. With the shot clock at Bankers Life Fieldhouse set to expire, the Illini would waste the possession with an NBA-range 3-pointer or an off-balance jump shot.

When Iowa’s Aaron White secured a vital offensive rebound in the final seconds, Illini players looked at one another seeking answers. At one point they were leading with a score of 40-33.

Missed opportunities. They’ve defined the entire season for a team that beat Gonzaga in the nonconference season and Ohio State (ranked fifth at the time) on Jan. 10.

After Thursday’s game, Weber said the gap after that Ohio State victory might have squelched the team’s momentum. The Illini didn’t play for nine days and returned to action with a 54-52 loss at Penn State on Jan. 19. It was the beginning of a 2-12 stretch that will likely lead to the NIT.

“We started out pretty well. We didn’t play pretty basketball, but we were finding ways to win with defense and hustle and togetherness, and won some close games,” Weber said. “I’m sure a lot of people feel maybe the Ohio State game was the turning point, because all of a sudden expectations changed, mind-sets changed. And then I don’t think it was really a good situation after Ohio State to have nine days off.”

Even after the Illini’s title-game appearance in '05, Weber scored some of the top recruits in the Big Ten and the country. Demetri McCamey, Jereme Richmond, Leonard and others provided the Illini with the firepower to compete in the Big Ten and beyond.

But Weber never moved the Illini past the second round of the NCAA tournament after that loss to North Carolina in the national championship game. This season’s difficulties seemed as baffling as any he’s had in recent years. The Big Ten was rebuilding. The Illini appeared to have a promising crew with Leonard, Paul and D.J. Richardson leading the way.

A team that was expected to compete for the Big Ten title, however, finished at the bottom of the league. As a result, negative speculation about Weber’s job status has grown.

“No, not at all. You hear stuff going around campus. People say stuff here and there. We still did what we had to do,” Richardson said about the rumors’ impact on the team.

But the chatter couldn’t have helped this squad as it tried to regain a portion of its swagger while the losses accumulated.

And now, Weber, Illini fans, players and staffers will have to wait for Thomas’ verdict, one that isn't expected to extend his coach’s time in Champaign.

Weber reached the NCAA title game seven years ago. That’s an eternity in today’s college basketball climate. Winning, however, changes the perceptions of a program. Fans and supporters crave more.

And Weber, in the years that followed that magical 2004-05 campaign, couldn’t give them want they wanted.

Only time will tell if he’ll have another opportunity to try.

Weber opened his postgame presser by saying, “I just feel bad for [players] that they didn’t have more success.”

The latter, in high major college basketball, is all that matters.

Overview: Both Iowa and Illinois entered the Big Ten tournament in need of a championship to earn a trip to the Big Dance. Iowa had managed to impress in stretches this season (the Hawkeyes swept Wisconsin) and was mentioned as a sleeper in the buildup to the Big Ten tournament. Illinois, however, had fallen on hard times. The Illini had lost 11 of their past 13 -- a stretch that might cost Bruce Weber his job -- prior to Thursday’s 64-61 loss to Iowa.

After a back-and-forth first half that featured a 50 percent shooting clip for Illinois and a 46 percent mark for Iowa (Illinois had a 31-27 lead at halftime after a D.J. Richardson 3-pointer at the buzzer), Illinois stormed out to a 40-33 advantage just minutes in the second half. But Iowa returned fire with a 22-8 run that gave the Hawkeyes a 55-48 advantage midway through the second half.

It was just a four-point game in the final minute, and a crucial Iowa turnover seemed to put Illinois in a position to change the outcome. But the Illini coughed the ball up before they could do anything with that vital possession. Joseph Bertrand hit a 3-pointer with 16.1 seconds to play, cutting Iowa’s lead to one (62-61). But a pair of free throws by Matt Gatens put the Hawkeyes ahead again by three.

Turning point: The Illini appeared to possess a little mojo at the start of the second half, but Gatens squashed that momentum with a pair of crucial buckets near the 14-minute mark. Gatens hit a deep three, then dunked off a turnover on the other end. The game turned off that stretch. Iowa began playing with more vigor, which led to the run that turned the game in the Hawkeyes’ favor.

Key player: Gatens was a star for the Hawkeyes. He scored 20 on 7-for-12 shooting. Beyond the box score, however, the senior stayed calm when Illinois started to pull away at the start of the second half. He also had three rebounds and an assist. He converted all four of his free throw attempts, including two in the final seconds.

Key stat: The Illini committed 12 turnovers compared to Iowa’s six. The Illini went 7-for-25 from beyond the arc.

