Tate: Hold your heads high, Illini

Tate: Hold your heads high, Illini

John Groce’s Illini saved their best for last.

Almost.

In the center ring of basketball’s March Madness on Sunday, Brandon Paul and the Illini came within 64 ticks of joining the lineup of Cinderellas — La Salle, Wichita State, Florida Gulf Coast, Oregon — in the NCAA round of 16.

The underdogs were leading 55-54 as the clock wound toward a minute when the star of Miami’s ACC champions, guard Shane Larkin, swished a difficult, step-back trey to break the UI’s hold on tight finishes.

The Hurricanes closed out a 63-59 decision with six straight free throws and will advance against Marquette in Washington, D.C.
The Austin thriller marked the first time in 36 games that Illinois has lost when it led late.

But these Illini were never more courageous, showing the results of a magical coaching performance by Groce, who transformed a squad that was shattered a year ago. What we saw in Texas was a defensively tenacious quintet that hauled down 15 offensive boards and won the rebound battle against a bigger opponent, 36-33.

“This was hard to swallow,” Groce said. “I’ve loved being around these guys, and I’ll be forever grateful for the way they represented the university.”

Going out in style
The stretch run was breathtaking with Paul draining three-pointers around the six-minute mark and, after Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams chipped in to tie it, Paul erupted for a spectacular dunk to put Illinois ahead 54-52.

But it wasn’t to be. Paul’s runningmate, D.J. Richardson, had several open opportunities from his favorite arc spots but couldn’t connect in a 1-for-11 nightmare, and Illinois shot 37.7 percent, which is almost exactly the team average for the last dozen games. By contrast, Rion Brown, a junior who averaged 6.0 with Shane and the Seniors this season, tallied 21 points to become Miami’s fifth different 20-point scorer in the last six games.

With a history of losing close games in tournament play, the Illini came within that final minute of producing their biggest upset in NCAA history.

Despite being pegged a 6- to 8-point underdog, they never appeared awed. In fact, they came out strong and hard.

Groce has favored the three-pointer all season — 24 attempts per game — but the Illini never launched them as quickly as they did early Sunday.

Even as Paul missed three, Tyler Griffey popped three in a row and Richardson added another as the Illini bombers took advance of fastbreak situations before the Miami defense got set.

The strategy was golden as Illinois surged ahead 16-12 through 10 minutes but, as happened so often in a 23-13 season, it proved to be fool’s gold as Miami shut down arc opportunities. After making 4 of 7, the Illini closed out 3 for 20.

What about next season?
The Illini lineup will look a lot different when they play their next game.

Gone will be 58 percent of the points, 72.5 percent of the treys, 62 percent of the free throws and 45 percent of the rebounds.

No Big Ten team loses so much through the graduation of (four) seniors, although several others like Michigan and Indiana could be severely impacted if all-stars turn pro.

In any case, patience will again be called for as Illinois tries to emerge from a seven-season stretch that provided just two NCAA victories.

While long-range prospects appear promising under the astute direction of Groce, next season could be trying with Illinois again projected in the Big Ten’s second division.

The nucleus quartet of Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Joseph Bertrand and Myke Henry has shown promise at times. But here are the cold facts: As starting point guard, Abrams averaged just 3.4 assists and shot 27 percent from the arc ... the other three combined for 46 assists all season (Henry had just five) ... Egwu scored more than 10 points just four times in 36 games (he had 12 Sunday)... Bertrand had two field goals in two Austin outings and scored 10 points once in the last 12 games.

Groce will  be obliged to locate ballhandling, rebounding and scoring help from Rayvonte Rice and five incoming freshmen.

At the same time, there’ll be bumpy moments as the coach must clear room (no current scholarships are available) to recruit current high school juniors. Especially high on his list are five-star prospects 6-9 Cliff Alexander of Chicago Curie, 6-4 JaQuan Lyle of Evansville Bosse and 6-7 Leron Black of White Station in Memphis ... these three drawing attention because the UI is high on their lists.  

It’s possible to win without five-star blue chippers but, with the Big Ten operating at an elite level, quality talent is a necessity. Latest ESPN Top 10 ratings show 60 high school seniors ranked ahead of the UI’s top-ranked recruits, Simeon’s Kendrick Nunn (No. 61) and Belleville East’s Malcolm Hill (No. 68).

