Tate: Illini's shooting touch has disappeared
Sshhhh. We must keep this among ourselves. Don’t tell even your best friend.
If you see it in parentheses, you’ll know it must not be repeated.
(John Groce’s Illini are in an arc-shooting slump.)
Keep this under your hat as the team travels to Wisconsin because, when deficiencies penetrate the brain, they only get worse. It’s called psychological. A numbed brain leads to a numbed elbow.
That’s why you leave a slumping golfer on the greens by himself and, conversely, that’s why teammates avoid a pitcher with a budding no-hitter. It’s not superstition. It’s the way the mind works.
Fully aware of this basketball team’s disintegration a year ago — that’s why he got the job — Groce has done everything possible to maintain a positive atmosphere leading into 2013. From the beginning, he encouraged shooters to keep shooting. That’s why he patted them on the butt and remained upbeat when they misfired.
He’s been the perfect leader.
For a time, his strategy worked. These Illini led the nation in three-point production, making 41 percent through the first 10 games. But Wednesday’s 84-67 loss to Minnesota saw them hit rock bottom as they missed all eight treys after intermission and finished an awful 3 for 24. That puts them at 26 percent in the last seven games.
To make it worse, a Minnesota team that cashed treys at a 33 percent rate through 15 games caught fire to make 60 percent (9 of 15) at the Assembly Hall.
Consider that 60 percent equates to 90 percent from inside the arc when you figure in the extra point.
The coaches’ comments late Wednesday were spot on.
“When you shoot well, any team is different,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. “And we’ve been shooting well — anybody can step up on any day. Like tonight, Joe Coleman stepped up (29 points) and played outstanding.”
Said Groce: “Did I anticipate them going 9 of 15 from three? No, I didn’t. They made them tonight.”
It is the great weakness of the game that it too often becomes a hit-or-miss, long-shooting contest, but these same uncertainties also make the games such exciting adventures.
Consider: Prior to Wednesday’s game, in facing backboard menace Trevor Mbakwe — wasn’t he exceptional! — it was apparent the UI’s two main concerns were rebounding and turnovers. Forget it. Illinois got more offensive rebounds (13-7) and profited by eight additional possessions via turnovers. They also shot 85.7 percent on free throws (18 of 21).
All those numbers become meaningless when one team has an 18-point advantage in three-point production (including Andre Hollins’ clock-beating bank from near midcourt), and when one team makes shots and the other goes 1 for 13 from the field for nearly a 10-minute stretch toward the end of the half and then misses the first seven field goal attempts in the second half.
The crowd was ready, UI fans as reactive as you’ll ever hear them, but a spirited Illini rally died at 44-42 on an improbable nine-point Gopher response off two UI turnovers.
The concern is that a trend is developing. It’s almost as though Groce’s athletes suddenly became nearsighted.
D.J. Richardson, who hit the last-second trey to edge Hawaii 78-77, made just one each in five straight games and is 10 for his last 46. Tyler Griffey, whose long bomb at :04 edged Gardner-Webb 63-62, hasn’t connected from long range in six of the last nine games and seemed to be declining opportunities Wednesday.
It’s almost as contagious as the winter flu. Neither Tracy Abrams nor Brandon Paul has been able to warm up, Abrams’ career mark on treys still below 30 percent.
When Smith saw what was happening, that Illinois was building a second-half rally via drives, he started switching defenses in an attempt to protect the lane. Even so, Illinois matched Minnesota in paint points, 32-32.
But something else happened as a direct result of erratic Illini shooting. The transition defense sprang a leak. With Coleman releasing early — he had three dunks and three layups in the second half — the Gophers ran up a 14-0 advantage in fast-break points.
There is always collateral damage when a team doesn’t shoot. It affects everything, especially transition defense. It’s called unraveling.
That’s what Tubby meant when he said, “When a team shoots, it is different.”
And when a team doesn’t shoot, it is different.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.