John Groce’s Illini kept their weak NCAA tournament flame flickering at Nebraska.
Considering the opposition, the 71-51 win didn’t do a great deal for postseason consideration. But a non-win in Lincoln might have virtually ended it.
Thanks to D.J. Richardson’s career-best 30-point outburst, the Illini dug out of a hole and stayed alive to battle another day. Good job, D.J. It’s about time somebody shot without a conscience (he made 6 of 9 treys; his teammates hit 1 of 13).
But for all of DJR’s heroics — red hot, he racked 15 points in the last nine minutes — this turnaround was the direct result of the more athletic Illini encountering a team that they could (1) outrebound and (2) successfully defend.
While UI shooters have been performing like it was outdoors, the previous six opponents drained 48 of 111 treys, a 43 percent mark that is difficult to overcome. Nebraska made 2 of 14, appearing as arc-challenged as any Big Ten team you’ll run across. Shavon Shields, coming off 18- and 29-point sprees, reverted to freshman inconsistency by getting in foul trouble and failing to produce a field goal.
Reason for optimism?
This gave Groce a chance to acknowledge the UI defense, which hadn’t been covering itself with laurels.
“It started on the defensive end, the best we’ve played in some time,” Groce said. “D.J. was terrific on both ends (his primary assignment, Ray Gallegos, was averaging 13 and scored 5).
“We came out hard from the start, and we rebounded 12 of our 19 misses in the first half. We were locked in.
“We fouled too much (24 personals and the second Groce technical), but I’d rather see us be aggressive and then work to curtail some of that as we go forward.”
Me, too. Bump, hack and push. You never know how the refs will call a sport that defies officiating. Mauling often works for Wisconsin and Purdue ... and Michigan State. Take your chances.
Still, offensive concerns abound for the Illini, and that’s where most observers focus.
Tyler Griffey, replaced by Sam McLaurin in the starting lineup, has now missed 17 consecutive three-point shots, this by a senior who made 17 of his first 30 in November.
Preparing to face one of the nation’s premier guard-oriented teams Sunday — Trey Burke leads 17-1 Michigan against Purdue tonight — the UI continues to receive sporadic play at the point. Brandon Paul had no assists in the previous three games before handing out three at Nebraska. Paul and Tracy Abrams show 15 turnovers in the last two games, and Abrams went scoreless in 22 minutes at Nebraska.
Joseph Bertrand broke out of his mini-slump (he was scoreless against Northwestern) with a seven-point, eight-rebound game Tuesday but has missed his last six treys. The early-season outburst of deadly arc-shooting has boomeranged, the Illini making just 37 of 148 (25 percent) since Christmas.
Whether here or anyplace else, we once again see basketball as a streaky game with jump shooters going the way momentum takes them.
As an example, the Cornhuskers survived the UI’s early backboard assault and clung within 18-16 when they froze up and went the last nine minutes of the first half without a field goal.
That’s nine minutes, nearly one-fourth of the game, without a basket. The spread reached 35-21 shortly before the break, Illinois getting 17 extra possessions via five steals and 12 offensive boards.
Going in, and plenty concerned, a new UI staff pretended that last year’s 80-57 result didn’t matter. That is appropriate coaching strategy.
But it mattered to the players. They lived through that debacle, and it had enormous repercussions. It was during a 36-4 midgame Huskers run in the Devaney complex last February that Illinoisans everywhere came to the full realization that the Bruce Weber tenure was over.
They defeated a weak Iowa team in the Assembly Hall eight days later, but that was the only victory in the last 10 games of the Weber regime. It was a collapse of major proportions by a team that started 15-3. Tuesday’s win was significant, but it’s still an uphill grind to reach the 8-10 conference mark that may be necessary for NCAA inclusion.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.