EVANSTON — If you removed “unbelievable” from Big Ten lexicon, nobody would be able to discuss Big Ten basketball.
It swings from one extraordinary extreme to the other. Just 72 hours after coach Bill Carmody drew plaudits as his depleted Northwestern travelers played Ohio State to a 57-57 deadlock for 37 minutes, the critics at Welsh-Ryan Arena were calling for his head again Sunday night.
Steadily improving Illinois paid back the clinic lesson that Carmody & Co. delivered at Illinois (68-54) on Jan. 17 by a stunning 62-41 margin.
And a switching man-to-man defense, which had been the center of concerns by coach John Groce in January, drew praise from all sides. Most pleased were the many orange-clad Illini in sold-out Welsh-Ryan Arena as the Illini jumped out early, stalled and then — unbelievably — erupted for a 26-0 run covering both sides of halftime.
“This was like a home game,” said sophomore Tracy Abrams after another strong 13-point, four-assist effort.
Not only did 150 members of the Orange Krush lead the cheers, but three youths disguised as Northwestern students were chosen to participate in a timeout race, and all three drew loud cheers when, upon leaving the court, they displayed orange underneath.
That’s the kind of fun night it was for the rejuvenated Illini and their once-despondent (when they were 2-7) and now rejuvenated followers.
Business as usual
No one remembers that the score was a nervous 19-15 with less than three minutes left in the half, the Illini going 1 for 10 in a nine-minute slump.
Then came the avalanche, and the snowball kept growing until it reached 45-15 ... and if junior Joe Bertrand hadn’t committed a midcourt turnover, the shutout run might have gone into the 30s.
The Wildcats couldn’t get a good look at the basket. And they couldn’t shoot straight when they did (25 percent). The quick-switching Illini were so dominant that the Wildcats didn’t pass the teens until Illinois had rocketed ahead 47-17.
But if you think a 35-point turnaround — from 54-68 on Jan. 17 to 62-41 on Feb. 17 — is unique, consider that earlier in the day Iowa trailed by 16 and beat Minnesota by 21. That’s a turnaround of 37 in a single game.
The result gave Illinois impressive paybacks against Minnesota, Purdue and Northwestern, the latter two by a combined margin of 41 points, and ran the current win streak to four. This sets up Thursday’s home date with Penn State as an opportunity for the 19-8 Illini to square their Big Ten record at 7-7 and reach the 20-win circle.
Richardson on a roll
As in the Purdue romp, the Illini did it with minimal scoring output from Brandon Paul, who entered Sunday as the Big Ten’s third-highest scorer. Paul was effective, producing five assists with eight points, but the late-season leader is D.J. Richardson, whose 18-point, eight-rebound performance led the way Sunday.
Not only is DJR averaging 17-plus in his last eight games, but his baskets have come at opportune times, as was the case again Sunday.
It was DJR who returned to the game at 19-15 and cashed half the UI points in a 10-0 late-half burst, and he kicked off the second-half spree with a trey.
Northwestern was clearly stunned by the turn of events and couldn’t break the spell.
“Our defense was really good,” Groce said, “and we were able to maintain it. If we do what we’re supposed to on that end, the other takes care of itself. The five guys are communicating better and we seemed more connected on the defensive end. We’re getting a lot of unselfish play.
“We didn’t shoot well from the arc (6 of 20) and we weren’t very good at the free throw line (8 of 15), but we’ll take it. What a difference a month makes.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.