- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
INDIANAPOLIS -- Football is supposed to be the game of inches, where the nose of a football can determine a winner or a loser.
Basketball, it turns out, can be just as exactingly sweet or cruel, depending on your rooting interest.
Tracy Abrams pulled up for a wide-open jumper, the ball kissing the front of the rim and bouncing off.
Michigan 64, its chance at a Big Ten tournament title and maybe a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament still alive.
Illinois 63, its dreams for a Cinderella run here cut short, its hopes now focused on an NIT bid to extend the season.
“We got some good bounces around the rim," John Beilein said, using a throwaway quote straight out of the coaches’ cliché handbook that actually made sense here.
Because this game, as much as it was about finesse, execution and some seriously good coaching from both benches, wound up coming down to luck and guessing, or at least educated guessing.
The Wolverines got luckier and Beilein guessed better.
“There’s a lot of things that you can second-guess after the fact," John Groce said. “You can go back, 'I wish I would have done this' or 'I wish I would have done that.' But decisions that are made throughout the course of the game are discussed and they’re educated decisions. Most of the times those work, and to be honest with you, occasionally they don’t."
Ten days ago, the Illini and Wolverines met in Champaign, Ill. Michigan drained 16 3-pointers and won in a rout. So naturally, Groce decided, as the Wolverines threatened to pull away, to go with a zone.
Of course it worked, taking the Wolverines out of their rhythm enough to get the Illini, once down by as many as 13 in the second half, back in the game.
But when the game hit the critical mass point, with the Illini up one and just 19 ticks left, Groce went back to his comfort zone and called man to man.
“Hindsight is always 20-20 on decisions like that," Groce said. “Now that I know that Morgan scored that basket, as it looked like it was going to roll off the rim, I would have liked to have gone zone."
Beilein, MacGyver with a whiteboard, able to X-and-O his way out of any problem, countered with a play that naturally could work against either defense.
He put the ball in Stauskas’ hands, and when the Big Ten Player of the Year rose up just inside the free throw line, he attracted two defenders to him. Instead of shooting, which you might say is Stauskas’ calling card, he dropped it down to Morgan.
“J-Mo rolled down the lane and he was wide open," Stauskas said.
The pass still caught Morgan off guard. He said Stauskas told him coming out of the timeout he was going to shoot it regardless, so when the ball started coming his way, he was a little bit unprepared.
In the moment, at least, he was unprepared. In reality, Morgan was wildly ready. A few years ago, Beilein swiped a drill he saw another NCAA tournament team using. Essentially he has his bigs run to the rim with their heads turned, assistant coaches hitting them with bags as they work.
“It’s a lot of action, a screen-and-roll play, but you don’t know what’s happening," Beilein said. “You’ve got to be able to catch it here, catch it there, catch it with balance and put it in. At least 2,000 times in five years, Jordan Morgan has run that same drill. ... He said he wanted to add a little drama to the game, so he decided to put it up on the rim."
A little drama, and maybe just a kiss of luck, too.