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

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Bear8287 wrote on March 25, 2013 at 12:03 am

Congratulations to Coach Groce and the Fighting Illini for a 23-13 season and finishing in a manner that should make all Illini fans proud of their team. The Illini had a great start and won the Maui Invitational Tournament Championship. After a rough 2-7 start in Big Ten play following last year's collapse, it would've been easy for this team to give up, but this Illini team had fight left in them and never gave up.  There's a good life lesson in there.

Best wishes to the graduating Illini for success in their future careers.

Thanks for an exciting season.

Go Illini!

JamesB wrote on March 25, 2013 at 12:03 am

I remember ages ago (like 25 years maybe) Loren wrote that he would be content if the Illini played well in losing to a superior oppenent in an NCAA tournament game.  This game fit the bill, I should think.  Great game to watch live.  We fought hard, never gave up, unfortunately our two main scorers weren't hitting their open 3's.   But we had a chance till the end. 

urbanaman wrote on March 25, 2013 at 1:03 am

I'm wondering why this couldn't be considered their best anyway, since they were on the national stage as a team that most thought wouldn't even MAKE the tourney early on against a team who many pick to win it all. Is it just because we lost, Loren?

You fickle old fart, you've been a sportswriter since Naismith first hung up a peach basket. When can we expect YOUR best?...

basketball junkie1123 wrote on March 25, 2013 at 5:03 am

All I can say is the returning team better do an Egwun this summer.  Go to coaches and say  what do I need to do to improve.  Work thier butts off.  If they don't find guys who do. Next year


we will not be as good as this year unless three or four guys step it up.


The fear is that Groce will get a better offer elsewhere.


Sad that coach could only go 7 deep.  Our boys got tired.


They did better then I throught they would.

JimOATSfan wrote on March 25, 2013 at 6:03 am

Illini Nation will ALWAYS BE PROUD of the players and coaches in this game. You gave everything and played smartly.

All the best to the departing seniors, you picked up some great life lessons this season.

CHEERS !

TheChiefLives wrote on March 25, 2013 at 9:03 am

Practice 3's all summer boys.  It's Groce's style, and we need someone who can hit them.  What we will be lacking next year is players who can score from anywhere on the floor like Paul, Richardson, and to some extent, Griffey.

three girls123 wrote on March 25, 2013 at 10:03 am

 If they could have hit their shots a little bit better. I'm still proud of them, And I have a good feeling about the future with our guys, and the new recruits under Groce.

mulefloyd wrote on March 25, 2013 at 12:03 pm

They don't need to work on their jumpshots (3 pt or otherwise) so much as work on realizing the difference between a good and bad shot and that it has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with whether or not it is made.

If they just keep taking good open shots from either good passing or drive and kicks, the pace that Groce wants to play will result in more possessions which is more teaching moments for a true teacher.

2013-2014 CAN'T WAIT!!

crackerman wrote on March 25, 2013 at 3:03 pm

Reports are surfacing that Groce is interviewing for the UCLA job!

OKOMIS wrote on March 25, 2013 at 6:03 pm

silly...

afan wrote on March 25, 2013 at 8:03 pm

We will miss the seniors leaving this year.  They really stepped up, and I wish them all the best going forward.  I'm feeling positive about the Illini's future again, and that's largely due to them.  But that's the nature of college athletics.  You only get them for a short time and then it's over.

I'm looking forward to seeing what Groce can do with next year's team.  This team still has some good pieces, Rice will be eligible next year, and Groce has ESPN's 17th best recruiting class arriving.  You can't replace the senior leadership that's leaving, but Groce still has plenty to work with, and an off season to improve the team even further for next year.

i know we've been burned before, but I think it's safe to start expecting Illinois to be in the NCAA tournament regularly from now on.

urbanaman wrote on March 26, 2013 at 1:03 am

I think the words many of us are looking for, or at least should be, are: "Thank you, Mr. Thomas"...
 

optimator wrote on March 27, 2013 at 8:03 am

hmm.

 

no cowpie pearls of wisdom in this article.

 

bummer

DaisyJ wrote on March 28, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Abrams had only average 3.7 assists and shot 27 %.. Paul not much better, Egwu never got to shoot, maybe that is why he only scored 10 points or more in a few games,,,duh.

You all got to see how bad basketball not just at Illinois but everywhere. Why scoring is going down not up.  duh

 

called too many 3 point attemts by unskilled non signatured moves by unskilled players not just at Illinois but in all of college ball. Who cannot get a big minority big man to dunki a ball. What talent now is that. What do we call that signature move. Wake up America, basketball is being hurt by the almighty loveable 3.

IlliniMike05 wrote on March 29, 2013 at 10:03 am

That's an interesting, fresh new take from you!