Miscellaneous: The Illini made this game far more difficult than it had to be with tough shots toward the end of the shot clock … Meyers Leonard scored 18 points in what might have been his final game at Illinois … Freshman Aaron White (13 points) could be a Big Ten star next year.

What’s next: Iowa moves on to face Michigan State at noon on Friday. Illinois will probably end up in the NIT. The bigger question is how long Weber will be on the sideline.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- He laughed, not out loud, but certainly to himself every now and again.

How could he not?

Not long ago, Brandon Paul was thinking he was going to stop taking 3-point shots. Maybe not altogether, but certainly cut them down -- go for more of a sure thing, such as drives to the hoop.

His confidence was somewhere near the curbside thanks to an abysmal outside shooting slump that started in the first game of the season and really hadn’t abated since. Paul was shooting 28 percent from beyond the arc, down from 36 percent just last season.

Which is why, as Paul was shooting off his back foot with a hand in his face, beating the shot clock with a swish of the net, knocking down eight of 10 from beyond the arc and scoring 43 points in Illinois’ 79-74 upset of No. 5 Ohio State, he just had to chuckle.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Paul
Bradley Leeb/US PresswireBrandon Paul's 43-point outburst was enough to take down OSU.
“I did laugh a couple of times,’’ the 6-foot-4 junior said. “After the first few went in, I just decided I was going to keep on shooting. It was big for me because I’d been looking down on myself because the shots weren’t going in.’’

Clearly he was saving up.

Paul’s 43 points were the third most by any player in Illinois history. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he's the only college basketball player over the past 15 seasons to score at least 43 points while attempting 15 or fewer shots. Now that's efficient.

Heck, his point total was only five less than his team scored in a game against St. Bonaventure earlier this season.

Yes, it was a no-he-didn’t, oh-my-goodness jaw-dropper of a night, one that made you shake your head even when you watched it live.

Every shot Paul hit was crucial. He scored 10 points in a row to erase an eight-point first-half deficit and scored the final 15 of the game -- none bigger than his last 3 of the night.

With Illinois clinging to a 71-70 lead and less than a minute left, the Illini got the ball with just 4 seconds left on the shot clock. They inbounded to Paul, who somehow beat the disappearing clock to sink a 3 from the deepest corner of the baseline with Aaron Craft’s hand right in his face.

“We wanted to make him shoot a challenged shot, and he did,’’ OSU coach Thad Matta said. “It was a great shot. We were there. Aaron almost fouled him, but it was as big as an ocean for him tonight.’’

Truth is, it’s not Paul’s final dagger that will haunt the one-time prohibitive Big Ten favorite Buckeyes, who now have dropped to 3-2 in league play. It’s the two-minute span in which Paul didn’t score a point. Ohio State led by 11, 48-37. The fans were groaning, sensing that the Bucks were about to cruise to victory and turn an entertaining game into a walkover.

Instead, the Illini scored nine unanswered points, with an exclamation 3 from D.J. Richardson after Illinois doubled player of the year candidate Jared Sullinger, forcing him into a turnover.

Illinois shot 61 percent from beyond the arc against a team that had allowed opponents to sink only 30 percent from long distance. Illinois also dropped 74 on a team that ranked sixth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 54.9 points per game.

Bruce Weber's team went toe to toe on the boards (28-27 edge to OSU) against a team that outrebounds opponents by an average of 8.7 per game.

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
Bradley Leeb/US PresswireJared Sullinger, center, and Ohio State already find themselves with two losses in the tough Big Ten.
That span and those numbers are what will have Ohio State looking hard in the mirror.

That and the unkind bookends of history. Just a year ago, the Buckeyes rallied from a 13-point deficit against the Illini. Weber was quick to remind his team of that during a huddle after it had regained the lead.

No doubt Matta might offer up that bit of information in the future.

“You get to the round of 32 and then the Sweet 16, and you get comfortable,’’ Sullinger said. “You get beat.’’

It would be easy to write off this loss as a bad night for the Buckeyes and a ridiculously good one for Paul. It’s not altogether inaccurate. But Matta looks a little more critically at his team and doesn't think anything is quite that simple.

He watched the film of Ohio State's 76-47 win Saturday against Iowa, a victory most viewed as a sign that OSU was back from its loss to Indiana, and saw things differently. He saw a team that made mistakes despite what looked like an overwhelmingly strong defensive effort. A team that is full of good kids but still needs a presence and a leader, especially at practice.

He’s not ready to sound the alarm, even if his players are starting to ding it for him.

