College Basketball Nation: Illinois Fighting Illini
- For a vast majority of the possessions they played during the 2012-13 season, the Virginia Cavaliers were a solid college basketball team. Virginia held opponents to the 16th-lowest effective field-goal percentage in the country last season; they finished 24th in defensive efficiency; they ranked 40th overall; they beat Duke and North Carolina and nearly toppled the ACC champs (Miami) on the road; and their best player, guard Joe Harris, was an all-conference first-teamer.
If you repeated the above information to the uninitiated -- and yes, I will take credit for not shoehorning a Bane joke in here -- you would assume Virginia ended the 2012-13 season in the NCAA tournament.
Nope: UVa spent March in the NIT. There were a few reasons for this: a soft schedule, missed opportunities, a few untimely ACC flops. But more than anything, Virginia missed out because by Christmas it had already lost to George Mason (RPI: 123), Delaware (RPI: 141) and -- worst of all -- Old Dominion (RPI: 318!). The Cavaliers never did enough to recover.
On Wednesday night, Providence, Maryland and Illinois -- 2014 tourney hopefuls all -- avoided precisely that fate.
Providence's win over Brown was the most harrowing of the bunch. The Friars, a promising and talented group under impressive third-year coach Ed Cooley, handled the lion's share of their home matchup with Brown with expected ease. Kadeem Batts, Bryce Cotton and Co. opened an early 20-4 lead over the Bears, and stretched it to 42-27 in the closing minutes of the first half. The rout appeared to be on.
But Brown, believe it or not, came roaring back in the second half. Providence went cold. Brown's Cedric Kuakumensah got hot. By the 9-minute mark, it was 58-58. With five minutes to play, Brown led 63-60. But if not for two late 3-pointers by LaDontae Henton and Josh Fortune, Providence may well have lost to a team that finished 12-20 and ranked 240 in the RPI last season. Is it possible the Bears are much better this season? Sure. It is almost certain a home loss to Brown would have destroyed Providence's RPI? Yes.
That damage would have paled in comparison what would have happened to Maryland had the Terps fallen to -- gulp -- Abilene Christian. Mark Turgeon's team pulled away in the second half, and eventually cruised to a 67-44 win that will look fine three months from now. But Maryland actually entered halftime trailing -- yes, trailing -- the Wildcats 30-29. Heck, Abilene's lead lasted during a disconcertingly large chunk of into the second half; they were up 44-38 with 14 minutes to play. If you think a loss to Brown would be bad, try on a home loss to a team that wasn't even in Division I last season. Thanks to Maryland's bonkers 29-0 game-ending run, it didn't have to come to that. But still, what a nervy 25 minutes.
Illinois' win over Valparaiso may have been a bit less drastic. Valpo, after all, won the Horizon League last season. It is a name mid-major program. It is no Brown, to say nothing of Abilene. But still, the Cavaliers lost six seniors, including stars Kevin Van Wijk and Ryan Broekhoff, from last season and are in full-on rebuilding mode in Bryce Drew's second season, which made their mere two-point deficit at the six-minute mark of the second half in Champaign all the more troubling.
Throw Indiana into this mix, too. The Hoosiers narrowly survived LIU-Brooklyn at home Tuesday night. Don't get it twisted: The Blackbirds have made the last three tournaments for a reason. That's a good program. They schemed IU well and baited the Hoosiers into too many outside shots. But no matter. IU is supposed to beat LIU-Brooklyn at home, and a loss would have veered the young Hoosiers in an RPI ditch in the first week of the season.
Instead, all of these teams survived résumé calamity. Wednesday night hardly offered the most inspiring slate of games. It was a harsh comedown after Tuesday night's Champions Classic high. But for Illinois, Providence and Maryland, Wednesday was a season-changing night.
You know the NCAA tournament cliché, survive and advance? It's a good one. Just remember: You have to survive November first.
My doubts were really tied to Illinois, not Groce. He clearly had credentials. He’d led Ohio to that season’s Sweet 16, where the Bobcats lost an overtime war to North Carolina. Prior to his tenure in the MAC, he’d spent time under Thad Matta at Ohio State.
Yet, he’d entered a challenging situation. Weber reached the 2005 national title game with Dee Brown and Deron Williams but he never found that perch again. Years of disappointment followed that achievement.
The recruiting battles he lost -- many involving kids in nearby Chicago -- were critical in the team’s gradual decline.
So once Groce took the job, he immediately faced one major question: Can he bring elite talent to Champaign?
That’s the only question any coach has to answer. But Illinois’ leaders have faced even more scrutiny due to their proximity to a recruiting hub named Chicago (although it’s really not that close to Chicago).
Well, Groce’s latest coup proves that Illinois’ spot on the recruiting map has been elevated -- locally and nationally -- since he arrived.
Quentin Snider, ranked 28th in the 2014 class per RecruitingNation, chose Illinois last week, even though some thought he’d pick UCLA (see my colleague Eamonn Brennan’s post on the SoCal recruiting war). But Groce made a fourth-quarter pitch to the point guard that obviously worked.
More on the Snider move from ESPN.com’s Adam Finkelstein:
But Illinois made a late push to get Snider on campus last weekend, allowing it to make a final impression. The Illini followed that up by traveling to Louisville the next day to conduct an in-home visit to help Groce seal the deal.
Snider was a late addition to this year's point guard market after having previously been committed to Louisville for almost two years.
He decommitted on July 31 due to concerns about the number of other talented guards on the Cardinals' roster. In Illinois and UCLA, Snider narrowed his choices to two programs who could provide him what Louisville could not -- an opportunity to run the show from the start.
The commitment is a potentially huge addition for Illinois because it was able to land one of the last remaining point guards capable of making an immediate impact. After Groce's 2013 recruiting class was headlined by a pair of ESPN 100 swingmen in Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, along with an athletic and skilled big man in Austin Colbert, his top priorities in 2014 were to get a post player and a point guard.
Groce’s 2014 class is now ranked fourth overall by RecruitingNation. With Nunn and Hill -- a pair of Illinois kids -- anchoring his 2013 class, UI finished 15th nationally.
