Tate: If it's close, go with Groce

Tate: If it's close, go with Groce

When John Giannini’s La Salle Explorers blew an 18-point halftime lead and rallied to edge Kansas State on Friday with just three second-half field goals, I didn’t think I’d ever see anything like that again.

But this NCAA tournament defies rational reasoning. The lightning that struck in Kansas City was mirrored within minutes in Austin, Texas.

Ahead 37-21 at the break, Illinois was overtaken by a spectacular Colorado surge and yet rallied from a 44-39 deficit to win, 57-49, with just three second-half field goals.

Three baskets. Pinch me. This can’t be real.

The UI’s second NCAA tournament win in seven years was marked by mind-boggling swings ... huge shutout surges that had coaches praising their defensive skills but left Illini supporters wondering where they can muster the points necessary to handle Miami’s ACC champions Sunday.

For extended stretches, UI and Colorado shooters went numb. It is incomprehensible.

— Trailing 17-16, Illinois mixed key steals with a quick burst of treys to outscore the Buffaloes 21-5, holding them scoreless in the last 7:25 while D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams closed the half with arc bombs. Points off turnovers showed Illinois with a midway edge of 15-0.

— Then it was Colorado’s turn. Despite numerous good openings, the Illini began the second half by missing 14 consecutive shots over 11-plus minutes. Colorado fans were whooping it up with a 44-39 lead before Abrams broke the spell with a layup. Suddenly uplifted, the Illini spurted back ahead 48-44 with back-to-back threes by Richardson and Brandon Paul.

— It was then that the Buffaloes plateaued like the Great Plains back home. In the final 9:30, Colorado managed two baskets. Buffaloes star Spencer Dinwiddie garnered his only goal at 48-46, and the other basket came too late at :16. Imagine, one Colorado basket in more than nine minutes, thus allowing the Illini to prevail via 3-for-22 shooting (plus 12 free throws) in the final 20 minutes.

Next game’s a doozy

There are several ways you can look at it. Some will credit the UI defense which, during long stretches at the end of both halves, nullified the Pac-12 outfit. Others will derisively refer to Illinois as the winner of the ugly-girl contest.

From any viewpoint, the Illini offensive performance was inept, the shooters coming in under 36 percent for the fifth straight game. They’ve won twice in that span, defeating Minnesota while shooting 32 percent, and they prevailed again Friday with 30.8 marksmanship.

The 11-game shooting checks in at 37 percent which, of course, can’t go on. Unless the Illini discover the accuracy that marked their successes in November and December, they won’t advance to Washington, D.C., for the next round. Miami, with its ACC Player of the Year Shane Larkin, is simply too good.

But the Illini have defeated two No. 1 seeds, and they have psychology going for them. Amazingly resilient in the clutch, they’ve won every game this season in which they either led late or had a puncher’s chance. However frustrating they may be in the first 35 minutes, they’ve been amazing at crunch time.

If that hadn’t been the case, we wouldn’t be wondering what time they’ll play Sunday.

Groce doing it again

For John Groce, the advancement to the round of 32 follows a season in which he led Ohio’s Bobcats past Michigan and South Florida before falling in the Sweet 16 to North Carolina in overtime. His Bobcat returnees were 14-2 in the Mid-American this season but were blown out by Akron (65-46) in the conference tournament and lost to Denver 61-57 in the NIT.

Groce was the difference-maker at Ohio, and he has earned the same status here. He keeps this team headed in the right direction despite repeated setbacks and detours.

On Friday he made light of the UI’s point-producing inefficiencies while lauding “the textbook way we closed.”

Said Groce: “When we were down 44-39, a lot of teams would have cracked. But we continued to defend. We fought back.”

As with many fans, the coach was disturbed by his team’s inclination to slow it down — “I told them, ‘You attack. I’ll decide when it’s time to run clock’ ” — but the Illini appeared to start nursing the clock with 5:03 to go and, amazingly, neither team scored for the next four minutes.

There they were, two mid-level teams battling for their lives, and nobody scored between 5:17 and 1:06, when Paul broke the ice with a string of free throws.

By now, after watching another wild day in which Wisconsin, Kansas State and Georgetown, among others, were handed surprises, you are correct in assuming that the goings-on are beyond my understanding.

But this much I know: Regardless of missed shots, Groce’s Illini will battle right up to their last breath. And just imagine, they could get hot and sustain. We know it’s possible because we saw it against Gonzaga, Indiana and Ohio State. And we’ve seen lesser teams win the last two days.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.