Somewhere in the middle is probably the right reaction. This isn’t wholesale panic time in Columbus, not with three losses to three good teams. Yet in a league as deep and as difficult as the Big Ten, there’s little room for error, especially with what stands as an even more crucial game against Indiana looming Sunday.

“We’re not going to bite on fool’s gold,’’ Matta said. “We have to play better. Unfortunately the numbers [from the Iowa game] were a little bit misconstrued, and those got blown out of the water tonight.’’

Certainly some of that was due to Illinois, or more specifically Paul.

There are some things no one can guard against, and that includes a guy who’s turning a Division I basketball game into a game of H-O-R-S-E.

Paul’s night started out about as horrifically as a night can begin. He coughed up four turnovers in the first seven minutes and didn’t have a bucket to negate the miscues.

It wasn’t exactly what Paul was imagining when he was roused from his pregame nap by a text from his coach that read simply, "This is your time. Be special."

“The way he started," Weber said, "he was special bad."

By the end, he was unforgettably spectacular. Laughing all the way to victory.
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It laughed at this gif, and now it almost feels bad. Almost.

No. 4 Baylor at No. 18 Kansas State, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN3: There's an interesting dynamic brewing around Baylor, even as this team has streaked to a 15-0 start and, as the faceless Stats LLC writer behind our afore-linked pregame preview wrote, its "best start, longest-ever win streak and highest ranking" in the history of the program. Despite all that, people seem to be wondering why the Bears, good as they are, aren't better?

More specifically, they seem to be asking why Perry Jones III, the most gifted athlete in college hoops, doesn't dominate games in proportion to his ability. They ask why Jones, with his soft touch and 6-foot-11 frame and his top-five NBA lottery status doesn't produce the consistent low-post bucket feast of Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger, or the face-melting highlight reel of Thomas Robinson. You look at Jones on the court, and you see what NBA scouts see: Incredible size, incredible length, incredible touch. But the box scores only rarely align with our eyes.

To hear Baylor coach Scott Drew tell it, it sounds rather simple: Jones is still developing:
“I think Perry’s more physical this year. He is stronger, bigger, more mature,” Drew said. "He wasn’t one of those 24-year old freshmen. He’s a younger guy, and as he continues to develop he’ll be able to take more advantage of things inside. And he’s shooting the 3 now. He’s definitely a different player. I think it’s just all age and maturity. That’s what the NBA sees – they see every year he gets closer and closer to it."

Jones may have to grow up in a hurry Tuesday night. There are few interiors in the country as well-suited to match up with Baylor's length and athleticism as the Kansas State Wildcats, which most recently ended Missouri's perfect run with an emphatic effort at home. If Baylor wants to escape the Octagon of Doom with its own perfect record intact, it will have to survive a sluggish, slow, hard-fought defensive battle of a game. In the immortal words of Chicago Bulls local analyst and all-around hilarious human being Stacey King: It's a man's game. No boys allowed. (And yes, I really just wanted to quote Stacey King. Can you blame me?)

The good news for Baylor comes on two fronts:

1. This is a good defensive team in its own right. In fact, with rare exceptions the Bears have been much better defensively team than on the offensive end all season long. The Bears rank No. 35 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Pomeroy; they're No. 13 defensively, allowing opponents .87 points per possession. That's really good.

2. Baylor has a fully developed, capital-M man of its own on the low block. His name is Quincy Acy.

If you're looking for the Bears' interior star thus far this season, look no further. While Jones has posted decent numbers peppered with the occasional flash of brilliance, Acy has been in beast mode all season long. Perhaps that is the best argument for the power of development in college hoops: Acy has a fraction of Jones' natural talent, but more often than not this season he's been the more productive and effective of the two.

At this point, pining for consistent dominance from Perry Jones seems a little bit silly. He's clearly improved, but he's still not quite there yet. The good news for Baylor, especially as the meat of their Big 12 begins to challenge them on a frequent basis (the Bears travel to Kansas Monday and host Missouri next Saturday) is that Jones isn't the only talented player on this roster. There's Acy, there's guards Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip, there's gifted freshman Quincy Miller, there's Cal transfer Gary Franklin. Jones looks like he should be a transcendant star, but he isn't. Individually, none of the Bears are without their flaws. And neither, despite its record, is this team.

Oh well. There's no use pining for something that isn't there, at least not yet. What the Bears are already is still awfully good. They'll need to be to stay undefeated tonight.

No. 5 Ohio State at Illinois, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: First and foremost, NBA scouts should love this one. Why? Because they get a chance to measure Illinois sophomore forward Meyers Leonard -- a potential first-round pick whose stock should rise as the season continues -- mano a mano with surefire lottery pick Jared Sullinger. That matchup, pitting two of the Big Ten's three or four best big men, is the one to watch. It's a good one.