Next year could be a tough one for an Illinois team that will rely on multiple transfers and young faces after losing Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. Then again, Nunn and Co. could make an immediate impact and push the Illini into another NCAA tournament slot.
But regardless of what happens this season, the talent pipeline is rich. Groce has already proven many doubters wrong. Last season, he led the team to an upset of No. 1 Indiana and an NCAA tournament victory in his first year on the sideline.
If the program’s prospects fulfill their potential and stick around for more than a year, Groce could turn Illinois into a Big Ten player and national title contender again.
That might not seem clear in 2013-14.
But Groce is definitely loading up in Champaign.
Illinois is rising. Quickly.
Toughest: at UNLV (Nov. 26), vs. Oregon (Dec. 14 in Portland, Ore.), vs. Missouri (Dec. 21 in St. Louis)
Next toughest: at Georgia Tech (Dec. 3)
The rest: Alabama State (Nov. 8), Jacksonville State (Nov. 10), Valparaiso (Nov. 13), Bradley (Nov. 17), Chicago State (Nov. 22), IPFW (Nov. 29), vs. Auburn (Dec. 8 in Atlanta), Dartmonth (Dec. 10), UIC (Dec. 28 in Chicago)
Toughness scale: 6 -- It's hard to really give the Illini a solid schedule grade, because it's hard to know just how good Illinois' best opponents really are. For example: It is never easy to win in the Thomas & Mack Center, but still-unproven center Khem Birch is the most certain thing about the Rebels' personnel in 2013-14; it looks like Dave Rice's team will be a quality road opponent, but impossible to make a guarantee to this effect. The same goes for Oregon and Missouri, both of whom should be solid at the very least, either of which could completely disappoint if their respective transfers don't pan out. A six feels fair to me, but it's an educated guess.
Toughest: 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 21-22), at Syracuse (Dec. 3), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis)
Next toughest: N/A?
The rest: Chicago State (Nov. 8), LIU Brooklyn (Nov. 12), Samford (Nov. 15), Stony Brook (Nov. 17), Evansville (Nov. 26), North Florida (Dec. 7), Oakland (Dec. 10), Nicholls State (Dec. 20), Kennesaw State (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale: 5 -- Two years since the collapse of its long-standing annual date with Kentucky, the Hoosiers have yet to find a home-and-home or even a neutral-court partnership to replace the strength they lost when the rivalry went awry. As such, Indiana's marquee nonconference games have been reduced to their participation in events: The 2K Sports Classic, where they'll play Washington and then either Boston College or Connecticut; the Crossroads Classic, where they'll play Notre Dame in front of a predominantly crimson crowd in downtown Indianapolis; and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The good news, at least as it pertains to schedule strength, is that this season's ACC/Big Ten draw sends IU to Syracuse, where they'll face a rabid Orange crowd and another very good Jim Boeheim team just months removed from their season-ending loss to the Cuse in March.
Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30), Notre Dame (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: at Iowa State (Dec. 13)
The rest: UNC-Wilmington (Nov. 8), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 10), Maryland Eastern Shore (Nov. 14), Abilene Christian (Nov. 17), Penn (Nov. 22), vs. Drake (Dec. 7 in Des Moines, Iowa), Farleigh Dickinson (Dec. 9), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale: 6 -- Last season, the ahead-of-schedule Hawkeyes played some of the best defense in the Big Ten, finished top 20 in the Pomeroy adjusted efficiency rankings and made a deep run in the NIT. They were easily one of the best 60 teams in the country, but their nonconference schedule was so weak it precluded Fran McCaffery's squad from serious tournament consideration even as it played tight games with the best teams in the Big Ten every night. That shouldn't be as much of a problem this season, when Iowa will benefit from participation in the Battle 4 Atlantis (they'll face Xavier in the first round, and either Tennessee or UTEP in the second, maybe Kansas in the final?) and a much better opponent (Notre Dame) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They also get Iowa State -- which lost much of last season's excellent offensive group, but retained rising sophomore Georges Niang and that insane Hilton Coliseum home court -- in a quality true road fixture. This slate still isn't a murderers' row, but it shouldn't hold the Big Ten's most fashionable title sleeper back, either.
Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), at Duke (Dec. 3), Arizona (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: at Iowa State (Nov. 17), vs. Stanford (Dec. 21 in Brooklyn)
The rest: UMass-Lowell (Nov. 8), South Carolina State (Nov. 12), Coppin State (Nov. 29), Houston Baptist (Dec. 7), Holy Cross (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 9 -- The 2012-13 national runners-up, and 2013-14 Big Ten co-favorites, will play a nonconference schedule befitting their newly elevated aspirations. The Puerto Rico Tip-Off, with VCU and Georgetown lurking, ranks among the best tournament events of November. The trip to Duke for the ACC/Big Ten needs little in the way of explanation. (Man, that is going to be a fun game.) The trip to Iowa State is no laughing matter, for reasons outlined in Iowa's blurb; the trip to Brooklyn to face defensive-minded Stanford will be a challenge, too. But the X factor in this schedule comes Dec. 14 when Sean Miller's loaded Arizona group arrives in Ann Arbor for a good old-fashioned campus nonconference tilt. Those kinds of games are rare in our modern, neutral court-dominated landscape, and neither program needed to schedule this one. But I'm happy to speak for most college basketball fans when I say how glad I am that they did.
