CHICAGO — Whew!
With memories of 2010’s United Center disaster coming into focus, Illini Nation suffered through a 20-minute reminder why the UI administration may elect to drop this incestuous contractual relationship.
One more game is guaranteed between Illinois and sister school UIC, that contest slated for 2015 if it isn’t moved up alongside Oregon as a second United Center engagement next season.
A weak (7-24) UIC team upset Illinois 57-54 three years ago, and the Flames came out white-hot Saturday in building a 13-point lead and a 44-34 halftime spread. John Groce’s relentless penetrators rallied sharply for a 74-60 victory but, with the game drawing a modest Chicago crowd of 13,017, the question remains: Would it be preferable for the UI to play a major-conference opponent here?
Howard Moore, UIC coach with a 1-1 record in the series, thinks not, saying: “It’s great. It’s good for the state. We want to keep it going.”
UI athletic director Mike Thomas was less clear:
“John and I need to look at the big picture and decide what it means to the program and the fan base.”
Whatever happens, Groce clearly wants more home games (as do the fans) but can’t look too far in the future until it’s clear how many Big Ten contests will be required after Maryland and Rutgers become entrenched in the conference.
No one anticipated what happened in Saturday’s first 20 minutes. The 5-8 Flames had lost to Northwestern by 35 and Eastern Illinois by 20, but they looked like the Miami Heat as everything they tossed came up 7s and 11s.
Kelsey Barlow, released by Purdue after an early-morning bar incident two years ago, never had a better half. He appeared unstoppable.
The Illini weren’t playing poorly. In those 20 minutes, they had a single turnover while cashing baskets at a good (for them) 48 percent.
But Barlow was great, and he had help. While he made 7 of 12 shots, his torrid teammates went 11 of 17 (despite several UI blocks). It seemed incomprehensible for this to be happening one week after Illinois posted its biggest win against Missouri.
Then Illinois outscored UIC 40-16 after the break. With Rayvonte Rice confronting Barlow, and getting shaded help from all sides, the Flames shot 26 percent after their 62 percent first half.
Pressure was eased as Illinois stormed back in a hurry with Rice rebounding his own miss, Tracy Abrams bagging a trey and Joseph Bertrand converting a three-point play before the Flames responded. Rice eventually put Illinois up 58-53 with seven unanswered points, and the Illini breezed home.
(1) What were the factors that allowed Rice to play 36 hard minutes (he scored 28 with seven rebounds) and limit Barlow to three second-half points? Down the stretch, it seemed as though Barlow had thrown in the towel. It was a remarkable transformation from Barlow’s extreme confidence to utter helplessness.
Groce: “Jon Ekey and Nnanna Egwu did a great job of hedging on the ball screens, and Rayvonte has the size, strength, hands, anticipation, quickness, explosiveness and toughness ... do you need any more? All those things allow him to play great defense despite the fact we ask so much of him on the other end. It isn’t common for the best scorer to defend the top opponent. He is in great condition, and he’s wired that way.”
(2) Rice and Abrams keep driving and driving when there appears to be no place to go. Those two — plus Bertrand — made 15 free throws as they attacked off the dribble time after time. This style has seen UI assists reduced to eight, seven and nine in the last three games. It isn’t always pretty, but it’s paying off.
Groce: “We are playing to our strengths and adapting. We didn’t shoot well from the arc today (5 of 19). Ekey was wide open for the kind of threes that he’s been making his whole career, but he missed all five.”
Chiming in with Missouri coach Frank Haith, UIC’s Moore called the Illini “more aggressive in the way they went after our guys. Even though we are a dribble-drive team, they shot 25 free throws to our nine.”
With Indiana coming up Tuesday (2 p.m.), Illinois is leaving the nonconference portion with an 11-2 record and entering Groce’s “Season Two” with the reputation as a highly physical team.
In the mid-1970s, Rick Schmidt was a slam-bang solo act. The Illini now have two members who attack the rim with that kind of tenacity and recklessness, Rice and Abrams deserving of linebacker and cornerback looks from the NFL.
They go where others fear to tread ... and where they sometimes regret. But Illinois would have no offense without them.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.