Where Illinois coach Bruce Weber may direct more of his concern is, well, everywhere else. The Illini have been a thoroughly mediocre offensive team for pretty much the entire season, thanks in large part to the fact that Leonard simply doesn't touch the ball enough. Instead, those touches and shots go most frequently to guard Brandon Paul, who is still taking the highest percentage of his team's possessions and shots despite his effective field goal percentage of 42.1 and his offensive rating of 91.7. Paul might be the only Illini player who can consistently get to the rim, but that apparent talent doesn't seem to be doing much good. Just as often, Paul decides to shoot a three, where has gone 21-of-74 (28.4 percent) on the season. Yikes.

Considering the presence of Leonard, and the fact that fellow backcourt mate D.J. Richardson actually is efficient (off. rating: 116.4; eFG%: 54.4), Paul's chuck-happy ways constitute a drastic misappropriation of resources. That, more than any other reason, is why the Illini have struggled thus far this season. They may be able to hold Ohio State's offense in relative check tonight. The Illini do defend, Leonard can (conceivably, anyway) present some resistance to Sullinger and the benefit of an Orange Krush-led home atmosphere should be a huge leveling force.

But if Illinois takes the usual diet of bad shots and silly threes against this No. 1-ranked efficiency defense, which is holding opponents to (get this) .78 points per trip this season, they might not break 50 points. Whatever the final tally, it will be ugly.

Everywhere else: No. 13 Louisville will try to avoid a loss in a slightly tricky road game at Providence. ... No. 3 UNC will host Miami. ... No. 7 Michigan State gets Iowa in East Lansing, and if the Hawkeyes double down on their NYE win at Wisconsin, the world will officially cease to make sense. ... Georgia travels to No. 19 Florida. ... Florida State will attempt to halt its ugly recent slide at Virginia Tech. ... Vanderbilt looks to stay unbeaten in SEC play at South Carolina. ... and UNI goes to Omaha to face No. 21 Creighton in another huge MVC game with potential NCAA tourney bid implications.
Wednesdays are always big nights in college basketball. Here are some predictions for this evening’s games (I’m including my take on Kansas State-Kansas in case you missed it at the bottom of my game preview):

No. 20 Marquette at No. 9 Georgetown

The Golden Eagles bounced back from a home blowout against Vanderbilt by beating Villanova 81-77 on New Year’s Day. Still, Buzz Williams’ team is struggling without 6-foot-11 center Chris Otule. Georgetown was far from impressive in a 49-40 victory over Providence one day earlier. Both teams are very well-coached and are considered contenders for the Big East title. The Hoyas get the nod here, but only because they’re at home. This could be the game of the night.

Prediction: Georgetown 60-57

No. 3 Duke at Temple

The Blue Devils have won their past three games by an average of 32.3 points, but Temple should provide a much stiffer test. Fran Dunphy’s squad has won three straight since a Dec. 17 setback at Texas, but the Owls don’t have enough firepower to upend a Final Four contender.

Prediction: Duke 82-69

Notre Dame at Cincinnati

The Bearcats have gone 6-0 without suspended center Yancy Gates, who will return tonight. The Bearcats have been playing with a four-guard lineup, so it will be interesting to see how they alter their game plan with Gates. Notre Dame is in rebuilding mode and will be hard-pressed to beat Cincinnati on the road.

Prediction: Cincinnati 75-66

Illinois at Northwestern

If John Shurna and the Wildcats want to have any chance of earning the first NCAA tournament bid in school history, they’ve got to win games against similar opponents at home. Stopping Illinois standouts Meyers Leonard and D.J. Richardson won’t be easy, but I think Northwestern can pull it off.

Prediction: Northwestern 68-67

Iowa at Minnesota

If the surging Hawkeyes can beat a good Wisconsin team in Madison, I’ve got to think they’ll have a chance at Minnesota, which is 0-2 in the Big Ten after road losses against Illinois and Michigan. This would definitely qualify as an upset, but not a huge one.

Prediction: Iowa 72-66

No. 1 Syracuse at Providence

The Friars lost by 24 points against St. John’s and then scored only 40 in a setback at Georgetown. Syracuse should roll.

Prediction: Syracuse 85-66

Wichita State at Evansville

Just two games into the conference season, and the Shockers are already in a difficult position following a home loss to Creighton on New Year’s Eve. They can’t afford a road loss to an Evansville team that upset Northern Iowa on New Year’s Day.

