For the better part of three decades, the inconsistencies of basketball have grown.
How, for instance, can Creighton defeat No. 9 Villanova twice, 96-68 and 101-80, while losing to lesser St. John’s and Providence teams?
Let’s see. You don’t suppose it’s because the Bluejays sank 30 of 50 treys against Villanova — that’s 90 points; you’d have to shoot 90 percent on 50 twos to match it — while having arc struggles of 5 for 22 against St. John’s and 4 for 19 vs. Providence.
Like many others, Creighton lives and dies by the arc-shot. The Bluejays lead the nation at 42.5 percent, just ahead of Duke (41.5). Those teams could rock the nation at tournament time or be gone on one bad shooting night.
You see, 40 percent shooters don’t make 8 of 20 every night. They might make 12 of 20, and then 4 of 20. One is a winner, the other is a loser.
And did you notice that No. 1 Syracuse finally lost? Check it out. Underdog Boston College hit 11 of 22 bombs, Syracuse 2 of 12. That’s a 33-6 scoring margin that the Orange couldn’t overcome in Wednesday’s 62-59 result.
In more cases than it is possible to relate, the reason for inconsistencies is the three-point shot. Finalized as an NCAA rule in 1986-87, it has been the game’s curse and its savior.
You never know. Teams are hot one night, cold the next. And it holds fans until the final seconds because, if you’re a math major, you can compute that two 15-foot free throws don’t equal one 25-foot splash. It doesn’t seem right but, yes, a trailing team can catch up by fouling. More excitement, better attendance!
When Illinois traveled to Minnesota on Wednesday night, John Groce’s team was fractionally over 30 percent from long range and trailed roughly 330 college teams in that department. Even weak-shooting Bradley and Illinois State squads were over 31 percent.
But it was the UI’s turn, and the treys fell in bunches. With freshman Kendrick Nunn on a 5-for-7 binge, the Illini sank 8 of 13 treys (61.5 percent) while the Gophers suffered through a 4-for-25 slump, missing 15 consecutive threes during the critical portion of Illinois’ 62-49 win.
Other aspects of that game are simply window dressing. In an otherwise-sloppy performance, Minnesota beat the Illini to the loose balls, speared 16 offensive rebounds and won the Sumo wrestling in the paint. But the Gophers couldn’t handle it (15 turnovers) and couldn’t shoot it. This is something the Illini understand; been there, done that.
Nor did we have any hint this was coming. The Illini hadn’t converted more than 40 percent of their treys in 17 consecutive games. Picking up where they left off in a 48-39 loss to Ohio State, they started 1 for 10 from the field, extending a 48-minute stretch in which they scored 42 points.
Behind 14-3, they suddenly relaxed and, to the disbelief of 12,221 pop-eyed onlookers, returned from the dead. The Illini sank 18 of their last 35 field attempts and 16 of 20 free throws.
Major setback for Gophers
Leaving the shooting for a moment, this game clarified, at least temporarily, two discussion points.
1. The loss chilled Minnesota’s NCAA hopes, the team falling to 7-9 in the conference with Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan coming up next. For a team on the bubble, this was a major setback.
2. Nnanna Egwu served his detractors a plate of crow. He remains the UI center for now and next season, having returned from the mid-January depths of back-to-back scoreless and weak-rebounding games against Purdue and Michigan State.
The 6-foot-11 junior has 37 rebounds in the last three games, but his best asset may be his defense. With his quickness, he has a striking ability to hedge against dribblers on the perimeter, and he was a factor in preventing hotshot Gopher guard DeAndre Mathieu — who had a terrible night — from penetrating.
Groce hit on that when he said: “Egwu was ridiculously good on defense. It was a team effort in keeping Mathieu out of the lane. Egwu imposed his will on both ends (14 points, 11 boards).
“People have been hard on Nnanna. They don’t realize what a great luxury it is to have such a mobile defender ... someone you can scheme around.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.