Tate: At least there was one positive
Michigan State didn’t need senior star Adreian Payne to heap more pain in the UI’s House of ‘Paign.
Just when it looked like the Big Ten might be heading into Upset Saturday — big road wins by Northwestern and Michigan — visiting Penn State let Purdue slip through its fingers (65-64), and the UI fell, 78-62, to 17-1 Michigan State.
With Payne resting his foot for the third straight game, Tom Izzo’s club prevailed with a combination of basket-attacking offense, take-charge rebounding (38-26) and a stern defense that held John Groce’s club under 40 percent (37.7) for the fifth consecutive game.
Gary Harris, sophomore wing, had the look of a 2014 NBA first-rounder with 23 points while Denzel Valentine, who had a single point in the 54-40 defeat of Northwestern on Wednesday, burst forth with a double-double (15 points, 11 rebounds).
The loss dropped Illinois to 13-6 and, at this point, out of the NCAA picture.
While the sudden dip has caught Illini Nation by surprise after a Top 25 ranking, there have been similar dips recently. In the eight seasons after the magical 37-2 run in 2005, the Illini reached Big Ten play with an 88-20 record but have been 69-71 in the conference. They slipped from 11-2 to 2-4 this season.
Can it get any worse?
If the immediate UI future appears bleak — road trips to Ohio State and Indiana — Saturday’s second half offered the Illini something to build on.
Down 35-25 at the break — having permitted 11 first-half layups — the hosts repeatedly cut into the Spartans’ 10-point lead, playing the Big Ten leaders even, 69-60, until Valentine hit a jumper on what Groce considered an illegal screen. A frustrated Groce, who had been warned earlier, drew a technical at 1:39 after heaving his jacket in a rage.
The UI’s improved offensive performance was nullified by Michigan State’s counter efforts, the Spartans scoring on their last 11 possessions to cap 62.5-percent shooting (15 of 24) in the second half.
Junior center Nnanna Egwu went scoreless for the second straight game but freshmen Kendrick Nunn, Maverick Morgan and Malcolm Hill continued to show promise with combined production of 17 points.
“I thought our offense was better in the second half,” Groce said. “We fought back within six but we made a lot of mistakes defensively, and that’s a really good team. (Keith) Appling hit a big three (over the UI zone) when it was 59-53.”
Shock to the system
Pitt’s near-upset of Syracuse on Saturday reminds that major conference champions seldom go undefeated in league play.
Examples a year ago: Records of 14-4 were sufficient for Indiana (Big Ten), Florida (SEC), Louisville’s national champs (Big East), and co-champs Kansas and Kansas State (Big 12). Miami ruled the ACC at 15-3, and UCLA won the Pac-12 at 13-5.
If that holds true — if unbeatens Arizona and Syracuse stumble — we might wake up on Sunday morning, Feb. 2, with the polls featuring a highly unusual No. 1.
That would be Wichita State, the ruling member of the Missouri Valley.
The Shockers are 19-0, having defeated just two teams from the power conferences: Alabama (8-9) and Tennessee (11-6).
This isn’t meant to trash Gregg Marshall’s club. The Shockers are on a multi-year roll. They reached the Final Four last season, and returned deep and experienced with four seniors, two juniors and two sophomores among their top eight scorers. But the journey is not such a hard pull when, for example, the next two opponents are Illinois State and Drake, both of whom saw their best players (Nic Moore and Rayvonte Rice) transfer after the 2012 season for more competitive environments at SMU and Illinois.
Wichita State doesn’t even play Creighton any more, the Bluejays moving to the Big East. After the Shockers rallied from a 54-35 deficit to nip Mssouri State in overtime last weekend, Marshall said: “That’s the first close game we’ve had.”
No team can be properly gauged until it wades in against genuine competition.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.