Toughest: vs. Kentucky (Nov. 12 in Chicago), North Carolina (Dec. 4), vs. Georgetown (Feb. 1 in New York City)
Next toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer Classic (Nov. 22-23), at Texas (Dec. 21)
The rest: McNeese State (Nov. 8), Columbia (Nov. 15), Portland (Nov. 18), Mount St. Mary's (Nov. 29), Oakland (Dec. 14), North Florida (Dec. 17), New Orleans (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 8 -- Most of Michigan State's schedule strength is derived from that monster Champions Classic matchup with potential preseason No. 1 Kentucky, John Calipari's most laughably-loaded group of talented freshmen ever -- which, two years removed from the 2012's 38-2 national title run, is saying something. The Dec. 4 home date against North Carolina won't be easy, but if the Tar Heels are without leading scorer and noted rental car enthusiast P.J. Hairston, the Spartans will be obvious favorites in the Breslin Center. Best-case scenario in the Coaches vs. Cancer (a win over Virginia Tech and a matchup with Oklahoma) still isn't much. The real pivot point comes in late December at Texas. For much of the past decade, that has been a brutal road test having less to do with Texas' crowds (sleepy) than with its teams (defensively brutal). If Barnes' team rebounds from last season's struggles and gets back to its usual spot in the top third of the Big 12, Tom Izzo's schedule looks a good sight harder. If not, it really comes down to that Kentucky game -- and what a game it will be. (Update: My first dig into the Spartans' schedule missed their Feb. 1 Super Bowl Sunday game against Georgetown in Madison Square Garden. The Hoyas are a bit of an unknown quantity without Otto Porter, but that's almost guaranteed to be a tough win to come away with, so I bumped them from seven to eight.)
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27),
Next toughest: at Richmond (Nov. 16), Florida State (Dec. 3)
The rest: Lehigh (Nov. 8), Montana (Nov. 12), Coastal Carolina (Nov. 19), Wofford (Nov. 21), New Orleans (Dec. 7), South Dakota State (Dec. 10), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 20), Texas A&M Corpus Christi (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 4 -- The Gophers have at least one true standout game on their schedule: Their first-round Maui Invitational matchup with Syracuse, the best the 2013 Maui field has to offer. Which is not to say their trip to Richmond will be easy; indeed, after an injury-plagued 2012-13 season, Chris Mooney's program looks ready to pop back into tourney-bid contention this season. But that's basically it, besides a decent second Maui game with either Arkansas or Cal. Without would-be freshmen Andrew Wiggins (who chose Kansas instead) and Xavier Rathan-Meyes (who chose FSU, but wasn't cleared academically by the NCAA), the Seminoles could be in for another sub-.500 campaign, and from there it's all home cupcakes befitting a transitioning group -- which, under first-year coach Richard Pitino, is exactly what the Gophers are.
Toughest: at Creighton (Dec. 8), at Cincinnati (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-22)
The rest: Florida Gulf Coast (Nov. 8), Western Illinois (Nov. 12), South Carolina State (Nov. 17), Northern Illinois (Nov. 30), Miami (Dec. 4), Arkansas State (Dec. 14), The Citadel (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The signs of second-year coach Tim Miles' tepid forward progress are evident not only in the impending opening of Nebraska's new $300 million arena, or in his signing of impressive New Zealand native Tai Webster (who will immediately be the Cornhuskers' best player when he takes the court against Dunk City in early November), but also in Nebraska's schedule. The Charleston Classic could yield a matchup with New Mexico (not to mention first-round opponent UMass), the Dec. 28 trip to Cincinnati is a perfectly respectable road trip, and Dec. 8's visit to Creighton -- the one program whose success can be said to have played a role in Nebraska's newfound commitment to hoops -- has a chance to put the Cornhuskers on the radar before Big Ten play commences. Miles & Co. are still a year or two away, but there are green shoots all over the place here, and the slightly improved schedule is just one more piece of evidence.
Toughest: Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29), at NC State (Dec. 4)
Next toughest: at Stanford (Nov. 14)
The rest: Eastern Illinois (Nov. 9), Illinois State (Nov. 17), UIC (Nov. 20), IUPUI (Nov. 22), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 25), Western Michigan (Dec. 7), Mississippi Valley State (Dec. 16), Brown (Dec. 22), DePaul (Dec. 27)
Toughness scale: 6 -- First-year coach Chris Collins is the first person to admit that his rebuilding project will be a multiyear affair. The immediate future will be just as challenging: Collins has to get a group of players recruited to play former coach Bill Carmody's very specific (some would say gimmicky) style to update their entire philosophy toward a modern and more conventional approach. But Collins does have some players at his disposal in Year 1 -- fifth-year medical redshirt Drew Crawford, post-suspension junior JerShon Cobb, promising sophomore center Alex Olah -- set to play a nonconference schedule that helpfully avoids the softness that plagued the Wildcats' nascent tournament hopes in recent seasons. Two true road noncon games at Stanford and NC State complement a solid pair of back-to-back fixtures (Missouri, UCLA) in the Las Vegas Invitational. The point of all this? Northwestern has the schedule to compete for a tournament bid in Year 1. Whether it will have the results to get there -- and make Collins a lionized, conquering hero in 12 months’ time -- will be fascinating to see.
Toughest: at Marquette (Nov. 16), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 21 in New York City)
Next toughest: Maryland (Dec. 4)
The rest: Morgan State (Nov. 9), Ohio (Nov. 12), American (Nov. 20), Wyoming (Nov. 25), North Florida (Nov. 29), Central Connecticut State (Dec. 7), Bryant (Dec. 11), North Dakota State (Dec. 14), Delaware (Dec. 18), Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 27)
Toughness scale: 4 -- Save a trip to Duke, the Buckeyes' early schedule in 2012 was so gentle as to make their quality difficult to gauge. It took until February, when Shannon Scott, Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson congealed into a monster on the defensive perimeter, for the Buckeyes took on the look of a national title contender. (And they would have gotten to the Final Four, too, if it wasn't for those meddling
Toughest: at Pittsburgh (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: La Salle (Nov. 19), Barclays Center Classic (Nov. 29-30 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
The rest: Wagner (Nov. 9), Bucknell (Nov. 13), Longwood (Nov. 24), Monmouth (Nov. 26), Marshall (Dec. 7), Princeton (Dec. 14), Mount St. Mary's (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale: 4 -- Like Nebraska, Penn State's schedule is improved over recent seasons, and with D.J. Newbill returning and 2011-12's do-everything star Tim Frazier back from a season-ending Achilles tear, the Nittany Lions should improve along with it. It might be unfair to La Salle to keep them off that top line; the Explorers could still be a very dangerous team even without senior guard Ramon Galloway. The Barclays Center Classic offers a game against St. John's and a matchup with either Georgia Tech or Ole Miss, and putting a trip to Pittsburgh on the schedule doesn't only help coach Pat Chambers build his program's brand in a local recruiting zone, it also gives the Nittany Lions a real-deal road game against one of the nation's most consistent (and consistently RPI-friendly) programs.
Toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next toughest: Boston College (Dec. 4), vs. Butler (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis), at West Virginia (Dec. 22)
The rest: Northern Kentucky (Nov. 8), Central Connecticut State (Nov. 13), Rider (Nov. 17), Eastern Illinois (Nov. 20), Siena (Nov. 24), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 7), Maryland Eastern Shore (Dec. 17)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The Boilermakers have one of those schedules that doesn't necessarily look great from this vantage point, but stands a reasonable chance of looking tougher and tougher as the season rolls on. How so? For starters, there's at least one really good game here -- the first-round Old Spice matchup with Oklahoma State and star point guard Marcus Smart. But a trip to West Virginia is never easy, and it's hard to imagine Bob Huggins' team repeating last season's monumental struggles. Boston College is a fringe ACC sleeper. And if Butler is better than most expect -- the Boilermakers could play the Bulldogs twice, if the two teams meet at the Old Spice in Orlando -- Matt Painter's team could benefit from a slate that proves better than the sum of its parts.
Toughest: Florida (Nov. 12), at Virginia (Dec. 4), Marquette (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Cancun Challenge (Nov. 26-27), vs. St. John's (Nov. 8 in Sioux Falls, S.D.)
The rest: at Green Bay (Nov. 16), North Dakota (Nov. 19), Bowling Green (Nov. 21), Oral Roberts (Nov. 23), Milwaukee (Dec. 11), Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 14), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 9 -- The Badgers' schedule is tough enough in the abstract. It's even tougher when you consider how quickly Bo Ryan will throw his team into the fire. The geographically baffling season opener against St. John's in Sioux Falls is one thing, but that game is followed by a visit from Florida just four days later. In late November, the Badgers will be the likely favorite in the two-game Cancun Challenge, but will have to get by both Saint Louis and (probably) West Virginia to come away with two wins. Then it's off to Charlottesville for a revenge game against Virginia, just three days before Marquette comes to the Kohl Center for another edition of Wisconsin's best basketball rivalry. Merely listing these games out doesn't quite do the schedule justice. You need to see the chronology to get the full, brutal picture.
Correction: An earlier version of this post substituted Temple coach Fran Dunphy for Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. It also neglected to list Michigan State's Feb. 1 game vs. Georgetown in Madison Square Garden, which is a pretty awesome game. Eamonn regrets the errors, and is now atoning via self-flagellation.
All 12 Big Ten teams and 12 of the 15 ACC schools will participate in the 2013 Challenge, including the three newest ACC members (Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse). Clemson, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest will not play in this year's event.
The ACC and Big Ten split last year’s Challenge with six wins each. In the event of a tie, the Commissioner’s Cup remains with the conference that won the previous year, which was the Big Ten in 2011. The ACC holds a 10-3-1 Challenge record, winning the first 10 events (1999-2008) before the Big Ten won the next three (2009-2011).
For an analysis of this year's matchups, check out Eamonn Brennan's take from back in May. As for the times and networks, here they are ...
Tuesday, Dec. 3 (all times ET)
7:15 - Indiana at Syracuse (ESPN)
7:15 - Illinois at Georgia Tech (ESPN2)
7:30 - Penn State at Pittsburgh (ESPNU)
9:15 - Michigan at Duke (ESPN)
9:15 - Notre Dame at Iowa (ESPN2)
9:30 - Florida State at Minnesota (ESPNU)
Wednesday, Dec. 4 (all times ET)
7:00 - Maryland at Ohio State (ESPN or ESPN2)
7:00 - Wisconsin at Virginia (ESPN or ESPN2)
7:30 - Northwestern at NC State (ESPNU)
9:00 - North Carolina at Michigan State (ESPN)
9:00 - Boston College at Purdue (ESPN2)
9:30 - Miami at Nebraska (ESPNU)
A few notes on this year's matchups:
- Seven of the 12 games will mark first-time Challenge matchups: Michigan-Duke, Maryland-Ohio State, Miami-Nebraska and Boston College-Purdue, plus the debut of the three new ACC members Syracuse (vs. Indiana), Notre Dame (at Iowa) and Pitt (vs. Penn State).
- In addition to first-time Challenge games, several of the teams are infrequent opponents: Nebraska holds a 3-1 record against Miami; Purdue won both previous meetings against BC; Ohio State and Maryland last played in 1985 with OSU three out of the five all-time games; and Notre Dame will play Iowa for the first time since 1990 and holds a 8-5 series record.
- Old Pennsylvania rivals Pitt and Penn State will meet for the first time since 2005. The Panthers have won the past five contests.
- Illinois/Georgia Tech and Wisconsin/Virginia will follow their first-time Challenge meetings in 2012 with a rematch in the 2013 event. The Illini and Cavaliers won last year's matchups.
- Best Three Out of Five: North Carolina/Michigan State and Minnesota/Florida State will meet in the Challenge for the fifth time. Both series are 2-2.
- Rubber Match: Northwestern and NC State will square off in the Challenge for the third time. Northwestern won in 2009 and NC State in 2002.
- Syracuse and Indiana have met five previous times in non-Challenge games, with the Orange winning the past four, including last season’s Sweet 16 matchup.
Still, a large chunk of Big Ten standouts who have entered the professional ranks have fared quite well.
Here’s a look at the 10 Big Ten products who have enjoyed the most successful pro careers since 1989, the year the NBA draft was whittled down to two rounds.
2. Deron Williams, Illinois: Currently one of the NBA’s top point guards, Williams has averaged a double-double in four of his seven NBA seasons and boasts career marks of 17.8 points and nine assists per contest. His numbers are even more impressive in the postseason, when he has stepped up to average 21 points and 9.4 assists in 51 playoff games with Utah and Brooklyn. Williams has been on three All-Star squads and was named second-team all-league in 2008 and 2010. He also was a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic squad that won a gold medal.
