One fact rang loud and clear throughout Friday’s opening 75-55 basketball blistering of Colgate: Illinois needed this coaching change. There’s a new bounce in the Illini step, a new optimism, from the players to the students to longtime fans.
Big Ten broadcaster Eric Collins called it “high theater” watching John Groce go through his histrionics and heady maneuverings on the sideline. He’s in complete charge.
For the old regime to have returned intact from a 12-for-14 season-ending nosedive would have been difficult for everybody, including Bruce Weber. He had served his time, guiding Illinois through a magical 37-2 season and bringing two Big Ten titles and two runners-up before it got away from him.
The team he left behind won’t win ’em all. But they’re playing at a quick-draw pace and with an aggressiveness that recruits will appreciate as much as observers. It has to be more fun for the participants.
With treys exploding from all angles, these Illini led 43-25 at the break, all those UI points by returnees from last year’s disaster. Weber’s final club topped 40 first-half points just once, and actually beat Michigan State by producing a game total of 42.
John Groce doesn’t have a starting five. He has a starting eight. He has a revolving door on the bench. Senior Tyler Griffey was in the opening lineup and played 18 minutes. Joseph Bertrand came off the bench and played 21.
As of Friday night — we’ll be watching again Monday vs. St. Francis (N.Y.) — Brandon Paul avoided bad habits as he scored 20 with a team-high eight rebounds, five assists and just two rebounds.
The Illini shot 30 treys. Get used to it. They made just four free throws. They’ll work on that but won’t be consistent at getting to the line. They didn’t have much of a post-up game until outsized Colgate wore down. Get used to that too.
Compared to the Top 25, Groce’s club is flawed. But Groce and his gang are going about it right. And that’s a good thing.
Slow start for Sparty
The trick, if you’re going to “play big,” is to get those lankies to mesh in a fast-paced game.
Michigan State didn’t provide what Tom Izzo expected from twin towers Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix on Friday. The Spartans fell behind 23-6 and, despite a strong rally, lost to Connecticut in Germany, 66-62.
They outrebounded the Huskies 38-25 as they will most opponents. This advantage was offset by 4-for-17 shooting from the arc, and modest help from the bench.
This setback, while hurtful to the Big Ten, is typical of Izzo’s early-season trials, just as Final Four appearances are typical of Izzo at the end.
Early bummer for Boilers
Friday’s other Big Ten basketball loser was Purdue, stunned 70-66 by defending Patriot League champion Bucknell.
Purdue features three Johnsons, two of whom are brothers and both of whom project as starters. You need to get them straight to understand the team.
Junior wing Terone Johnson and hotshot freshman point Te’Ron (Ronnie) Johnson prepped at Indianapolis North Central. Their dad is Terone and their mother is Rona. Confused yet? Redshirt sophomore Anthony Johnson hails from Chicago Whitney Young, and is backup for Ronnie ... or Terone.
Terone was top Boilermaker scorer in two exhibitions, but sat out Friday due to an ankle sprain, a key factor as Bucknell outrebounded the hosts 36-33 and converted 20 free throws to their seven.
Big prep school products Jay Simpson (Champaign) and A.J. Hammons saw action and scored five and two points, respectively. Purdue won’t have much of an inside presence if Hammons doesn’t come along.
Ceiling is high for Hoosiers
When there’s an intrasquad game, and the crazed fans surround a building seating 17,000-plus, and they close the doors early to deny entry to more than 3,000 customers, you’re dealing with a monster.
That’s Indiana basketball. And that’s why Tom Crean has a new contract paying him more than $3.1 million per year through 2020. When it comes to Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky, there’s almost no limit to how valuable a winning coach is to the culture.
Crean started two small point guards, Yogi Ferrell and Jordan Huls, against Bryant on Friday to emphasize their goal of getting the ball to stars Cody Zeller and Christian Watford. If their backcourt defense holds up, the Hoosiers will be as good as projected.
On to football ...
Saturday brought another numbing football blow to the solar plexus.
But we shouldn’t be surprised that the Illini failed to score a touchdown against Minnesota when, through nine previous games, they stood 12th in the Big Ten in scoring, total yards gained, rushing, first downs, third-down conversions, red zone offense and sacks allowed.
The 17-3 loss involved a frustrating inability to make a yard when it was needed, major penalties that killed opportunities, and game-turning fumbles.
Illinois had five possessions in the first half. Five. That’s all.
They went as follows:
(1) After Nathan Scheelhaase fired a 49-yard flea flicker bomb to Spencer Harris, he missed wide open Jon Davis for a TD, and the Illini failed twice at the 1-yard line, settling for a field goal. They never scored again.
(2) Failing on third and 1, the Illini punted.
(3 and 4) Major penalties against Ryan Lankford and Graham Pocic chilled promising opportunities when Minnesota still appeared vulnerable.
(5) A 44-yard Lankford return put Illinois in good position but Scheelhaase was sacked on third and 4.
Against a 20-mph wind in the third quarter, Illinois failed to make a first down on consecutive possessions (another major penalty; Minnesota had no major penalties and no turnovers), and the Gophers systematically capitalized on good field position to go ahead. When the score reached 17-3 with 1:34 to go, Illinois had managed just three first downs in the second half.
Just too many mistakes, sacks and short-yardage failures for too few possessions. But that’s what happens when you can’t get a push in the trenches.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.