It’s funny how things can change in under a week.
Six days ago, Illini nation was preparing for the top ranked Hoosier hurricane to roll into Champaign’s Assembly Hall. John Groce’s group was in a tailspin, having dropped six of seven games in Big Ten play. Collective sighs of “here we go again” rang throughout the fanbase. National pundits began using three letters (NIT) instead of four (NCAA) for the team’s postseason plans. As I left work last Thursday, I turned the radio dial to one of the local sports stations. It was two hours before the Illinois-Indiana clash.
“Pack up the fort,” one of the hosts said. “[Their] tournament dreams end tonight.”
Fast forward to a little after 7:45 p.m. Indiana was leading 69-59 with 4:23 remaining. I wasn’t able to watch the game, but some of my friends were already giving the Illini last rites via text. As a lifelong fan, this process was nothing new to me. Just another hot start in the regular season coupled with the wheels falling off once the meaty conference season picked up. I turned the phone from vibrate to silent. Enough was enough.
D.J. Richardson must have felt the same way.
The Illinois senior guard went bananas in the closing minutes, scoring eight points and stealing the ball from Victor Oladipo with :06 on the clock in a 72-72 tie. The steal and ensuing drive down the floor — Oladipo swatted D.J.’s layup into the seats — set the stage for Tyler Griffey’s game-winning layup as time expired, a play that will live forever in Illini lore.
When I glanced back at my phone at 8:15 p.m. to see that Illinois had pulled off the unthinkable, two thoughts rushed to my head: Kam’s is going to be a free-for-all and more importantly, this could be a season saver. Not just because they knocked off the nation’s #1 team; because two struggling seniors answered the call when the team needed them most.
Richardson (23 pts, 3 stls, 4-8 3PT) was the major catalyst, but Tyler Griffey was just as important. The senior from Wildwood, Mo., tallied 14 points and 8 rebounds against Indiana, a serious performance for a guy that scored 16 points combined in the team’s previous seven games. If anybody needed to score a game-winning bucket for confidence purposes, it was Griffey. He also made two threes against IU — his only two conversions since Jan. 2 at Purdue — and went on to nail four more in Illinois’ upset win at Minnesota on Sunday.
Illini fans love to critique Brandon Paul when things go wrong. As the team’s best player/athlete/prospect, Paul is going to catch flak when the team isn’t winning. That’s just the way it works. That said, BP would likely be the first to tell you he needs his fellow seniors to continue to play at a high level. It’s not a coincidence that when Griffey started struggling, the team followed suit.
Groce’s offense is predicated on high pick-and-roll and the drive-and-kick to open shooters. Griffey is far from a banger on the block and he’s not going to clean the offensive glass. However, it’s essential for him to be on the floor as much as possible because of spacing. In the stretch “4″ role, Griffey has proven that he can be a matchup nightmare against slower bigs. He’s a very good shooter from mid-range and the perimeter, and when opposing defenses guard him out to the arch, it opens up driving lanes for Paul, Richardson and point guard Tracy Abrams. And when Brandon Paul is driving to the basket (and getting to the foul line), Illinois is at it’s best.
I don’t blame Groce for changing his rotations and trying to play Nnanna Egwu and Sam McLaurin together more often. He had to read and react to Griffey’s lack of confidence. Well, now it’s time to ride the hot hand. There’s newfound life in Griffey’s game as he’s scored 30 points in the last two contests. A confident Griffey is a scary thing. It might seem silly that a layup could turn somebody’s season around. Then again, most layups don’t end the way Griffey’s did against IU. Most people don’t get the chance to be carried around their home court like a hero.
The enigmatic Illini will continue to puzzle me until season’s end. If they win tonight at home against Purdue, they’ll jump up to seventh place in the Big Ten, which is one spot behind where I projected them to finish. Of course, I could see the Boilers’ defensive schemes ruffling the Illini feathers and making this a one possession game. It’s what Matt Painter’s teams usually do. A loss to Purdue and Illinois will temporarily re-enter NIT territory and the questions will flow from all angles. That’s life in the Big Ten for you.
Butler, Gonzaga, Ohio State and Indiana can testify that Illinois is a dangerous basketball team. And a Top 30 RPI and the nation’s toughest schedule according to kenpom.com proves that they’ve been through some battles. Still, the team’s postseason plans are far from final. The Illini need to protect their crib (Purdue, Penn State, Nebraska) and probably win one of the four remaining road games to avoid a cold sweat on Selection Sunday.
One thing is for certain, fans of the orange and blue will be nervously awaiting the next “dud” over the season’s last four weeks. For a team that lives and dies with the three-point shot and rarely wins rebounding wars, Illinois is as streaky as they come. If their seniors deliver though, anything is possible.
What a ride it should be.