3. Zach Randolph, Michigan State: With career averages of 17.2 points and 9.3 rebounds, Randolph is currently one of the top power forwards in the NBA. This season, he led Memphis to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history. Randolph was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2004 and was named third-team All-NBA in 2011. Randolph has averaged a double-double in seven of his 11 NBA seasons, and he’s averaged more than 20 points five times. In his one season at Michigan State in 2000-01, Randolph led the Spartans to the Final Four.
4. Glenn Robinson, Purdue: In his junior year at Purdue, “The Big Dog” averaged 30.3 points and 11.2 rebounds, making him the first Big Ten player since 1978 to lead the league in both categories. The No. 1 pick in the 1994 NBA draft averaged 20.7 points and 6.1 rebounds in 11 NBA seasons. He made the All-Star team in 2000 and 2001 and made four playoff appearances with Milwaukee (three times) and San Antonio (once). Robinson’s best year came in 1997-98 when he averaged 23.4 points for the Bucks. He played his last NBA game in 2005.
5. Glen Rice, Michigan: By the time he retired in 2004, Rice had played 846 games for six teams in 15 NBA seasons. The forward averaged 18.9 points during that span and shot 85 percent from the foul stripe. The fourth overall pick in the 1989 draft played in three All-Star games and earned the game's MVP honors in 1997 -- the same year that he was named second-team All-NBA. That was also the year Rice averaged a career-high 26.8 points. Known for his long-range prowess, Rice was a 40 percent career 3-point shooter.
6. Michael Redd, Ohio State: After proving himself against top players such as Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson in practice, Redd became a star for the Milwaukee Bucks. He averaged more than 21 points for six straight seasons (2003-2009) and was a third-team all-league selection in 2004. Redd also was a member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. He’s currently the NBA record holder for 3-pointers made in one quarter (eight). Redd averaged 19 points in 12 NBA seasons.
7. Juwan Howard, Michigan: Howard has had the longest career of any member of “The Fab Five.” He’s played in 1,257 games in 18 NBA seasons and boasts career averages of 13.4 points and 6.1 rebounds. Howard’s best season came in 1995-96 when he averaged 22.2 points and 8.1 boards. Following that season, he was named third-team All-NBA. Last season, as a seldom-used reserve, he earned an NBA title as a member of the Miami Heat.
8. Jason Richardson, Michigan State: The current Philadelphia 76er has posted a double-digit scoring average in each of his 12 NBA seasons. His best year came in 2005-06 when he scored 23.2 points a game for Golden State. Richardson is averaging 17.3 points for his career and 17.1 points in the playoffs. Known as one of the NBA’s top high-flyers, Richardson won the NBA Slam Dunk title in 2002 and 2003. Richardson was the fifth overall pick in the 2001 NBA draft.
9. Michael Finley, Wisconsin: A small forward, Finley averaged 15.7 points during his 15 NBA seasons. Nine of those were spent with the Dallas Mavericks, including his best season in 1999-2000 when posted career highs in both scoring (22.6) and rebounding (6.3). Finley was selected to the NBA All-Star team in 2000 and 2001, and he won an NBA title in 2007 as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. He averaged 11.2 points in the playoffs that season. Finley retired in 2010.
10. Steve Smith, Michigan State: The standout guard averaged 14.3 points in 14 NBA seasons, including 20.1 points in both 1996-97 and 1997-98. He was strong in the postseason, where he averaged 14.9 points in 90 games. Smith played in the 1998 All-Star game and was a member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team. He won an NBA title with the Spurs in 2003, though he received little playing time that season. He is one of just three players in league history to drain seven 3-pointers in a single quarter.
Ten more notables: All of these players have excelled in the NBA, including a few who almost cracked the top 10 and/or could be there soon (names in alphabetical order).
Nick Anderson, Illinois
Mike Conley, Ohio State
Jamal Crawford, Michigan
Ricky Davis, Iowa
Kendall Gill, Illinois
Eric Gordon, Indiana
Devin Harris, Wisconsin
Jim Jackson, Ohio State
Brad Miller, Purdue
Jalen Rose, Michigan
Too soon to tell: These guys haven’t been in the league long enough to make the top 10, but all appear to have bright futures (names in alphabetical order).
Draymond Green, Michigan State
Meyers Leonard, Illinois
E’Twaun Moore, Purdue
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Evan Turner, Ohio State
*Note: Of the 25 names on these lists, five are from Michigan, five are from Ohio State, four are from Illinois, four are from Michigan State, three are from Purdue and two are from Wisconsin. Indiana and Iowa boast one player each.
Luckily enough, Groce found a long-term replacement in Paul's own family. On Saturday, Darius Paul, Brandon's younger brother, announced he would transfer from Western Michigan to play for the Illini:
It's a privilege to be put in this situation I've been put in..will be wearing orange & blue for the rest of my college career #Illini— Darius Paul (@D_Raw35) May 5, 2013
On Sunday, ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers reported that the decision came about because of a "coaching staff change" at Western Michigan and "the desire to play at a higher level, according to his mother." But the bond Groce formed early in his tenure with his embattled senior -- which was evident as early as media day, and paid clear dividends throughout the season -- surely played a large role in the younger brother's decision to choose Illinois over a raft of quality offers, including those from Florida, Iowa State, Marquette, Miami (Fla.), Missouri, Nebraska and Nevada. On Saturday, Darius Paul watched his older brother accept Illinois' Most Outstanding Player award at the team's athletics banquet, which just so happened to coincide with his official visit to the school. Good timing.
Anyway, the younger Paul won't really replace the elder. For one, he's a big man, not a guard; for another, he'll have to sit out a year before resuming his final three years of eligibility. But he is a really promising player. Darius Paul averaged 10.4 points and 5.7 rebounds and won the MAC Freshman of the Year award in 2012-13, with a particularly impressive offensive rebounding rate (12.8 percent) and some solid interior scoring (and 51 percent from 2) in just his first year. Darius Paul may not have garnered the same recruiting hype as his brother coming out of high school, and he may not be the same kind of player. But it's not a stretch to think he can make a similar-sized impact as Brandon -- and maybe, one day, leave Illinois the better player. Either way, nice get by Groce.
