Live by the bomb, and die by the bomb.
So far, John Groce’s newly-ranked Illini (No. 22) are living large by unleashing long-range bombs, UI seniors hauling two apparent losses out of the grave with last-ditch strikes. D.J. Richardson nipped Hawaii 78-77 at :00 in overtime, and Tyler Griffey rejected Gardner-Webb 63-62 at :04.
Is this a dependable strategy? No, there will be days like Sunday when it won’t be pretty. But look at it this way: Groce’s free-firing approach will win games that might otherwise slip away, and it’s a lot more fun this way.
This early sample is too small, but let’s make a comparison with last season anyway. Rounding the numbers, Bruce Weber’s last UI team averaged 54 shot attempts, of which 19 were treys. In seven games this season — and let’s concede the Big Ten will present stiffer defenses — the current Illini are taking more overall shots 60 to 54, attempting more treys 27 to 19, shooting better from the arc 40.6 to 30.4 percent, making more treys, 11 to 6, and producing more points, 80.1 to 65.6. That’s nearly 15 points per game based on five more treys.
If you have a strong post game — if Meyers Leonard was still around — it would pay to go inside. If you depend on jump shots, it doesn’t make sense to shoot 18-footers. Just take a step back to the arc where 40 percent accuracy is the equivalent to 60 percent from inside the arc. Very often, these are less challenged, as was the case with both Richardson and Griffey on their game-winners.
Sunday’s Gardner-Webb game served as a grim reminder that old habits aren’t easily broken, that all scores won’t be in the 80s, and a zone defense can sometimes make energetic scorers appear tired.
Faulty UI ballhandling, an ongoing concern, led to 18 turnovers. The Bulldogs pressured Tracy Abrams into mistakes and used a perplexing zone that prevented Paul and others from driving. The Illini committed eight turnovers in the first eight minutes, and the trio of Abrams, Griffey and Brandon Paul went 0 for 9 in the first half. The smaller G-W team hurt Illinois on the boards, although the numbers wound up even.
Point is, as with the Hawaii game when they trailed by 16, the Illini had to overcome their own deficiencies. In this case, they trailed 45-40 and barely avoided embarrassment when G-W’s senior sub, Tashan Newsome, overshot a three-pointer and it banked in at :14.
Lest it be overlooked, Joseph Bertrand made large and extended contributions in Abrams’ absence.
Said Groce: “I believe in Tracy. He’s tough. He’ll respond.
“Bertrand was our best player today. If not for him coming off the bench, it could have been ugly early.”
It’ll be a Challenge
With Illinois bringing to six the number of Big Ten teams in the AP Top 25 — the ACC has three — the time has come for the nation’s top conference to prove itself.
The home courts are equally divided, but the Big Ten hosts some of the biggest games in the Challenge: No. 14 North Carolina at No. 1 Indiana, No. 18 North Carolina State at No. 3 Michigan, both tonight, and the Illini-Georgia Tech match here Wednesday.
Duke is playing better than anyone in the country, having served the only losses to Kentucky (4-1), Minnesota (6-1) and Louisville (5-1). And the Blue Devils have the homecourt advantage Wednesday on No. 4 Ohio State.
Switching to football
If changes are coming to the Illini coaching staff, here’s a thought. With more than a dozen Division I schools ousting head coaches, that throws more than 100 assistants into the job market. It’s a dog-eat-dog business. And nobody seems to care about the cost.
In dumping Gene Chizik two years after he led Auburn to the national title, the school agrees to pay him more than $200,000 per month for three years. This doesn’t include what’s owed to his staff. This is madness gone crazy. But that’s the SEC.
The search for Superman also finds Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas in the hunt, with Cincinnati’s Butch Jones reportedly among those interested. And they’re already talking as though Mizzou’s once-solid coach, Gary Pinkel, is on shaky ground if he doesn’t do better than 2-6 in the league.
Elsewhere Colorado, contending with Illinois for the dishonor of being the nation’s most underachieving program, is looking again, as are California, North Carolina State and Boston College. And you can add Purdue to the list. Danny Hope won his last three games, but Boilermaker leaders must have decided to fire him a month ago when the Boilermakers lost five straight.
All have their reasons, but this much I know: Superman isn’t real, and there aren’t enough Urban Meyers and Kevin Sumlins to go around. And while we’re at it, who’ll step up and give Bobby Petrino a second chance ... you know, like Washington State (3-9) did with Mike Leach?
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.