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gregscott wrote on March 23, 2013 at 9:03 am

1st half Illini were fun to watch last nite, second half....well?  I knew Colorado would come out strong to start the second half, but if Illini could score a couple early buckets maybe they could ward off a total reversal of momentum, such as what happened to them at Michigan State earlier in the season.  Tracy Abrams sank 2 free-throws in that 1st minute, I was hoping that would be it - not.  As I sat there watching their hard-earned lead evaporate, while they missed shot after shot, I was stunned that they never really tried getting closer to the basket, {maybe a couple exceptions in there}, they just kept firing the three-ball.  We all know that the closer you can get to the basket, the higher the odds of making your shots.  Yes, UC defended better in the second half, but Illinois made little attempt to attack the basket and get to the freethrow line.  It would have been nice to see Joe Bertrand, who I really dig, but who's offensive confidence seems to been in decline, get that floater in the lane of his going, or at least attempted. 

Its low-win-percentage basketball to try and shoot yourself out of a shooting slump, out at the three-point line.  Thats how basketball has changed over the last decade.  If you can't get a dunk or a lay-up, fire a three.  Many games in this tournament have been marred by very low shooting percentages such as the Illini's yesterday.  While these kids are as good athletically as we've ever seen, the game is much less entertaining; in my opinion.  Watching teams shoot 5 for 20 at the three point line is boring, boring, boring.  Any game is much more entertaining to watch if it is played fundamentally correct.  The fundamentals of the game demand that you move closer, not farther, to the basket to improve your chances of scoring; because it's supposed to be easier at 8-10ft., rather than 18-22ft.

I hope Illinois basketball can get back to having a strong mid-range game again someday.  Talented players, not necessarily athletes, players, who can get a tough short to mid-range shot even while guarded.  I like the three, I love the dunk, but there's alot of cream to be had there in the middle: like an Oreo cookie!!  GO ILLINI!

IlliniMike05 wrote on March 23, 2013 at 9:03 am

There's a very good reason you see less midrange game these days: players and teams have figured out it's kind of inefficient. Don't get me wrong, it's a good weapon to have in a players' arsenal. But midrange shots/long twos are not made much more frequently than three-pointers. They also rarely draw fouls or lead to offensive rebounds, which shots at the rim do.

There's a time and place for midrange shots: when you find the soft spot of a 2-3 zone just below the FT line, when a guard should pull up with too many defenders near the rim, so on and so forth. I'd argue that with Tracy's floaters, Brandon's ability to draw fouls in the 8-foot range or so and Nnanna's face-up shooting ability, Illinois might have a more effective than average midrange game. But an offense built around that would be brutal to watch.

(That description of "tough players," not just "athletes" that find a way to make difficult midrange shots even while guarded? What sounds efficient about that? Because that sounds a lot like the bulk of Tracy Abrams' game. I love the kid and think he's going to be a heck of a player his last two years, but he's not exactly what you'd call offensively efficient right now. Again: it shows that the midrange is a nice skillset to have, but using it should be your last offensive option.)

Now getting to the larger point I think you're incorrectly extrapolating from the type of shots being taken: the game being less entertaining has absolutely nothing to do with less midrange shots being taken. Look at the NBA: the last few years it's unquestionably been a much more entertaining product than college basketball, the most entertaining the league has been since at least 1993. You see fewer midrange shots than ever there, too, because the analytics/advanced metrics era has shown how ineffective those shots are. Even with as insanely smart as most NBA defenses are now, there are still weak spots to be found in getting to the rim off of ball screens, and the most effective shot in the game: the corner three.  

It has to do with the fact that the best players go pro after a year or two, so the most talented teams are too young to have developed a cohesiveness to crank out a ton of points, and the most experienced teams aren't talented enough to do it. As a result, coaches are a lot more controlling than they used to be, the game is played at a slower pace and often gets bogged down with a much greater emphasis on defense than at any other time in basketball history.

Every now and then you see a team like '05 or '09 UNC, '08 Kansas, '07 Florida, '05 Illinois, '04 or '06 UConn or this year's Indiana team, just to name a few, that have multiple NBA-caliber players stick around for more than a year or two and you see what kind of offensive explosiveness and entertaining basketball is still possible in the college game. But those kind of clubs are few and far between these days.


eugene wrote on March 23, 2013 at 10:03 am

Greg, sorry to hear you are stuck in the 70's and early 80's. The mid range jumper is not coming back to basketball anytime soon. The 3 is here to stay and will be used way more than an 8-10 footer. The reward of 3 points instead of 2 outweighs the risk of a midrange shot. When a team shoots 40% from 3 it equals 60% from 2. Not many teams are going to shoot 60% from 2 consistently. The odds and percentages all point to shooting more 3's. 

