CHAMPAIGN – In a confounding year of college basketball, there might be no more confounding team than Illinois.
With first-year coach John Groce just getting started and the memory of the collapse that cost his predecessor his job still fresh, few expected much of the Illini. They surprised nearly everyone by going 12-0 and securing a top-10 ranking, then promptly fell apart by opening the Big Ten season 2-7.
The low point was a loss to Northwestern. At home.
The high would be Thursday’s 74-72 stunner over No. 1 Indiana. The out-of-the-blue win came at a moment when the Illini (16-8, 3-7 Big Ten) were so low – they’d lost six of seven and watched both their shooting and their defense fail – that even a close loss would have provided Groce with a moral victory.
“I turned to [assistant coach Dustin Ford] at about three minutes to go in the game and said, ‘You know, we played the game the right way,’ “ Groce said. “We played with great toughness, great togetherness. And I would have said that to them after the game regardless of how the score turned out.”
But the win also creates an opportunity for a team that looked like it was tumbling its way out of the NCAA tournament picture.
In a weird season in which the top team seems to fall every week – Indiana makes five straight, and six have lost so far this season – the Illini might just have a better set of big wins than anyone. They’ve beaten four teams in the current top 15: Indiana, No. 6 Gonzaga, No. 10 Ohio State and No. 14 Butler.
“That’s a big step for their team,” Hoosiers coach Tom Crean said after watching his team lose for the second time this season as a No. 1.
Now the question is, what do the Illini do with it?
Illinois has another tough game Sunday at No. 18 Minnesota, the fifth game in a five-game stretch that included four ranked teams and rugged Wisconsin.
Beyond that, Illinois’ remaining Big Ten games include two on the road against ranked teams – Michigan and Ohio State – and five that on paper appear winnable: Purdue, at Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska and at Iowa. Win all five and Illinois would have at least 21 victories in a season in which the Big Ten has been brutal.
Play defense and shoot like they did against Indiana and the Illini could close strong.
Groce, for the first time in weeks, praised his team’s defense. The Hoosiers had zero fast-break points, and Illinois cashed in 14 Indiana turnovers for 28 points. The Illini shooting was hit and miss, but they made 55.2 percent of their shots in the second half, and 13 of 15 free throws on the night.
Two shooters who had been mostly absent the past few weeks, Brandon Paul and Tyler Griffey, both found their way back to the basket.
Griffey had the game-winner at the buzzer, but said after the game that he found his touch on a 3-pointer early in the second half. He literally hadn’t made a 3-point shot in more than a month.
“When he made his first shot,” Crean said, “all the sudden that basket looked like Lake Michigan for him.”
And Paul, even after some bad misses early, found a little luck when he needed it. He sank two free throws to tie the score at 72 with 37 seconds to play. The first, though, banked in off the glass.
“It left my hand and I was like, ‘Good Lord.’ “ Paul said. “But it went in. ... I think it was D.J. (Richardson) who told me, ‘You’ve been here before, these are the situations you love,’ and it kind of got me back. I had a lot of fun this game, and that’s one thing I don’t think I’ve been having as of recent.”
The Indiana win was clearly the peak of Groce’s up-and-down ride at Illinois, just an hour and a half or so from the Indiana town where he grew up a Hoosiers fan. In the middle of the orange-and-blue bedlam as hundreds of fans rushed onto the Assembly Hall court after the buzzer, Groce scooped up his young son, Conner, into his arms and celebrated.
And then that moment was gone, nothing but a memory as Groce stepped back into the routine of post-game interviews.
By Friday morning, Groce said, his players, if they want to make that big win pay off, needed to do the same.
“It’s a great win, but in three days we play in Minneapolis against a really good Minnesota team,” Groce said late Thursday. “When we wake up tomorrow we’re not absorbed with one game, win or lose. We’ve said that the whole time.”