It’s called the Law of Averages.
Over time, regardless of who’s playing and who’s coaching, the last-shot contests even out.
John Groce had amazingly good fortune in thrilling finishes as the UI’s first-year coach. In order to win 23 games, his Illini went 6-0 in games decided by four points or less before losing to Miami 63-59 in the NCAA tournament.
It started in overtime at Hawaii, where D.J. Richardson drilled a trey to haul it out, 78-77. Tyler Griffey did it twice, his trey saving the embarrassment of losing to Gardner-Webb (63-62) and his layup stunning No. 1 Indiana (74-72).
Then there was the Auburn game (81-79), and two squeakers over Minnesota: (1) Tracy Abrams, 2 for 9 from the field, hit a trey at :21 in Minneapolis for a 57-53 win and (2) the Illini missed eight straight shots in the Big Ten tournament before Richardson tied it with a three and Brandon Paul broke a 49-49 tie at the buzzer.
The recent wins against UNLV (61-59) and IPFW (57-55) offered more of the same with multiple heroes popping up when, in fact, the real star was the Illini defense. UNLV and IPFW sputtered out as each produced just 20 points in the second half. Both floundered in the closing minutes, and it seemed likely that Georgia Tech, coming off consecutive double-digit losses to so-so St. John’s and Ole Miss, might do the same.
As it turned out, Tech outscored Illinois 19-4 down the stretch.
All along, this undefeated Illini team appeared as a ticking time bomb, lacking in individual playmaking skills, subpar in terms of perimeter shooting and with only raw freshmen coming off the bench. Freshmen seldom shoot accurately, and the two attempting the most shots, Jaylon Tate and Malcolm Hill, are 12 for 46 (26 percent).
All this is what Groce refers to when he talks about “operating on a narrow margin” and “pathetic execution.”
Except for Rayvonte Rice, who can expect plenty of late-game double-teams from now on, the veteran five has no one with natural creative skills. Rice did a great job setting up Joe Bertrand for a possible game-winner Tuesday, but Bertrand missed. It happens.
My point here is that, whether or not Bertrand made the shot, this Illini team is what it is: an NCAA bubble team at best, a bridge to something better down the line. Expectations should be restrained.
And before you remind that Illinois — thanks to a miraculous Rice outburst — had a 12-point lead with 6:30 to go, here’s my annual and oft-repeated response: In today’s game, a 10-point lead with 10 minutes to go is meaningless IF the leading team becomes cautious.
Illinois had been attacking without hesitation after the halftime break and, when it started to run clock, my inner self cried out, “Oh, no.”
Everybody does it. Consciously or unconsciously, teams try to nurse late leads in basketball’s version of the prevent defense.
Guys, there’s a clock running. You can’t hold the ball. You must shoot. Holding for 25 seconds only means that you’ll feel pressure as it ticks down, and the defense will be encouraged to hustle those last 10 seconds.
The Illini lost their momentum, forced some shots against the clock and lost the game.
‘D’ didn’t hold up
All that said, Illinois could have survived Tuesday if the defense had held up or — shame on me for bringing it up — the refs hadn’t swallowed their whistles when big Daniel Miller traveled and rooted out Nnanna Egwu for the go-ahead basket at :21.
This was the last example of the defense breaking down, a subject that deserves special attention.
Groce has used more zone against weak-shooting UNLV and Georgia Tech teams than Illinoisans have seen in years. Credit Groce for daring to deviate from the norm.
Tech was confused at the outset, falling behind 26-17 before figuring it out, then catching fire to take a 36-33 halftime lead. Maybe Groce stayed with the 2-3 zone too long (his strategy was limited by fouls), but he shifted to his staple man-to-man at the break, and the Illini went on another run for the 60-48 lead.
Tech appeared beaten. But desperation has its advantages in the waning minutes, and the aggressors took charge. Egwu’s 15-footer was the UI’s only basket in the last 10 shots, and Miller’s travel-push at :21 reversed the score. The outcome made Illini shortcomings more glaring ... shortcomings that were apparent when Valparaiso clung within 49-47 at 5:40, when Chicago State trailed just 55-51 before Jon Ekey caught fire and when UNLV and IPFW played the Illini so close.
Set your jaw for a long, tough taffy pull.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.