Prediction: Wichita State 74-68

No. 22 Kansas State at No. 15 Kansas

Kansas State has lost its past five games at Allen Fieldhouse by an average of 18 points. Kansas is as vulnerable as it’s been in years, but Kansas State relies on several young players -- namely freshmen Thomas Gipson and Angel Rodriguez -- who have never experienced this kind of environment. The Jayhawks will win tonight but don’t be surprised if the Wildcats return the favor when Kansas visits Manhattan.

Prediction: Kansas 75-63

Upset of the night: Texas Tech over Oklahoma State

Gallagher-Iba Arena is traditionally one of the toughest places to play in the Big 12. But Oklahoma State fans may not be as excited about this season’s team. Two more players -- Fred Gulley and Reger Dowell -- have decided to transfer in recent weeks. Third-leading scorer J.P. Olukemi tore his ACL last weekend and is out for the season, and highly touted freshman Le’Bryan Nash has been a disappointment. Texas Tech is rebuilding under first-year coach Billy Gillispie, who may have the conference’s top freshman in forward Jordan Tolbert.

Prediction: Texas Tech 66-59

Here's what we learned on Saturday

December, 17, 2011

Saturday’s slate of games featured some surprising finishes. Teams were exposed. Others were discovered.

It was a tutorial on the unpredictable ebb and flow of the college basketball scene this time of year. Here are a few things I learned:

No. 1 Syracuse 88, North Carolina State 72

What we learned: The Orange aren’t just deep -- they're really good

Syracuse has been praised as one of the deepest teams in the country. The Big East power possesses a talented backup at every position. Sometimes, however, the “depth” tag suggests a team lacks individual talent. That’s not the case with the Orange. North Carolina State started strong but Syracuse didn’t panic. It just turned to its stars. Dion Waiters (career-high 22 points), Scoop Jardine (16 points) and Kris Joseph (21 points) led an SU squad that hit 56.5 percent of its shots. North Carolina State was up early and then -- Bam! -- the Orange snatched the game back. Even with a target on their backs as America’s new No. 1 team and a highly publicized investigation of a former assistant coach, they continue to operate like a team without any distractions. Cuse has survived every Bernie Fine development and overcome the obstacles on the floor. Can’t get overly excited quite yet about a team that just played its first road game, but the Orange seem to have it all right now.

No. 13 Florida 84, No. 22 Texas A&M 64

What we learned: Florida’s backcourt is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams

Well, the Aggies don’t belong anywhere near the top 25, judging by Saturday’s lopsided loss to the Gators. They can’t score. The Big 12’s worst scoring offense and worst free throw-shooting team couldn’t find the buckets to compete with Florida. Give UF credit for attacking early (opened the game on an 18-2 run), putting its potent offense to work and getting to the free throw line (30 attempts). The Gators are going to have trouble against bigger teams given their size disparity, but as Saturday’s game proved, opposing teams continue to have problems matching up against a team with their backcourt depth (three guards scored 16 or more, led by Kenny Boynton’s 22 points and his six 3-pointers). One question remains, though. Patric Young took two shots. You have to wonder whether he’ll become a more consistent part of Florida’s offense in SEC play. One thing is clear: When this team gets going, it’s a hard one to stop. There are still defensive concerns, but the Gators are going to compete in the SEC if they continue to produce this level of offense.

No. 7 Baylor 86, BYU 83

What we learned: Perry Jones can lead Baylor to a national championship

Baylor’s NCAA title hopes will be directly linked to its identity outside of Waco. The Bears were 1-3 away from their home floor during the nonconference portion of last season’s schedule. Those road woes followed the Bears into the Big 12 season. In a gritty game Saturday against a BYU squad that’s always tough on its home floor, Perry Jones III scored a career-high 28 points and played with the heart that’s expected of a star. After suffering a late knee injury, Jones checked back into the game and scored on a putback with 20 seconds to play that capped the win. Pierre Jackson blocked Brandon Davies’ 3-point attempt at the buzzer. BYU held a 13-point lead in the first half, but Jones kept the Bears alive in a hostile environment. He’s NBA-lottery good. We knew that before Saturday’s game, but since his return from an NCAA-mandated suspension at the start of the season, he’s looked like an NCAA championship-caliber leader, too.