DaisyJ wrote on March 29, 2013 at 11:03 am

I feel sorry for you, you more than likely were born after 1980 and have no clue what good basketball moves look like. Anyone can drop back farther and farther and throw up a three ball.

What skill is that.

JDG613 wrote on March 29, 2013 at 12:03 pm

Let me know when/where you're going to go out on a basketball court and "drop back farther and farther and throw up a three ball."  I want to watch you show us how easy it is...  After all, "Anyone" can do that, right?

I was born before 1980, and I know what good basketball moves look like....and I saw plenty of them from this team, and that's not even including the 3-point shooting.

Simple math shows that even 40% shooting from 3-point range can oftentimes beat even 60% shooting from within the lane.  Don't forget how Loyola Marymount used to intentionally give up a quick 2, then come down and make a 3.  It's hard to make enough 2's to counter a lot of 3's....

I'm excited to see how UI progresses under Coach Groce.

DaisyJ wrote on March 29, 2013 at 3:03 pm

Your exactly right, it is not easy, not even from the stupid line they use now. Anyone can shoot and miss, which is the norm for most shooters now.

You did not see, say maybe Egwu who has a turn fade, you did not see any moves.

Griffey throws balls up, and when he tries to drive he gets his footwork crossed and is off balance.

Paul throws up so many bad shots the announcers even say they were bad.

Abrams has one speed, too fast and out of control.

Richardson was just another three ball shooter.

Henry, he could at least follow the ball off ball and rebound

There were NOT plenty of good moves. Who in the post could go up and under, fake and fade, drop step. Who of the guards could drive, stop and shoot on a dime. Who of the forwards could fake, or shoot a baby hook.

Simple math says that when you shoot a three, you get very little rebound put backs, very few fouls on the other team ( less free throws and allows their players to stay in the game), and you end up standing around, other than that the math shows if you miss you really get beat.

I like Groce, but have to tell you that the nonsenseical running away from the basket by the big men picking left me wondering if I was not watching the YMCA at noon.

DaisyJ wrote on March 29, 2013 at 3:03 pm

What you all do not realize is that these kids are a product of how the high school game is going. Three point shooters that do not even try to develop signature moves. No wonder they come to the college game with little skill. Where are the kids with a quick release, high arch, fake moves. They are not there and it is a shame. This is why when you watch a game that no one is hitting the three balls, you feel like the game is boring, and the reason is obvious.

DaisyJ wrote on March 29, 2013 at 6:03 pm

Forgot, one other math note, Jay Bilas made the comment the other day how the NCAA is concerned that scoring has been down yearly each of the last 10yrs even though we have the three point shot and shot clock. What does that tell you about the three ball. End of story.

 

Fans want the three so an underdog can come back. It really is killing the game.

DaisyJ wrote on March 30, 2013 at 9:03 am

ONE more simple math idea, did you see the kid from Kansas go to the hole for the tie but threw the ball out for the THREE to win. Now that is math that tells me the game is in trouble.

patrick wrote on March 30, 2013 at 11:03 am

I tend to agree with the negative comments regarding the 3 pt. shot. As one TV commentator put it, "too many kids are going for the 'hero shot'". The 3 pt. shot has virtually relegated the medium range jumper to the dust bin. Additionally, it's diluted the passing game and the patience that it requires. How many times in recent years do we see a team pass the ball once or twice, give up looking for an open man with a good look only to launch a 3 pointer , almost out of desperation. Clearly, in some circumstances , it must be taken. But, when I see a guy who's gone 0 for 8 betong the arc continuing to launch, I go crazy. Every great shooter has a cold night, but isn't it important for that player to recognize it and try to contribute in some other way (like defense)? I wonder also whether the increasing inabilty to finish isn't a casualty of the 3 pt.  How much practice time in spent on 3 ptrs. at the expense of practice in finishing a layup? A possible solution is to limit awarding 3 pts. on a shot to the last 2 or 3 minutes of each half.

DaisyJ wrote on March 30, 2013 at 3:03 pm

Thanks Patrick for an honest evaluation of the demise of the offense game in basketball. I saw Centenials last game in the sectionals, and Finke took one shot inside the arch, and it was to start the second half as it was a lob into him by the basket. Other than that, he could care less if he took anything but a three. Think about it, high school basketball, 6'9 inch star player, and he is outside the almighty three line. It is much more than missing the shot, it is what it is doing to the flow and inclusion of the other kids in the game. Wake up America, think for yourself, think outside of announcers that tell you how to think or react to a three ball.