A suffocating defense is often a great offense.
That’s how Illinois joined the week’s extraordinary list of upset winners by literally stealing a 53-46 basketball decision at Michigan State.
Tom Izzo, call the cops! This wasn’t a misdemeanor. It bordered on a felony as junior pickpockets Tracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice swiped five apiece, and the Illini turned a season-high 14 thefts into 25 points ... nearly half the team total.
Magic Johnson’s statue outside the Breslin Center was last seen with his head cast downward, and he wasn’t ducking the oncoming snow.
Taking on a fresh look since freshmen Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn became starters, Illinois has held four consecutive opponents under 50 for the first time since 1947, and it had a previous season-high 11 steals against Nebraska on Wednesday, scoring 40 of 60 points off turnovers and second-chance opportunities at home.
This is taking place in a conference in which teams have reached 80 points on 91 occasions. Down the stretch, Michigan State managed three field goals in the last eight minutes.
It all started with Rice’s two steal-breakaways that inspired a 21-9 getaway. The Izzone was aghast, and the I-think-I-can, I-know-I-can visitors found the incline not so steep.
“Our fast start gave us confidence,” UI coach John Groce said, “and our seniors reminded everyone at halftime that we led Michigan State (37-27) at the half here last year, and then they came out and smacked us. We got out 9-2 in the second half (Saturday). The start of each half was huge for disposition purposes.”
The head-scratching aspect of the last two wins is that a switching, clogging UI defense turned Nebraska (with five consecutive wins) and Michigan State (11-4 in the Big Ten) into such bumbling ball handlers.
With Izzo getting his team healthy at last, all signs pointed toward an uplifting March. But the Spartans evolved Saturday into a one-man team of NBA-bound sophomore Gary Harris (five treys, 19 points). Veterans Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson performed as though they might have lingering problems from their recent injuries. Payne was particularly quiet as Nnanna Egwu battled him inside, the UI junior garnering three blocks before fouling out with 1:07 left.
At the expense of offensive rebounds, Groce emphasized a game plan requiring a quick retreat on defense, this after Michigan State scored 24 fast-break points in a 78-62 win Jan. 18 in Champaign. The Spartans raced for just nine points Saturday.
Riddle me this ...
There are no definitive answers for complicated questions with ever-changing elements. But somebody has to tackle them, so why not me?
— Has basketball hit a modern low in high school, college and the NBA and, if so, why?
Too few teams excel in passing, which is the difference-maker. Players work to make themselves better, but not necessarily their teammates. This starts on the ground floor of “me-first” AAU events, continues as college coaches try to project prospects based too often on pure athleticism and carries through to a one-and-done attitude that hurts colleges and the NBA.
Why do you think new commissioner Adam Silver favors raising the age requirement?
— Are you sure the imagined falloff isn’t simply the impact of parity?
Maybe so. But look around. In the vast area west of Arizona, No. 13 San Diego lost recently to New Mexico 58-44, and next-best UCLA has lost two straight to Stanford and Oregon.
Or take the SEC: Florida is excellent, but seven members entered Saturday with conference records of 8-7 or 7-8. That’s a lot of mediocrity at well-financed programs.
It’s impossible to fill out a Top 25 poll. No. 4 Syracuse struggled through February and got hammered Saturday by Virginia. No. 7 Louisville fell to Memphis, which had just lost to Houston. No. 9 Creighton succumbed to Xavier, and Saint Louis lost to Duquesne on Thursday and VCU on Saturday. No. 11 Cincinnati fell to UConn.
No. 17 Kentucky split two recent overtimes before falling to South Carolina on Saturday. No. 18 Michigan State has lost two in a row, while No. 20 Iowa is in a three-game swoon. No. 22 Ohio State lost a second time to Penn State, and No. 24 Texas has lost three of four.
— Where would Wichita State rank in the Big Ten?
The Shockers would be a contender but wouldn’t be undefeated.
No matter how good a team may appear, losses take their toll. And losses are bound to happen in a conference vastly superior to the watered-down Missouri Valley.
If you have a weakness, they figure it out in the Big Ten ... whether it is Iowa’s porous defense or Ohio State’s weak inside play.
Ultimately, it’s how you respond to adversity (and losses) that determine Big Ten championships.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.