Gonzaga 71, Arizona 60

[+] EnlargeElias Harris
AP Photo/Kevin P. CaseyGonzaga rode Elias Harris' 25 points to victory over Arizona.
What we learned: Gonzaga is not discouraged by early struggles, but Arizona might be

This was a significant game for a pair of teams that had dropped from the rankings in recent weeks as they failed to meet preseason projections. Both needed this game in Seattle. Gonzaga played like it understood the stakes. Arizona did not. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 14-0 lead to start the game, and Zona spent the rest of the contest trying to close the gap. But that early onslaught from Gonzaga set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. The Zags held off Arizona’s late charge that cut the deficit to 62-56 with 2:03 to play. The Wildcats’ leading scorer, Solomon Hill, went 1-for-7 and finished with six points, his second single-digit effort in three games. The fall continues for Arizona, an Elite Eight team last season but one that has lost four of its past seven games. Give Gonzaga credit, though. The Zags seemed motivated and focused, despite suffering their recent ups and downs. Saturday’s version of Elias Harris (25 points) should help Gonzaga in what should be an excellent WCC race with BYU and Saint Mary's. Hopefully, the 2-for-11 player who showed up for last weekend’s loss to Michigan State never returns.

UNLV 64, No. 19 Illinois 48

What we learned: UNLV is legit

With about 41 seconds to play in this game, Illinois' D.J. Richardson drove right in and went up for a dunk that wouldn’t have affected the outcome. But Quintrell Thomas swatted the shot like it mattered. Thomas and Mike Moser gave UNLV a combined 30 points with leading scorer Chace Stanback (2 points) struggling, as UNLV strolled into Chicago and locked up an Illinois team that came in at 10-0. The Runnin’ Rebels now have dropped a pair of undefeated, nationally ranked squads (North Carolina, Illinois), and their only two losses came against quality opponents on the road (Wichita State, Wisconsin). This Mountain West standout is legit. The Rebels can clamp down defensively. Illinois went 16-of-63 from the field (7-of-25 from the 3-point line). Surprisingly, Illinois didn’t feed big man Meyers Leonard (3-of-8) enough in the second half. During some stretches, Leonard’s teammates just missed him and settled for bad shots. Other times, however, Leonard couldn’t breathe with UNLV defenders swarming him.

No. 4 Louisville 95, Memphis 87

What we learned: Josh Pastner is still trying to figure out this team

Let’s start with giving Louisville credit. The Cardinals held off Memphis’ relentless pursuit, after watching their 13-point second-half lead become a 58-55 deficit. Behind Russ Smith’s career highs of 24 points and seven steals, Louisville pulled off a solid home win. But it also was another game in which Memphis baffled observers with its inefficient use of its immense talent. Will Barton is special (28 points, 16 boards), and he’s surrounded by a variety of highly skilled athletes. But that hasn’t been enough for the Tigers. Their four losses have come against quality opponents, but at what point will this group get over the hump? When will it stop playing in spurts and begin improving shot selection in tight stretches? Those are all key questions for Pastner going forward. He has some talented players on his roster. But getting all that talent to work together is still a challenge.

More observations from Saturday:

* No. 2 Ohio State stayed strong when Jared Sullinger left Saturday’s 74-66 victory over South Carolina with a foot injury, but you have to wonder whether the sophomore’s ailments will hamper him and the program the rest of the way.

* With Cody Zeller, who scored 21 points in Saturday’s 69-58 win over Notre Dame in Indianapolis, the No. 20 Hoosiers can compete for the Big Ten title.

* Both Mississippi State and Detroit proved they’re legitimate conference contenders during the Bulldogs’ 80-75 victory over the Titans. MSU is 11-1 now, while the return of center Eli Holman (12 points, 9 rebounds) increases Detroit’s potential of winning a Horizon League title.

* The Missouri Valley race will be the most competitive in the country. Indiana State’s 61-55 win at No. 25 Vanderbilt was just a reminder of the conference’s parity and talent. The Sycamores will compete with Creighton, Northern Iowa, Wichita State and Missouri State in what should be a heck of a two months in the Valley.

* J'Covan Brown continues to keep 9-2 Texas afloat in the Big 12’s fringe contender conversations. He scored 23 points in a nice 77-65 victory over Temple.

* A game-winning tip-in with a second to play by Butler’s Andrew Smith helped the Bulldogs snap a three-game losing skid with a 67-65 win over Purdue. The Big Ten is really big this season, and Purdue lacks a consistent interior presence. That will create a variety of issues for the Boilermakers in conference play.

Hopefully, you ignored college football. Hopefully, you procrastinated putting up your Christmas decorations. Hopefully, after Kentucky's thrilling win over North Carolina this afternoon, you stayed plopped in that couch groove, remote in one hand and snacks in the other, ready to flip from one hoops affair to the next.

