Tate: Illini should dream big in Texas
We now embark on the folly of trying to make sense of madness.
This 68-team circus is like releasing a bushel of ants and predicting which direction each one will run.
For Illinois, the goal from November was to be a part of this insanity. The Illini succeeded, no minor accomplishment.
Now that the Illini have Colorado as an NCAA tournament foe Friday (3:40 p.m.) in Austin, Texas, the emphasis will change from “Getting There” to “Survive and Advance.” Friday’s result will be remembered after most of the season’s games are forgotten.
“The win over UNLV was one of our better team-oriented games, and I was excited about getting eight rebounds,” said senior Brandon Paul, recalling the UI’s 73-62 triumph two years ago in Tulsa, Okla. These NCAA wins occupy a special place for all players — and especially Mike Davis (22 points) and Demetri McCamey (17), who spearheaded the Illini’s only NCAA win in the past six years.
So you won’t hear any more complaints about playing on Sunday. John Groce’s gang has competed on six of the last eight Sundays, and Miami’s Hurricanes probably will be waiting if they qualify for another Sabbath shootout.
“Our season goal was solidified early,” Groce said. “We had to grind when we started 2-7 in the Big Ten and others doubted us. It’s gratifying to get here, and now we have a lot of work to do.”
Illinois, selected No. 28 Sunday, went higher than North Carolina, Pitt and Missouri ... just three spots out of the top 25 and far ahead of where it stood in season-ending polls.
To succeed, Groce emphasized the necessity of “playing two good halves (of) ... defense like we played in the first half against Indiana, and offense like we played in the second half” of an 80-64 loss Friday in Chicago.
Colorado has contributed little to the Pac-12 image since joining (4-21 in two football seasons) but celebrated its new arrangement last year by defeating UNLV 68-64 in the NCAA tournament at Albuquerque, N.M. This season’s team finished 10-8 in the conference, riding the 11-point, 11-rebound play of 6-foot-7 Andre Roberson and the 16.6 scoring of Spencer Dinwiddie.
Coach Tad Boyle’s team is, above all, a physical and tenacious defensive club, not unlike those in the Big Ten. Illini center Sam McLaurin recognized his role quickly, that of nullifying Roberson, an aggressive junior voted Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
“That’ll be a big emphasis,” the UI’s fifth-year transfer said. “They’re a good rebounding team.
“This is what I came here for, to compete in the NCAA. At Coastal Carolina, it was win the conference or go home. We reached the championship game of the Big South twice but lost to Winthrop (2010) and UNC-Asheville (2011). We were 28-6 and 28-7, and we didn’t get in. I didn’t want to be part of that anymore.
“It was great to see our name called Sunday.”
Everybody has flaws. Even Indiana.
The Hoosiers benefit immeasurably from mystique, which is the direct opposite of a Wisconsin team that repeatedly beats them (12 in a row) and keeps accumulating doubters. That IU reputation, coupled with a Big Ten title, surely played a part in earning them a top seed in the East but check their last seven games:
The Hoosiers (1) trailed Michigan State 67-63 at 1:38 but pulled it out, (2) lost at Minnesota 77-73, (3) defeated Iowa, (4) fell at home to Ohio State 67-58, (5) survived Michigan 72-71 when Jordan Morgan missed a last-second putback, (6) beat Illinois and (7) lost again to Wisconsin, 68-56.
Unlike Indiana, Miami is not a “basketball school” and, sure enough, the recent surge is coupled with a messy NCAA investigation.
Like everyone, this team has had its off nights but managed to win 18 of its last 21 to beat out perennials Duke and Carolina in the ACC race, and win the ACC tourney as well. But when names like Louisville, Kansas and Indiana are on the board, well ... could tradition subconsciously be a factor in the seeding?
And then there’s Gonzaga, the team about which no one really knows. The Zags haven’t played any of the 16 top seeds and have gone 20 games since beating anyone in the seeded 64. Furthermore, while the Zags deserve credit for “playing anyone anywhere,” their lineup of early games was not exactly a murderer’s row. And they did, remember, fall to Illinois and Butler.
Big Ten rooting interest
So the tournament is a crapshoot from bottom to top, a replica of what we’ve been seeing day after day.
The fun for Midwesterners will be following Big Ten teams to see if the defenses with which they muffle each other will work against fresh rivals with whom they are less familiar.
It was striking Sunday to watch dashing Miami and Carolina squads combine for 25 treys (out of 51 shots) and roll up 164 points, to be followed by Ohio State’s 50-43 triumph in which the Buckeyes and Badgers sank 4 of 34 threes.
The NCAA games are different in so many ways ... the pace ... the officiating ... the hand checking and body contact ... the defensive emphasis ... the pressure. We are left to wonder:
Can Bo Ryan work his will against an Ole Miss club that beat Missouri, Vanderbilt and Florida in the SEC tournament? Does OSU’s dynamic duo of Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft have anything left after eight straight victories? Will Tom Izzo’s remarkable run of tournament successes be extended? And how do you judge a Michigan team that was ranked No. 7 in the nation last week and was the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten tournament (and lost to Wisconsin)?
Is the league really that good? We’ll soon discover whether this gauntlet has sharpened seven squads for a collective run or has drained them mentally and physically.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.