A 30-year, $60-million agreement changes the name of the building to State Farm Center as the structure undergoes a major renovation project that is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2016.
"We are extremely proud to announce this relationship with State Farm, one of the most respected corporate brands in the world," Illinois Director of Athletics Mike Thomas said. "State Farm has been an outstanding partner for the University of Illinois for more than two decades, and this agreement will carry that partnership forward for at least three more. The Assembly Hall is one of the most recognizable structures in the nation and, at 50 years of age, has served the UI campus, community and Central Illinois very well. This agreement will ensure State Farm Center will serve those same constituents, and even more, for many years to come."
That statement is total PR-speak, obviously, but it does bring up a valid point: State Farm is a local Illinois company based just an hour northwest of Champaign in Bloomington, Ill., so there is a local tie between the two entities. And as one Illinois fan at the Champaign Room commented, "... Assembly Hall is just a name and a boring one at that." It's also a name the Illini have awkwardly shared with Indiana for decades. This deal changes the branding, or at least makes things slightly less confusing.
My only surprise? Thirty years for $60 million. That doesn't seem like a whole lot of money, does it? I suppose the free market has spoken, but at this point Big Ten teams can find $2 million a year stuffed in the couch cushions of league headquarters. That's not really an exaggeration: In June 2012, commissioner Jim Delany announced the conference would disperse $284 million of network revenue, TV rights money, and NCAA tournament earnings to its 12 teams. Why would any team need to sell its arena name for $2 million a year for 30 years? Will Assembly Hall -- erm, the State Farm Center -- even be there in 30 years?! That building is charming and as loud as any place in the country, but I can answer that question: No. It won't. Pending renovation or not, it's old.
Still, the prevailing response from most Illinois fans seems to be "meh," and besides, those of us in Chicago are already used to defiantly refusing to call our major buildings by new names. (Don't you dare call it the Willis Tower.) So I suppose you might as well make a little money, right?
(Hat tip: Jeff Eisenberg)
Six Big Ten teams (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State) were ranked in the AP top 10 at one point this season. Entering the NCAA tournament, five were ranked in the AP top 20.
The conference entered the NCAA tournament with big expectations and, so far, has lived up to them. Big Ten teams are a combined 10-3 through the round of 32, and tied a Big Ten record by putting four teams in the Sweet 16. In fact, it’s the second consecutive season the Big Ten has four of the Sweet 16 teams -- and each is in a different region, so it's possible we could see an all-Big Ten Final Four.
However, the Big Ten hasn’t won a national championship since Michigan State in 2000. When comparing the Big Ten to the other Power 6 conferences in the tournament, it measures favorably in some categories but falls short in others -- most notably national titles won.
Since the start of the 2000-01 season, the Big Ten has sent 72 teams to the NCAA tournament. Only the Big East has sent more (92). And 40 percent of Big Ten teams (29 of 72) have reached the Sweet 16. That’s the highest percentage among the Power 6 conferences.
However, making the Sweet 16 hasn't equaled long-term success. The Big Ten ranks last since 2001 among the Power 6 in percent (16.9) of Elite Eight teams. (The Big Ten does, however, have the second-highest percentage of Final Four teams, trailing only the ACC.)
Since 2001, the Big Ten has had four teams play for a national title (2002 Indiana, 2005 Illinois, 2007 Ohio State, 2009 Michigan State), but each lost. The ACC, Big East and SEC each have had multiple teams win a national title from 2001-12. In fact, three of the five titles won by ACC schools came with beating a Big Ten team in the national championship game.
AUSTIN, Texas -- It took six games, three days and countless misses plus a few hits but, finally, in the last game of the regional, the NCAA tournament showed up in the heart of the Lone Star State.
Thank you, Miami and Illinois. Faith in college basketball was restored in this football town, live and in person instead of having to experience it via flat screen. There were shots that mattered, dunks that thundered, sweating and screaming coaches, nervous and obnoxious fans and finally a winner, Miami, that had to play for an entire 40 minutes to advance. The game ended 63-59 in favor of the Hurricanes over the No. 7 seed Illini. The only other regional game that had even been near to being this close was Illinois' eight-point win over Colorado. And the Illini shot 13 percent in the second half to secure that win. All the other games here were double-digit foregone conclusions.
Then there was the capper where one team played as though it mattered (Miami) and the other played clearly above its head (Illinois).
"After the game was over I was still kind of stunned when I shook hands with their coach [John Groce], I was speechless," said Miami coach Jim Larranaga.
That versatility should prove invaluable as the Hurricanes move forward against Marquette, a team that itself has proved to have Lazarus-like qualities. The Golden Eagles have won twice in the waning moments in this tournament. But now Miami has one of those come-from-behind wins. The Hurricanes trailed 55-54 with 1:58 left before Shane Larkin hit a step-back 3-pointer to give Miami a lead it did not give up.
"I wanted to go out there and make a big play for my team, and I guess luck was just on my side when I shot it," Larkin said.
It takes a smidgen of luck at this stage. And the officials may have sprinkled a bit Miami's way on a controversial out-of-bounds play late. Replay showed the ball should have been awarded to the Illini, which would have given them another chance to tie the score.
"There were so many hands I don't know who touched it last," said Miami's Kenny Kadji. "I really don't know."
Groce acted as though he knew something: "I have two thoughts. I thought the officiating Friday and today was tremendous. These are the best of the best. My second thought is you saw the same video I did."
Everybody saw the same game Groce did, one in which Miami struggled to find its way around a defense that got into the passing lanes and harassed the interior players.
"Tremendous," Larranga said of that defense.
But he also had another word for how Miami was able to deal with that defense and ultimately make it to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2000: "Resilient."
Indeed, the Hurricanes bounced back. Just like basketball finally did here Sunday night.
"And then Hollins, and I should have mentioned him in my opening statement, played great," Howland said. "Their point guard was unbelievable tonight. Just how effective he was. Shooting the ball and pulling up."
"My teammates believe in me, and they know I can make the shot," Hollins said.