Why? Because UK-UNC was merely this Saturday's opening salvo. Sure, it was the best and most important and most entertaining and most talented and most insert-your-adjective-of-choice-here game of the day. But it wasn't the only one. Let's run through the rest of this afternoon's action -- beginning with Xavier's remarkable comeback win over Purdue. (Tu!)

No. 11 Xavier 66, Purdue 63: Technically, a brief glance at the Game Flow illustration in the link to the left tells the story here. The Purdue lead was 20-6 after 10 minutes. It was 33-22 after 20 minutes. It was -- get this -- 55-36 after 30 minutes. Then, in the final 10 minutes, and especially the final five, Xavier staged a marvelous comeback, ending the game on a 30-8 run and holding on in the end to get the most unlikely of wins.

You can look at the box score and know this, and therefore know the story of the game. But believe me when I say this is one you had to see to believe. In particular, you needed to see X guard Tu Holloway, whose late-game transformations -- Holloway goes from inefficient to "oh my God, did you just see that?!?" -- are one of the strangest and most compelling performance storylines in college basketball this season. It pains me to say this, but in his past two games, Tu Holloway became college basketball's Tim Tebow. (I know, I know. I couldn't resist.)

As in Xavier's victory at Vanderbilt on Monday, Holloway was pedestrian to downright bad for much of Saturday afternoon. Before the final five minutes, he was borderline invisible, when he wasn't committing one of his six turnovers, that is. And then, just as it did Monday night in Nashville, something clicked. After the five-minute mark, Holloway went 3-of-4 and scored 13 of his 21 total points, including the three consecutive dagger 3s he stuck in the closing moments when his team needed them most. He won the game with his shooting and finished it off with his free throws.

It's strange, this lightbulb that seems to click only in the closing moments. But whatever it is that goes off in Holloway's head when the game is on the line in the closing moments, Xavier fans will take it. Thanks in large part to Holloway's late-game heroics, the Musketeers end this week with two crucial nonconference wins over two power-six teams, one of which came on the road.

There's a ton of season left, but would anyone want to draw the Muskies in an elimination game right now? For all its occasional struggles -- and by occasional, I mean "for the first 35 minutes of any given game" -- this Xavier team not only appears to be balanced and talented, but also appears to be as difficult an out as any team in the country. If you're up on the Musketeers, you better bury them deep. As long as Holloway's on the floor and the lead is mathematically in reach, you're never, ever safe.

As for Purdue, Matt Painter and Co. will certainly be unhappy to lose a game they controlled for so long in such heartbreaking fashion. And the sight of Robbie Hummel wincing at the end of the Boilermakers bench -- Hummel was crippled by apparently excruciating cramps for much of the afternoon -- was certainly an unwelcome one. But there are bright sides. For one, Hummel's injuries were merely cramps. (Seeing the Purdue senior, in the midst of a heartwarming comeback from two major ACL surgeries, hold his leg after contact is the quickest way this side of an Eli Roth movie to feel one's stomach turn in knots.)

More important, it should be noted that Purdue was the vastly superior team for much of the game. A loss is a loss, of course; no distinction will be made for its type during the résumé comparison season in early March. But the Boilers can take something from this game. They were the better team for its majority -- on the road, in a tough environment, against an experienced and talented team, with its best player cramping late -- and at the end of the day, maybe that's what's worth remembering.

No. 16 Marquette 61, No. 7 Wisconsin 54: Make no mistake: Marquette is a good team. Arguably a very good one. Even without star Jimmy Butler, last season's do-everything scorer, rebounder, glue guy and teammate extraordinaire, the Golden Eagles are still very good.

Even so, this is a borderline shocking result. Why? Because Wisconsin doesn't lose at home, like, ever. Before Saturday, in 11 seasons under Bo Ryan, UW was 156-11 at the Kohl Center. The Badgers were working on a 23-game home winning streak against all opponents; the last time they lost a nonconference home game was Dec. 23, 2008. So for the Golden Eagles to come in and get a win in this underrated in-state hoops rivalry -- well, yeah, that's a shocker, no matter how good this Marquette team is.

Of course, the Badgers gave Marquette the opportunity almost from the starting tip. Wisconsin posted an uncharacteristically awful shooting performance Saturday afternoon, particularly in the first half, when the Badgers scored just 22 points and found themselves in a 10-point hole at halftime. Things improved slightly in the second, but UW still finished 16-of-50 from the field and 5-of-19 from 3. For a team averaging 44 percent from 3 and 50 percent from 2 this season -- a team that relies on slowly working the ball in pursuit of a high-percentage final shot -- that simply won't get it done.

