Tate: Illini are tough — just like their coach
A volatile, hyperactive John Groce drew a technical before halftime of Tuesday’s showdown at the Farm.
He’s battling just like the team. In fact, he is developing a culture of toughness that has lifted Illinois basketball well beyond the sum of its individual parts.
Latest example: Illinois 83, Indiana 80 in overtime.
For Illini Nation, that’s an exhilarating start to New Year’s Eve, although 16,618 attendees probably endured more excitement than most folks can handle on a single day. It was rowdy from the beginning and increasingly heated as three hard-working zebras struggled with the difficulty of performing the impossible. We should not allow the refs’ tribulations to detract from an extraordinary contest.
Fans didn’t rush the court Saturday but, in truth, this slugfest matched last season’s 72-70 upset in every respect. UI blockbuster Rayvonte Rice continued his spectacular run. The Champaign native racked up 29 points as he joined Joseph Bertrand and Tracy Abrams in producing 59 points on 43 field attempts, this after the Three Amigos bagged 58 points on 34 tries against UIC.
With that high-grade production, Illinois prevailed in the face of a brilliant 30-point outburst by sophomore guard Yogi Ferrell and a 30-6 deficit in arc-shot points. Indiana’s 24-point margin on threes was offset by careless ballhandling that led to 23 turnovers, and additionally by the fact that the Hoosiers went 11:40 without a field goal between Ferrell’s trey at 6:44 and his desperation trey at :03 in overtime.
One at a time
How did Indiana hang close through those crucial 11-plus minutes?
Free throws, of course. They shot 30 of the game’s 56 attempts, and made 24. In that regard, the game wasn’t as clean as you’d prefer.
But each coach had a plan built around putting defenders under stress. Illinois has become a driving team and, on this occasion, had the good fortune to shoot 44.9 percent despite the fact that the treys wouldn’t fall (2 of 17).
Indiana’s Tom Crean directed a two-pronged attack calling for Ferrell to penetrate off the top, and explosive 6-foot-10 freshman Noah Vonleh to work on multiple UI defenders in the paint.
Illinois loaded up to stop Vonleh, and he didn’t get a shot attempt after halftime. But he reached the line 12 times altogether as he drew legitimate fouls or was bailed out on rulings that sent Groce hopping along the sideline while the crowd booed lustily.
This isn’t meant to criticize Mark Whitehead, who called the T, or his brethren. It’s a puzzle with no solution when, with seconds on the shot clock, a postman spins and dives toward the basket with defenders in his way. It’s the same on both ends ... and every fan base in the Big Ten will reach fever pitch if these calls go against their favorites.
Coaches are advised not to talk about the officiating, and they don’t. Groce responded as though he hadn’t returned minutes earlier from an engagement that drew his repeated expressions of unhappiness (a kind word).
“These are some of the best officials in the business,” he said. “I deserved my T.”
He’s right on both counts. But the game being what it is, both he and Crean have created a culture of toughness that, under the rules, makes their top athletes extremely difficult to guard.
Oh, Crean got in one sly comment: “Rice wants angles and you have to be strong enough to handle the forearm pushoff that he uses.”
Pushoff or not, Rice has become a one-man wrecking crew. Playing 42 of 45 minutes (if he gets tired, John, call timeout), he grabbed three of 12 UI steals, speared eight rebounds and set up the game’s most spectacular play, a lob-dunk by Bertrand. That shocking play completed a 17-8 run from a 59-52 deficit to a 69-67 lead. Illinois never trailed from that point.
Quick on the draw
Illinois has had a long line of outstanding players, but no one since another transfer, Kenny Battle in 1987-88, has played his first half-season with the body-banging efficiency or Rice. Two greats, Nick Anderson and Ken Norman, weren’t immediate starters. Derek Harper was erratic offensively. The best of the current pros, Deron Williams, was a slow starter. Eddie Johnson and Brian Cook needed time. Kiwane Garris worked in quickly but not quite to Rice’s level.
Rice used his experience at Drake and hit the ground running at home. He is averaging 19 points on 49 percent field accuracy.
Can Rice and the 12-2 Illini keep it up? Will they be ready for Penn State on Saturday?
It’s hard to play every game at full mental-physical capacity, and to maintain Groce’s perfect record in overtimes (2-0) and in games decided by two points or less (8-0). But for the second season, Illini players have bonded with this vibrant Jim Furyk look-alike ... and of all the good things that have happened to Illini sports in 2013, none tops this working relationship.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.