Well, now everybody else does, too. Really, had it just been Hollins' shooting, maybe UCLA could have handled him and the Gophers. But aside from Hollins' 28 points -- 5-of-8 on 3s -- he had nine rebounds and five assists against what was a longer, more athletic team. The 28 was double his season average. (He did have a career-high 41 against Memphis in November.) The nine rebounds was more than twice his season average (3.7) and, just like everything else, the assists were above his season average, as well (3.5).
"Growing up as a little kid, you just dream of these moments," Hollins said.
It's one thing to dream of them, it is quite another to seize them.
Hollins was able to do just that, and, because of it, propel a team that had lost 11 of 16 with a slightly embattled coach into the round of 32.
"When he gets going and gets into a rhythm, he is a very, very difficult guy to stop," said Florida coach Billy Donovan.
All that is great, but Hollins and Minnesota have to turn around and face Florida. Although the team from La-La Land played with exactly that attitude, Donovan and Florida have a tinge more ferocity in their makeup. That was evident when the Gators held the nation's highest-scoring team, Northwestern State, to 34 points below its average in the teams' game Friday night. (By the way, UCLA allowed Minnesota to score 15 points more than its season average.)
"I'm pretty familiar with Billy Donovan; we played quite a few games against each other when I was at Kentucky," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said.
Thing was, back then, Smith had Kentucky talent -- plus a smidge of talent at Georgia one year -- and used it to go 16-8 against Donovan in the SEC. Now it's Donovan with the superior talent and, more specifically, a shutdown defensive talent in Scottie Wilbekin, who will be wrapped all over Hollins.
"He has three qualities that enable him to be very, very good," Donovan said of Wilbekin. "First, he has great feet. The second thing is he is a physical defender. He can go through, around and off screens very well. Third, he is a guy that is a tough-minded defender, maybe more so than any guy I have coached. He values that."
So does Hollins.
"I just let my teammates get in the flow first of all, feeding off them, and make sure that I am playing well defensively first of all, and let that feed over to my offensive game," Hollins said.
It's also not as if Hollins has been going against stiffs all year. The Big Ten does feature Aaron Craft. The Ohio State point guard is considered one of the top defenders in the country.
"You have to be a little bit more decisive with your moves and how you are going to attack, be a little bit more secure with the ball," Hollins said of playing against players such as Craft.
Hollins had only 11 points on 30 percent shooting with two turnovers against one assist in a 26-point loss to Ohio State. So maybe that isn't the best memory for him to draw on. Instead, Hollins might want to go with his most recent memory and hope it doesn't fade.
Austin news & notes
- Miami was pulled off the practice court because of a fire alarm at the Frank Erwin Center at about 12:30 p.m. Saturday. The alarm, which proved to be a lot of noise signifying nothing, caused a 30-minute delay in practice as Miami had to evacuate the building. "We didn't really know whether to leave or not until one of the security guards told us we had to evacuate the building," said Miami's Trey McKinney Jones. "But then we made the most out of it. Julian [Gamble] was out there rapping, we were just having fun."
"It's an unexpected event, but you have to know that you always have adversity, whether it be now or on the court, and you have to be able to handle that," Gamble said.
- Illinois jacked up 31 3s in its win against Colorado. Never mind that it hit only eight of them, just the prospect of having to guard a team that is so prolific in shooting from deep has Miami somewhat concerned. "I believe their confidence kept them shooting the ball, and eventually they went back and hit a number of 3-pointers," Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. "And I think that when you are committed to that style, it gives your players a lot of freedom. You have to play great defense for the entire game because, at any time you let up, they could drain four or five in a row."
- Donovan gets some ribbing, OK, a lot of grief, because of his Eddie Munster type hairstyle. But things got a little more like the macabre '60s hit when a bat flew from the rafters during the Florida practice."If you get bit, I will pay your medical bills," Donovan joked with his players. Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America.
- Texas football coach Mack Brown, a longtime friend of Tubby Smith's, stopped by the Gophers' practice to lend some motivational advice. "The main thing I took away from it is seize the moment, take care of business and kick some butt," Hollins said.
- The secret to Miami's success is available for $8.56 on Amazon. Express shipping on "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," by Stephen Covey costs slightly more, but Illinois might want to pay the extra cash. At least then the Illini might gain some insight into what makes the Hurricanes tick. In an effort to take the correct first step with his new team, Covey's book is what Larranaga turned to the first day he met with his team two years ago. "I wrote those seven habits on the board, explained to them what they meant and how they should embrace it," Larranaga said, "and then, as we begin practice each year, we begin with an expression that's in the book ... 'Begin with the end in mind.'"
- Kenny Kadji's NCAA tournament bracket didn't take a hit when Florida Gulf Coast upset No. 2 Georgetown. In fact, none of the Hurricanes players were stunned. "I just know that everybody on our team picked them to win that game," Kadji said. "We knew how Florida Gulf Coast was, and they're a pretty good team, and the way they played against us at their place was pretty unbelievable." Florida Gulf Coast beat the Hurricanes 63-51 in mid-November.
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.
"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 -- On Friday, Will Sheehey sat in a corner and relaxed in the serene postgame locker room following Indiana’s 80-64 victory over Illinois in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament at the United Center.
At the time, standouts Victor Oladipo (12 points, 11 rebounds and one amazing 360-degree dunk in the second half) and Cody Zeller (24 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and two steals) were in a separate media room.
The peace that Sheehey (11 points, 4-for-4 from the field) had enjoyed disappeared the moment Oladipo entered the room trailed by a horde of reporters. That swarm startled Sheehey, who quickly fled as journalists surrounded the adjacent locker to talk to the national player of the year candidate.
“Let me get out of here,” he said. “I am a little [claustrophobic]. I’m not going to lie.”
It’s a typical situation for Sheehey and the other Hoosiers.
Zeller and Oladipo, a pair of All-America candidates and future lottery picks, have been the subject of substantive national and local stories that have detailed Indiana’s transformation from an NCAA violations-plagued mess to a legitimate title contender in a short span.
