CHICAGO — Bring on somebody different. Make it anybody the Illini haven’t played twice. Whether it’s in San Jose, Philadelphia or someplace in between, let’s take a chance with the unfamiliar in the NCAA tournament next week.
Let’s be honest. There have been stretches against rugged, all-too-familiar Big Ten foes when John Groce’s first Illinois basketball team appeared to forget how to run an offense.
Like Friday. Indiana’s switching, basket-protecting defense took a quick bite out of the UI, sped to a 26-9 lead and breezed to an 80-64 triumph in the league’s first Big Ten tournament quarterfinal game at the United Center.
In the first 14-plus minutes, the Illini managed four field goals and a free throw. It looked hopeless. Then Brandon Paul popped his only trey, and the Illini started penetrating through cracks, drawing fouls and awakening the scoreboard. They outpointed the Hoosiers 43-34 in an impressive run that indicated what Groce’s gang is capable of.
But Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo and the Hoosiers wouldn’t allow a repetition of what happened Feb. 7 in Champaign. Zeller was overwhelming as he deposited 9 of 11 shots and scored 24 points even though he didn’t attempt a field goal in the last 16 minutes. That’s when Oladipo took over with 10 late points that featured two spectacular dunks.
It was Indiana’s turn to howl — and it did — as the Hoosiers took another step toward a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Hoosiers too much
“Zeller is a load, a terrific player,” Groce said. “There’s a reason why he was on those preseason magazine covers. He’s a National Player of the Year candidate.
“Oladipo is as good a perimeter defender as we’ve faced all year. He reads things. He takes things away.”
Referring to a major shortcoming — offensive post play — Groce said: “At Ohio State, we had plays for (Greg) Oden and (Terence) Dials. Guys like that, guys like Zeller, can score. We have to develop that and add players through recruiting.
“They locked heavy on our shooters, and we missed five early crips in our ‘own the box’ area. If we make those, the halftime deficit might have been more like seven instead of 14.”
The statistics were telling. Each team hit 5 of 17 from beyond the arc. Indiana had two more free throws, 21-19. And Illinois attempted eight more fielders but made seven fewer baskets ... the result of another dismal shooting performance of 34.5 percent to Indiana’s 54 percent.
This has become the norm, Illinois shooting an unacceptable 37.7 percent in the last 10 games and edging Minnesota 51-49 on Thursday with 32.1 percent shooting.
The UI’s stay in the NCAA tournament won’t last long if that continues. But there is hope stemming from the preconference period when the Illini sizzled at 50 percent to rock Gonzaga, 48 percent to down Butler and 44.5 percent overall in a 13-1 getaway.
So here’s the good news: Illinois won’t play another Big Ten team for a while. Maybe that’ll lift the Illini out of their doldrums.
— From the IU standpoint: Coach Tom Crean emphasized “our strong finish in the last seven minutes,” having reminded the team that Illinois rallied to win earlier, 74-72. Illinois pulled within 60-52 Friday, Crean saying: “We learned from the one that got away from us.”
— The UI’s Thursday star, Paul, sank 11 of 12 free throws, but he and senior running mate D.J. Richardson went 4 for 23 from the field Friday. Tracy Abrams got the Illini moving after halftime but, when the Illini threatened with a surge in scoring, Indiana cracked the UI defense for high-percentage shots.
— Illinois previously had success against Indiana in the Big Ten tournament, capturing five of six in a string that began with the stunning 82-66 upset by a Lon Kruger team that finished last (3-13) in the 1999 standings.
— Fans and media weren’t the only ones to second-guess Tubby Smith’s decision to withhold Trevor Mbakwe and Austin Hollins after they drew two early fouls against Illinois on Thursday. Said Smith: “Looking back on it, I probably should have played both of them. I have faith in our guys coming off the bench, but belief in themselves is two different things.”
— Groce returned Paul to the court 47 seconds after he drew his second foul early in the Indiana game. Paul played 34 minutes.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.