INDIANAPOLIS — Seeing is believing, and John Groce’s Illini are gaining believers.
But for those who just saw Illinois lose six of seven at home, it must be difficult to comprehend its five triumphs in the last six road trips.
It’s not a mirage. There they were again Thursday, persevering through the noon hour and closing out an eye-popping 64-54 win against disbelieving Indiana.
You wanted to bench Tracy Abrams? Well, he blasted in for 25 points on 7-for-14 shooting, he and Rayvonte Rice physically punishing the Hoosiers as they drained 12 of 15 free throws.
You doubted Nnanna Egwu? He missed his last seven shots, but he provided critical possessions by blocking five Indiana attempts and spearing five offensive rebounds while the Big Ten rebound leader, 6-foot-10 Noah Vonleh, had no offensive rebounds in 32 minutes.
This was a classic team victory against an old rival, an outcome molded from the mind of the head coach, and a performance steeped in grit. Following is my attempt to make sense of it.
Life lessons and strategy played a huge part, right down to second-half adjustments.
In the big picture, Groce has gotten across a theme that rival coach Tom Crean said is the hardest for players to learn.
“Intent, whether it’s awareness or grit or whatever, you can’t lose your intent. It’s all about making the game easier for your teammates,” Crean said. “We make too many mistakes (16 turnovers Thursday, 482 for the season). We have talent, we just need to grow up.”
Illinois couldn’t have survived an eight-game losing streak if the overall attitude had wavered. It can’t be an accident that this revival has happened two years in a row.
In the smaller picture related to Thursday’s 40 minutes, Groce made a critical decision after Indiana drove aggressively to take a 38-33 lead early in the second half. He switched to a zone and used it extensively, breaking the Hoosiers’ rhythm and halting penetration. After allowing no free throws in the last 11:20 of Saturday’s win at Iowa, Illinois gave up just two one-pointers in the last 14:45 Thursday. Thrown off kilter, the Hoosiers missed all nine treys after hitting 6 of 10 in the first half, finishing 17 points under their season average.
“We needed to move the ball more, still play inside and out,” Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell said. “But we didn’t do that the second half.”
Groce reiterated that freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill didn’t get to start “until the light bulb came on defensively,” adding:
“We take pride in our defense, and it was consistent (Thursday). We limited Indiana’s transition and held them to 35 percent shooting in both halves. The zone was good for us late at Iowa and, when we saw Indiana driving and Vonleh attacking Egwu, we thought the zone might disrupt their continuity.”
Leading the way
Regardless of the overall scheme, individuals must step forward.
The turning point came when Indiana led 38-33 and the Illini were struggling to score.
Abrams turned bulldog, which isn’t abnormal for him. He blasted goalward on three pile-driving sorties and drew fouls on two of them. That ignited an 11-0 run featuring points off a steal and a block, after which Illinois never trailed.
Abrams, a 27.7 percent arc shooter this season, splashed two monster treys when Indiana threatened at 47-46 and 53-52. He was the man of the hour, clearly outplaying Hoosiers ace Ferrell, who missed 10 of 13 shots and managed four points after intermission. The second-half zone simply nullified him.
Whether it is three-point shooting or drive-kickouts, Ferrell is the key to Hoosier success. Now 17-15, they are hoping for an NIT bid after dropping 10 of their last 15 games.
Big Ten tournament tradition cannot be discounted.
Followers of the Hoosiers made the point that, for whatever reason, Indiana has frequently had problems in the favorable atmosphere of Bankers Life Fieldhouse ... while Illinois has frequently overachieved both here (8-8 overall) and in Chicago.
Illinois is 6-2 against Indiana in this 17-year-old tournament and will carry a 25-14 tourney record against Michigan on Friday, having reached the semifinals 12 times.
More recently, Big Ten standings since Feb. 16 present a stunning picture, with Nebraska on top at 6-1 and the Illini emerging as one of four teams with a single defeat ... while Michigan State is 2-4 and Iowa 1-5.
Indiana came in 3-3 since Feb. 16, this loss defining the Hoosier season.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.