This team is fun to watch when they are on, like in the first half. They are also hard to watch, the first 12 minutes of the second half. All in all, they have outperformed most fans expectations from before the season started. The coaches are getting the most out of this team and it our future looks really bright. GO ILLINI!!

JohnUI82 wrote on March 23, 2013 at 10:03 am

I wonder if Greg was Daisy J's coach in junior high.

tntsher wrote on March 23, 2013 at 10:03 am

Greg, I understand where you are coming from and I believe we are all on the same page with the fact that college BB has changed, for the most part, NOT for the better. Eugene, you mention that the Illini game that they played in the 1st half was a good brand of bb. Well, it had much more than 3's. Nanna made 3 mid-range jumpers and we had some good passes for layups & dunks also. That is the one problem this team has had for the last 4 years, making that extra pass to get the better shot. All the best teams do this and we did it well in the 1st half. How many times though do you see an Illini 3 on 1 or 3 on 2 break and the dribbler simply takes it himself instead of hitting the open man. The usual result is a blocked shot, we go to the line & make 1 of 2 FT's  instead of an easier bucket & the foul. Mike, you mention the lack of 4 year or even 3 year players anymore and I think THAT is a bigger issue in the enjoyability of watching the game now. All of the teams you mentioned were Junior & Senior laden and knew what one another were doing. That made for the type of BB that Greg is taking about possible. Making the xtra pass, backdoor cuts, driving the lane for the kick out 3, the great alley-oop pass.....this is what makes the game enjoyable. Anyone watching FGCU dismantle Georgetown last night, had to enjoy an athletic team run a solid team in the ground with just that brand of ball. And BTW, wasn't it VERY enjoyable to watch..........especially since it happened to poor georgetown!!      That's the kind of BB I like to watch, just like our '05 Illini, I think we ALL like that! 

ATOillini wrote on March 23, 2013 at 12:03 pm

Personally, I think Mr. Scott in this first comment has some great points. We are generally a very one dimensional team. I sense Coach Groce has just decided that given the cards (players) he was dealt, he simply must encourage "keep shooting" and hope for the best. It's not just a midrange game we're missing. It's also a total abscence of post offense. We just don't have an option there. For those of us who have watched the Illini for decades, there is no Deon Thomas, Marcus Griffin, Brian Cook, Nick Anderson, etc. who can catch the ball in the paint, put a guy on his hip and turn around for a short jumper off the glass or a baby hook. Just not there with this team. Not going to happen. I hope recruiting will eventually change that.

I also agree it's very hard with the early NBA entry situation. A few times this year I've wondered how much better (at Maui I actually was thinking maybe worse!) the Illini would be had Myers stayed one more year. We'll just never know. It's just part of the process oif you get high recruits and they actually turn out to be good. Somewhat of a roll of the dice.

Let's all hope we shoot at least in the mid 40% range on Sunday to have a chance.

read the DI wrote on March 23, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Marcus Griffin couldn't do that either. And Anderson didn't play much with his back to the basket. That was Lowell Hamilton that did that.

gregscott wrote on March 23, 2013 at 12:03 pm

My point is not to abandon the three-point shot, my point is winning consistently.  Any team can get hot at the three and beat anybody; then turn around the next game and clunk 3 for 20 at the arc and lose to Bradley.  My point is its poor strategy to shoot yourself out of a slump at the arc. To me a shot at the free-throw line area is a midrange shot, and a high percentage one as well that draws rebounders in.  Luther Head could drive to that area often and get his shot\stroke going again.  Players need to be willing to do that before they clunk an 0 for 10 from three-point land. This is basketball, it isn't as hard as they make it look. 

gregscott wrote on March 23, 2013 at 12:03 pm

The most important thing I forgot to mention!!  I'm a die-hard Illini basketball fan.  Had to listen to most of the games on radio this year, but did get to view a few.  I love this team; they can be very frustrating at times, but they scratch and claw, they never give up.  They exceeded my expectations {wow, Mich. is kicking the crap out of VCU}, and I believe they are a program on the rise with John Groce.  High or low, I'll be there with them.

Rushstreet wrote on March 23, 2013 at 3:03 pm

Don't forget about Keny the Snake Norman