Wisconsin's slow pace -- its greatest advantage at times -- also makes it very difficult for the Badgers to mount a comeback. They tried, and cut the lead to within striking distance late in the second half even despite a tough charging call on point guard Jordan Taylor that cost the Badgers a three-point play and sent Taylor to the bench with his fourth foul. But Marquette was just as good down the stretch. Guard Darius Johnson-Odom didn't have a hugely efficient night (17 points on 15 shots), but anytime he can get his 18-foot step-back jumper off, it becomes an unstoppable offensive weapon. Meanwhile, Marquette is getting good contributions from sophomore Vander Blue and freshman guard Todd Mayo (younger brother of O.J.).

Wisconsin may have shot itself in the foot in this one -- not unlike Tuesday's close call at North Carolina -- but Marquette deserves the credit. The Golden Eagles took advantage early, made enough plays to finish the game and in the process notched one of the biggest wins of Buzz Williams' ever-promising tenure at the program. Impressive stuff.

Illinois 82, No. 18 Gonzaga 75: Maybe Gonzaga beats Illinois on a neutral court. But maybe not.

That's the feeling one got while watching this game, in which Illinois -- a young team but one with talent, which is something yours truly has been saying all season -- never looked overmatched or overwhelmed against a ranked Bulldogs team with designs on a deep tournament run. A little like UK-UNC, this win didn't feel like the benefit of home-court advantage as some deciding factor. Illinois can play with people. Now we know.

[+] EnlargeMeyers Leonard
AP Photo/Robert K. O'DaniellSophomore Meyers Leonard's second-half surge helped Illinois to the upset of visiting Gonzaga.
Of special note? Illinois forward Meyers Leonard. The sophomore missed much of the first half thanks to foul trouble, but he returned in the second with a determined style of play. The end result: 21 points and 6 rebounds on 9-for-11 shooting from the field. Those are impressive tallies any way you slice them, but considering Leonard posted those numbers while matched up with Gonzaga center Robert Sacre, they're doubly so. Throw in the balanced performances from starters D.J. Richardson (19 points), Brandon Paul (13 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds) and Sam Maniscalco (10 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds) and, well, don't look now, but this Illinois team might well be better than last season's disappointing senior-led squad. It certainly looked the part Saturday.

No. 17 Pittsburgh 61, Tennessee 56: In Maui, the Tennessee Volunteers proved themselves to be a flawed but hard-nosed and pesky bunch, one that would refuse to roll over for their apparently more talented opponents. That quality was on full display against Pitt, which led UT by eight with 1:46 to go. That's when the Vols began fouling, and after an elbow cost guard Ashton Gibbs a technical foul -- and gave Tennessee the customary shots and possession -- the Panthers missed the front end of two one-and-ones and watched as Trae Golden's 3 cut the lead to 58-56 with 11 seconds remaining.

It wasn't pretty, but the Panthers pulled this one out after forcing a jump ball on Tennessee's key possession late. They'll be thankful for that when seeding time comes around this spring. But let it be known: Tennessee was supposed to be rebuilding. That may be true. But don't tell the Volunteers. Because they aren't yielding anything in the meantime.

Other noteworthy results from the afternoon: The jury is still out on Iowa State; the Cyclones don't have any truly bad losses (at Drake is forgivable, and so is a home loss to UNI), but after Saturday's 75-65 loss at Michigan, Fred Hoiberg's rebuilt team hasn't made us sit up and take notice either. ... Ryan Boatright's home debut after a six-game NCAA rules suspension went swimmingly: The freshman guard scored 23 points and led his team to a game-opening 14-2 run in what was arguably a struggling UConn team's most impressive performance of the year, a 75-62 victory over Arkansas. ... Usually, UCLA-Texas is a marquee game. Not this season. The Bruins are now 2-5 after today's home loss to the Longhorns, which was briefly interrupted by a power surge that caused the lights to dim in the aging Los Angeles Sports Arena, UCLA's temporary home. One imagines Ben Howland would have preferred the lights stay off. ... BYU played at the home of the Utah Jazz (hey, there's nothing going on there) and dusted off Oregon with a 13-0 run in the second half of its impressive 79-65 win. Noah Hartsock led the way with 23 points and 12 boards for the Cougars. In other news, the Horizon League began conference play -- yes, conference play -- on Saturday, with the two biggest results a 77-71 overtime win by Valpo at Butler and Cleveland State's 66-61 win at preseason Horizon favorite Detroit. We know to never count out Butler (or Detroit if Eli Holman ever returns), but it's becoming apparent that the Crusaders and Vikings are the teams to beat in the Horizon.