Loren Tate: Big Dance remains target
Clearly enunciated, that was John Groce’s sharp response.
The question: Can you imagine any circumstance where it would be preferable to participate in the NIT over the NCAA?
“I’m biased,” said the Illini basketball coach Monday, “and I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to play in the greatest tournament in the world.”
In our wildest dreams, this subject would never have occurred two weeks ago. The Illini had dropped 10 of 11 games through mid-February and scored a meager 39 points against Ohio State. Even now, we are cautioned about letting expectations run rampant for a team that ranks 304th in points, 334th in assists and 324th in field goal percentage (40.7).
But with three consecutive wins and only two regular season games to go, a 6-10 Big Ten record could become 8-10, and that would match the 2013 record when the Big Dance invited the Illini. There are other factors, of course. But tell me: Would the NCAA selection committee deny a team that finished the regular season by defeating Minnesota, Nebraska, Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa?
Even though Michigan could put an abrupt end to such talk Tuesday night, it is the prerogative of ink-stained harebrains to discuss the possibilities.
Understand, there’s a striking difference between the newly crowned Big Ten champions and a troubled Spartan team in a 6-for-10 spiral. But Illinois must have a shot.
Shucks, the folks out Vegas way, who put their money where their mouth is, consider the Wolverines — who are seeking an outright Big Ten title — a modest three-point favorite. That’s just one long field goal.
One game at a time
In any case, Groce won’t be distracted by game odds, postseason projections or next season’s lineup. He would consider these distractions. He’s on a one-day, one-hour, one-minute schedule, emphasizing earlier that “we are locked into the next practice and the next game, and not an inkling of thought beyond that.”
He’s right, of course. Not that it’s unanimous in Illini Nation. Some deep thinkers, having polished their crystal balls, believe it would be more beneficial to play two or three NIT games, as opposed to a quick out in the NCAA. They didn’t hear his emphatic “No!”
Listen, if you didn’t attend, there’s a huge difference between traveling to Stony Brook, N.Y., in 2010 (Illinois must travel this year) or engaging Colorado and Miami in the NCAA regional before 14,000 fans in Austin, Texas. There are elements of pressure, pride and recruiting benefits ... all manner of positives emanating from that 63-59 loss to Miami.
Forget December. Heck, forget January, too. These are the games that determine how you’ll be remembered, and it is becoming clear that Groce’s emphasis on defense and positive thinking (even when all seems lost) is paying dividends each March.
His 2010 club at Ohio, just 7-9 in the Mid-American Conference, advanced by edging Akron in overtime and posted a stunning 97-83 conquest of Georgetown in the NCAAs. His 2012 team was 11-5 in the league, advanced past Akron 64-63 and defeated Michigan and South Florida before falling to North Carolina in overtime. That’s how he got the Illinois job, and his UI teams also have shown a similar ability to keep plugging while, in his words, “some get gobbled up in the grind.”
Impossible to explain
The lingering question is what percentage of the bungling performances by Minnesota, Nebraska and Michigan State — 34 UI steals led to 46 turnovers, three-point shooting at 23 percent — were the result of Illinois’ defense, and how much of it was these teams having season-low performances?
Can’t answer that one. It’s too complicated. MSU and Nebraska won in a breeze in their first Illini go-rounds.
What we know today is that it is not possible for the Illini to hold four consecutive Big Ten opponents, all with NCAA hopes, under 50 points. But they did. They entered the realm of the supernatural.
Now, can it continue? Michigan’s high-flying attack scores at a 75-point rate and has three of the league’s best jump-shooters — Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III — lankies who can get their own shot. Then comes Iowa, fifth in the nation with an 83.6 scoring average.
“The water is starting to boil,” said Groce, seemingly relishing the challenge.
And you thought the season was over. You demonstrated that with your spotty attendance for Nebraska on Wednesday, and the UI offered four Michigan tickets for $40. Just begging folks to come out.
Well, if you’ve recovered from the Oscars and the snow scare, it’s Revelation Time. If “True Detective” is taped, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson will still be there Wednesday.
Something is happening down on South First. Kendrick Nunn just won his second consecutive Big Ten Freshman of the Week award. Tracy Abrams is showing more guts than a country butcher. Rayvonte Rice has the hands of a burglar, and Nnanna Egwu is neutralizing every opposing center. Seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey deserve your applause.
The Illini have entered the one-and-out, elimination phase of the NCAA tournament. It’s Meesh-igan, bless its souls. And it’s the last game at the Assembly Hall before it really becomes State Farm Center.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.