Tate: Illini need to stretch better
Eight steamy minutes — the difference between a 32-minute high school game and the college game — have put Illinois’ NCAA tournament hopes in serious jeopardy.
After nipping UNLV and IPFW in clutch two-point wins in late November, December dawned dark and cold. John Groce calls it a lack of execution ... a tendency to become tentative down the stretch.
Despite holding Oregon 20 points under its average in a 71-64 loss, Groce said:
“We defended the three, and we kept them off the foul line, but we didn’t attack in the last 10 minutes. We have to answer the bell late in games.”
In order, Georgia Tech went on a 19-4 run in the last nine minutes of a 67-64 comeback win, Auburn outscored the UI 23-11 in the final 8:00 of a coasting 81-62 Illini win, Dartmouth made it close (72-65) with a 26-16 finish in the last 9:00, and Oregon rolled 26-12 after the 10-minute mark to prevail 71-64 Saturday night in Portland. Those late runs nearly doubled the Illini production, 91-46.
In their two losses, the Illini blew second-half leads of 60-48 and 51-40. Not shocking. Basketball is a game of runs. And results often flip-flop in the final quarter as trailing teams become more aggressive.
But Illinois, so fortunate in close games last season, can’t afford these late-game slumps. Read on and you’ll see why.
Illinois reached the NCAA tournament last year not because of its Big Ten record (8-10) but because of earlier triumphs against highly regarded Gonzaga (a No. 1 seed) and Butler, plus Southern Cal, Georgia Tech and Auburn.
The latter three didn’t have strong teams but, as members of the Power-5 conferences — who meet next month to separate themselves within the NCAA to create student-athlete stipends — they carry an extra element of prestige. The UI’s only loss in nonconference play last season was to Missouri, and this was offset somewhat by a Big Ten tourney defeat of Minnesota.
This year is different. In a 9-2 start, Illinois hasn’t defeated a quality opponent, losing to RPI No. 8 Oregon and RPI No. 136 Georgia Tech. UNLV (4-4) checks in at RPI 155. Bradley has lost five of six games, showing 207. Auburn is an awful 265.
At No. 20, Missouri offers a last chance for nonconference redemption in St. Louis, the Illini finding themselves underdogs again as they carry a four-game losing streak there.
And before you mention UIC, consider that the Flames are 4-6 and a deep No. 199 on the RPI chart. A win against UIC gains almost nothing in terms of NCAA consideration.
Not such a BIG threat
The Big Ten isn’t quite as strong collectively as when it was the nation’s top conference a year ago. While Wisconsin’s thin unit and perennial Ohio State are setting the woods on fire, youthful Indiana is restocking and NCAA runner-up Michigan has lost four games.
What is there about these weekend setbacks that makes anyone think the Big Ten is still the top basketball conference?
(1) Iowa relived its late-game nightmares of last season in an 85-82 loss to Iowa State.
(2) Michigan played perhaps its best game but showed interior defensive weaknesses in falling 72-70 to top-ranked Arizona.
(3) Butler reached 13-4 against Big Ten teams since 2006-07 by building a 16-point lead and downing Purdue 76-70.
(4) Notre Dame handed Indiana its third loss, 79-72.
(5) Princeton beat Penn State in overtime, 81-79.
(6) Michigan State missed top scorer Gary Harris and struggled to hold off Oakland, 67-63.
Combining the weak preconference foes with the status of the Big Ten, it appears certain that the 8-10 record that carried Illinois into the NCAA tournament last year won’t suffice in 2014. Making it more difficult, Illinois won’t play Northwestern or Minnesota at home this season.
But is it possible? Sure, just turn out the lights with 8:00 to go, or start playing those eight minutes like the first 32.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.