Somebody drew a smiley face on Illini Nation. Everywhere you went this weekend, folks were rolling their eyes with a toothy grin.
That’s what happens when you get a once-in-a-generation basketball victory.
Some called the 74-72 upset of No. 1 Indiana the result of a perfect storm. The UI’s archrival, a loser here in 10 of the last 11, was scoring at an 83.8 rate and led all major conference schools in field goal and three-point shooting.
The game was knotted with less than a second remaining when Star Trek’s Scotty beamed down Tyler Griffey under the north basket, and he scored before anybody saw him.
“Where did he come from?” the Hoosiers wondered.
OK, it was magic. But remember, the aftermath of a perfect storm is that no one survives. Not even George Clooney.
What we’re asking today at Minnesota is for Griffey and his teammates to not only survive but reach that special level yet again, and prevail ... against a physical Gophers team that used multiple runouts and 53 percent shooting to sink the Illini in Champaign, 84-67.
Predictions, anyone? ESPN’s Seth Greenberg is watching these wild-and-woolly shootouts — did you see Wisconsin on Saturday?!? — and says simply: “I’m trying to understand.”
Jim Boeheim of Syracuse agrees with me that nobody, absolutely nobody, can explain this crazy basketball season. I feel like Alice in Wonderland. In the Big Ten, they’re playing “Can You Top This?”
As fans and followers, we are shipwrecked ragamuffins washed up on a reef and wondering what’ll happen next. Every day dawns with a new thrill. As I’m writing this, a glance at the TV shows Miami ahead of North Carolina 85-59. Really!
For John Groce, Thursday night was a time to “embrace the moment.” Friday’s practice was “time to move on ... time to go over defensive mistakes and clean up the offense in practice.”
And then Groce, flying to Minneapolis, offered his best statement yet: “To do things you haven’t done before, you have to do things you haven’t done before.”
Luck of the draw
Back to Greenberg. His 2007 Virginia Tech team downed Illinois 54-52 after trailing by 10 points with four minutes left. This being an NCAA tournament game, it was as devastating as Thursday was exhilarating.
Afterward, in a private aside, Greenberg confided to me: “We were just plain lucky.”
OK, there was luck involved. Illinois missed every shot. But one thing holds true: A 10-point lead can evaporate in a hurry if one team tightens and starts peeking at the clock, and the trailing team becomes desperately aggressive.
An aspect of nature is that a cornered animal is the most dangerous. In basketball’s late stages, the trailing team is always the aggressor.
Groce notes that he “wants his team to keep attacking,” but adds further that “time and score are also important factors. If we’re ahead by 10 with two minutes left, we might not take the first open shot.”
I am left with this: If the players receive the slightest indication that they should be running clock, watch for offensive production to slip. And that creates the openings for all these rallies.
And then there is the Indiana viewpoint:
— They’re asking, quite loudly, if Cody Zeller is a consensus All-American, why did he only get six shots? Why not pound the ball to him late? The answer: Indiana has a lot of offensive weapons, including sixth man Will Sheehey, so the Hoosiers take what comes. In late January, Zeller went 0 for 4 vs. Penn State and 2 for 7 vs. Michigan State. The Hoosiers should emphasize him more, but they don’t.
— They were concerned over timing in the split-second finish, with questions about the clock stopping at :00.9 and whether Griffey got his shot off in time. In the confusion of the moment, announcer Don Fischer thought Griffey dribbled, which would have made the shot late. But Griffey did not dribble, rather taking a bounce pass from Brandon Paul. By rule, only when the clock is down to :00.3 is it impossible to catch and shoot.
— Shortly after Sheehey sparked an Indiana run to 37-23 before halftime, he drew a taunting call on a dunk. It was as though he was saying: “Take that, we’re superior!” Which was somewhat redundant at that stage. If it inspired the Illini, it was not readily apparent as they fell behind 43-31, 55-41 and 62-49 before rallying.
— Indiana was coming off three tremendous performances, handing Purdue its worst home loss between thrillers with Michigan State and Michigan. Was a letdown inevitable? Groce rejected the idea that Indiana didn’t play well, saying: “They shot 50 percent from the field and 53 percent on threes. They had a freshman (Jeremy Hollowell) who was 3 for 22 on threes, and he went 2 for 2. I thought they played well.”
Unnoticed has been the fact that Illinois scored 75 at Michigan State and 68 vs. Wisconsin, both sufficient numbers to win if the defense had performed. The UI offense is getting better even as the field percentage hasn’t been over 45 percent in the last eight games (the one-month stats are 40.7 from the field and an even poorer 24.4 on treys).
Fade to the finish
Since defeating Illinois so soundly, Minnesota has dropped 5 of 7, including a 55-48 decision at Northwestern and a 45-44 game at Wisconsin.
It is another season in which Tubby Smith’s Gophers have leveled off as their halfcourt offense encounters dead spots.
“They’re still No. 1 in offensive rebounding,” Groce said. “We only had seven turnovers at home, but they scored 14 points on them. My biggest concern is getting back on defense because Minnesota hurt us with transition baskets.”
Asked if the Gophers had changed since Jan. 9, Groce said: “At this time of year, you are what you are. Minnesota is great on the glass.”
Groce did not announce a lineup. It is noteworthy that Myke Henry came off the bench and, after collecting two quick fouls, was replaced by Griffey on Thursday. Griffey had 14 points and eight rebounds in 31 minutes.
“Griffey hit some shots and was in a good groove so we left him in,” Groce said.
Good idea, Coach. Good idea.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.