Tate: Next five games will test UI's mettle
It’s a basketball school.
And basketball schools are supposed to (1) win at home and (2) join in the NCAA tournament fun. So, the gun is up: Ready, set, bang!
Illinois, which righted a listing ship with a 20-point win at Nebraska, plays three of its next four games in the Assembly Hall. Ah, the friendly home confines. Given that opportunity, it’s now or never.
First comes Michigan, poised to be No. 1 in the nation as of Sunday night. After a trip next Thursday to Michigan State, which is riding a six-game Big Ten win streak, the Illini return home for early-February showdowns against Wisconsin and Indiana, just ahead of another demanding trip to Minnesota.
The competition doesn’t get any tougher than that ... anywhere. So it’s make-or-break time. Realistically, John Groce’s gang needs to go at least 2-3 in this five-game stretch and follow that with a 4-3 finish to reach the 8-10 conference record deemed necessary to reach the NCAA field.
Illini Nation was anticipating something much more impressive, but January has thus far been a downer. The Illini were gasping for air prior to the Nebraska trip, and the inherent shortcomings of the Cornhuskers didn’t erase all the doubts that have grown up around this team. Clearly, the Illini backs are to the wall.
That said, there are factors weighing in the UI’s favor. First, while injuries have weakened some opponents (you’d never know it from the way Northwestern is playing), Illinois is hale and hearty for the stretch run. Second, underdogs everywhere have been uplifted by a surge in home upsets by Villanova (vs. Louisville), Miami (Duke), Northwestern (Minnesota) and LaSalle (Butler). Don’t scratch your head. It’s homecourt magic. The Illini flashed this propensity Jan. 5 when Ohio State came to town.
Fans turned on high
Never discount the value of performing where the folks are friendly. When you see contrary numbers, it’s probably because the talent is unbalanced. That’s the case in the Big Ten so far, where the modest 20-18 home advantage in conference play has more to do with the schedule than an assumed balance of power.
Taking the Sweet 16 cream from the AP’s Top 25, you’d find those 16 clubs have 168 home wins and seven losses. In all games, those 16 show a winning percentage of 86.9 based on 36 losses (not counting Thursday’s late West Coast results).
Significantly, Illinois pulled off one of the lucky seven road triumphs against Gonzaga in Spokane. The other home losers were Louisville by Syracuse, Indiana by Wisconsin, Kansas State by Kansas, Minnesota by Michigan, Ohio State by Kansas and New Mexico by San Diego State, all exceptionally hard-fought battles.
Top 16 teams still unbeaten on the home court are Duke, Michigan, Kansas, Syracuse, Arizona, Florida, Butler, Michigan State and Oregon. And where you’ve seen mind-boggling romps — for example, Missouri’s bad losses to Ole Miss and Florida — you’ll find the home court as the major factor. Face it, college teams play with more confidence at home, shoot better at home, defend better at home and rebound better at home. And some people say crowd intimidation impacts borderline officiating decisions.
That’s why the crowds keep turning out in huge numbers. Wins keep the home fans happy, and fans bring revenue. And that’s why coaches, when they have a choice, avoid playing on rival courts whenever possible.
Latest example before my eyes: Illinois State, having lost Dec. 30 at Indiana State, returned the favor, 60-58, Wednesday night despite missing all 13 treys at Redbird Arena. Seated low, I could feel the impact of the crowd on the game.
Tough to explain upsets
Illinois has dropped its last two home dates to Minnesota and Northwestern, and it has six remaining. The last three vs. Purdue, Penn State and Nebraska are deemed highly winnable, but those games won’t carry significant meaning unless the Illini keep their heads above water now.
Thursday’s 68-54 loss to Northwestern sticks in the craw because of its lopsided nature and the fact it marked the first consecutive home losses to NU since the days of Huff Hall more than 50 years ago. The Wildcats had dropped 28 of 29 here prior to last season. The 14-year home audit mirrors the highs and lows of UI basketball, the Illini going 93-4 in the seven seasons beginning in 1999-2000 and falling off to 83-27 since.
Michigan had become a customary victim, dropping 14 straight at the Assembly Hall before prevailing 70-61 last February.
A roster check would indicate the current Wolverines might be vulnerable. Their star playmaker, Trey Burke, is a sophomore, and five of the top eight scorers are freshmen. But Burke was a superstar in his rookie season and made a difficult decision to wait until this year to turn pro. Despite all that Wolverine youth, they lead the Big Ten in assists, which explains their high shooting and scoring numbers. Like Burke a year ago, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas are proving to be exceptional point producers as freshmen.
If John Beilein’s mobile athletes shoot like they have most of the season, Illinois will be overmatched Sunday. But Michigan isn’t an overpowering team from a pure physical standpoint, so it could get interesting if the Wolverines slip under 40 percent from the field. That seems to be a breaking-point number: Only Ohio State and Nebraska, the two UI victims, have shot less than 40 percent in six Big Ten games.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.