But Zeller and Oladipo don’t operate alone. They’re flanked by a crew of capable of veterans who warrant a respectable share of credit for Indiana’s rise. The squad’s effort against Illinois proved as much.
Sheehey scored on back-to-back buckets that gave Indiana a 10-2 lead in the first half and put the Illini into an early hole that they couldn’t escape. He dove for multiple loose balls, and he guarded Illinois' guards and forwards.
“I think we have a team like we have had that's answered the bell all year long, responded from tough games,” said Tom Crean. “And sitting where we're sitting, the team has been the headline-maker. Because these guys are so unselfish and they're so selfless with one another and the way that they work, the way that they share the credit, the way that they play offensively and defensively.”
The blending of new and old can fail because the egos of young men are fragile. Chemistry problems can ruin a team that was in Indiana’s preseason position, regardless of talent, if players refuse to accept their roles.
The Hoosiers were faced with that predicament when Yogi Ferrell (12 points) and one of the nation’s top recruiting classes reached Bloomington last summer. Crean returned the bulk of a squad that had won an NCAA tournament game in the 2011-12 season. But it was obvious that his youngsters would contribute in 2012-13, too.
That’s what players wondered as they attempted to sort things out in tense pickup games.
Hulls could see that Oladipo had made tremendous improvements in one offseason and would demand a bigger role this season.
“In pickup games, nobody could stop him. We saw how hard he was working in the gym, and it was really paying off,” Hulls said. “We were really excited, but we were mad we couldn’t stop him in the open gym. But we were excited for the team.”
Watford recognized that the influx of talent could affect his final season with the program.
“It’s definitely a growing process,” he said. “My role has changed. It’s changed, but it really hasn’t changed. I’m still doing the same things: rebounding and scoring the basketball. But we’ve just got a lot of guys. And you’ve just got to accept that.”
Ferrell and his freshman peers tried to display their toughness in those offseason matchups.
“I remember me and Will almost got into a fight,” he said. “Me and Will squared up. I was like ‘Throw, throw a fist.’ We didn’t end up fighting. But I definitely remember that, almost fighting Will. … We just wanted to play our role, I’d say. We felt like if we did that we’d just help the team win.”
With all of the changes, Indiana’s season could have been disrupted by infighting and a lack of chemistry. But the squad’s veterans wouldn’t allow it.
Their selflessness enhanced the ties between one of America’s best teams. And that’s why the Hoosiers operated so seamlessly Friday afternoon, months after fisticuffs nearly ensued in a team pickup game.
Oladipo and Zeller will make millions soon if they decide to go pro. They’re significant components in Indiana’s success and potential.
But Hulls, Sheehey and Watford deserve praise for the impressive mesh that the Hoosiers showcased in Chicago -- the one that could fuel a run to Atlanta in a few weeks.
Without them, this thing may have fallen apart last summer.
“They're huge,” Oladipo said. “It takes our whole team to win. When guys off the bench step up and when Christian and Jordan step up, it's huge for us. They're very capable of that. Without them, we can't win.”
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.
What is it, exactly, that allowed the Gophers to look like one of the best teams in the country for the first two months of the season, and utterly pedestrian for the final six weeks? Why can the Gophers play urgent, efficient basketball against the best team in the country -- which they did as recently as Feb. 26, when they knocked off Indiana at home -- and some of the ugliest basketball in the country in season-ending losses to Nebraska and Purdue?
How can Minnesota, so desperate to turn a month and change of bad losses into a lasting tournament run, begin their first postseason game with a 16-point, 22-shot, 11-turnover first half? How can they get back in the game so easily and obviously, only to surrender their lead late -- allowing Brandon Paul to hit the smooth game winner that gave Illinois its 51-49 win here Thursday?
"That's a good question," Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe said.
"I don't know," Andre Hollins said, following a long, searching pause. "It's just … I don't know."
On one hand, it's pretty easy to explain: Minnesota is fundamentally flawed. The Gophers turn over the ball too often, and they have all season; Minnesota had the highest turnover percentage (21.3) in the Big Ten this season. Its 19 turnovers Thursday cost it early, and cost it late, leading to key opportunities for Illinois as it clawed back in the game in the closing moments. Turnovers are always bad (um, duh), but the trait is especially problematic for the Gophers, whose best feature -- their national-best offensive rebounding -- relies on them having actually attempted a shot in the first place. When that doesn't happen, which is often, the Gophers' entire offense breaks down.
And that's just the offense. Minnesota's defense, which ranked eighth in the Big Ten in points per possession allowed this season, remains a constant issue.
But a deeper question remains unanswered. How can a team with a sixth-year senior star such as Mbakwe -- and experienced, veteran players in every other role -- not improve these fatal flaws throughout a four-month season? Why does Minnesota, despite all the flashes of brilliance, still play so disjointed on both ends of the floor?
Between sighs, Gophers coach Tubby Smith ventured at an answer.
"We have been taking care of the ball better the past few games, and we tried to simplify our offense today and be more of a ball-possession type of game," Smith said. "And just like you saw, the guys fumbled the ball a little bit. I don't know what was happening."
"It kind of epitomized what we -- the way our play has been so erratic, so up-and-down, so inconsistent," Smith said.
If there is any good news in Thursday for the Gophers, it's that even despite this loss, their NCAA tournament resume is still likely to end up on the right side of the bubble; the Gophers retain a top-25 RPI, the No. 2-ranked schedule in the country (including the No. 12-ranked nonconference schedule), and wins against Memphis, Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, all of which should keep them in better shape than much of the bubble -- even if Smith said his team would be sweating it out through Selection Sunday.
But that is little consolation. After all, what good is going to the tournament if you're bound to limp home after a first-round exit? Forget peaking in March. The Gophers would settle for stopping a free fall.
"I know they want to play well, they want to play together," Smith said. "We got a good group of guys. We just haven't had that take-charge, 'I got it under control, I'm in control here' type of person."
Maybe it is a lack of leadership. Or energy. Or focus. Or maybe it's just as simple as a turnover-prone, rebound-reliant offense and a mediocre defense. Whatever the answer is, Minnesota has to find it soon. Indeed, it might already be too late.