There’s talk that Michigan’s Trey Burke, early leader as college basketball’s Player of the Year, is being overtaken.
Victor Oladipo is hot, and there’s always an advantage when your team is No. 1. In the East, consensus is falling toward Otto Porter, leader for Georgetown’s Big East leaders. Out West, another splendid Gonzaga season revolves around center Kelly Olynyk, giving him the edge on UCLA’s late-starting Shabazz Muhammad.
But if anyone has a greater impact on every offensive possession than Burke, tell the Illini. The sophomore guard handed out eight assists while scoring 26 points on just 11 field attempts Sunday. He took over a game that Illinois led 31-28 at halftime, and sparked the Wolverines to a 17-point lead in a 71-58 result.
It is surely obvious why Illini coach John Groce is spending late nights on airplanes in the search for a playmaking point guard. College basketball is a guard’s game.
This is not meant to diminish the 6-foot-5 Oladipo’s explosiveness on both ends but, face the facts, it’s mostly a halfcourt game, and the Hoosiers tend to spread the wealth.
When the Wolverines get a rebound, they look to Burke. When the shot clock runs low, they find him. When they need a clutch shot, he takes it.
He quarterbacks a Top 10 team in which four of the leading producers are freshmen, and the Wolverines are averaging 72 points in a 23-4 season.
Burke runs the screen-and-roll like a modern-day John Stockton, and he bamboozled an Illini defense that, before Sunday, appeared to be catching on.
The combination of Michigan’s 51 percent shooting and a 27-9 edge on points off turnovers had Groce fuming Sunday. The second-half production of his key seniors, D.J. Richardson (four points) and Brandon Paul (zero), chilled the effort as both finished with 10. Groce has never been more critical than when he said:
“We didn’t play smart, which is a politically correct way of saying we were dumb ... in terms of our attention to detail.”
Groce referred again to “lack of intelligence and softness as a group on loose balls. That is intolerable. We weren’t smart enough or tough enough. I’m really disappointed.”
If you’re wondering what set him off, consider the early minutes of the second half when Michigan scored on (1) a layup by Mitch McGary, (2) Burke’s basket on a Paul turnover, (3) Glenn Robinson’s layup, (4) Burke’s trey and (5) Robinson’s dunk on a DJR mistake ... while Illinois had a single field goal in falling back 43-34.
Illinois rallied, Tyler Griffey’s trey giving the visitors hope at 51-47, but Tim Hardaway converted a fast break and that was followed by consecutive Michigan treys that sealed it. Easy baskets allowed Michigan to shoot 60 percent for the first 16 minutes of the second half.
Not exactly target practice
When Penn State’s winless Big Ten team came to Champaign on Thursday, the comment was made that the Nittany Lions might win because the Illini don’t shoot well.
Really? Well, it’s hard to argue with the numbers.
— In a 7-8 Big Ten season, the Illini are shooting 41 percent from the field and 29 percent on treys, which is almost exactly what they shot Sunday (41.2 and 31.8). These are not winning numbers against upper division teams.
— In 13 games since the rousing upset of Ohio State, when the Illini enjoyed a 48-percent game, their field accuracy has been under 40 percent six times and they haven’t shot better than 45.3 in a game.
— Michigan took the floor Sunday with four starters shooting between 39 percent and 47 percent on treys over 26 games. They are deadly from the arc where 6 for 18 will produce the same number of points as 9 for 18 on twos. Illinois falls far short, shooting 33 percent for the 29-game season with both Paul and Richardson also at 33 percent. A third senior, Griffey, missed 22 straight earlier and was on another 0-for-9 tailspin when he hit two unguarded threes Sunday.
The feeling here is that this team would break out with a hot-shooting game at any time, but the five-game win streak (prior to Michigan) showed no such upsurge. Maybe it’ll come in the final home game against Nebraska (4:15 p.m. Saturday). Or maybe the opinion from Penn State is right.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.