John Groce didn’t like what he was seeing with 7:06 left in the game last night so he did what a lot of coaches do, he called a 30 second timeout.
Gary Bell Jr’s three-pointer for Gonzaga had just cut the Illini lead to 68-64 and Tracy Abrams looked hesitant setting up the offense as the “Kennel” was going insane for the first time in ages. After all, Groce’s crew had grabbed this game by the neck and controlled it throughout the second half. So Groce called for his dry erase board and flipped the script on his first year squad. The over caffeinated Groce — who is normally stomping his feet, pacing the sidelines and screaming for a ref’s attention — was the epitome of calm as he drew up what he wanted coming out of the timeout. You could see his mind clicking, firing on all cylinders and taking in how truly big this moment was for his squad.
They were 9-0 and up on the road against a Zags team ranked #10 in the country. A Zags team, by the way, that everyone was already crowning as Few’s best ever and a final four contender (yawn, heard it before, holler at me in March if they’re still balling on weekend number two).
Not only were the pundits knighting the Zags, they were also throwing some salt on the Orange Crush and their incredible start. Arguments varied from they won a weak Maui field -to- they shoot too many 3′s-to- the one the Illini had heard all week, wait until they go into Spokane and get snapped back to reality.
So Groce called the timeout, told his stud Brandon Paul to check back into the game, and drew up a horns set.
That set turned into a high ball screen for Paul set by Sam McLaurin after Paul had probed the opposite side of the free throw line and told D.J. Richardson to drop into the lane. Elias Harris didn’t stay nearly close enough to McLaurin as he set the screen, plus he hedged out on Paul in a manner that a 145 pound high school guard could’ve handled without much trouble. Meanwhile Gary Bell Jr went under the screen and when Paul found himself all alone at the three-point arc, he did what Brandon Paul does… he raised up and nailed it.
Gonzaga’s response on the next possession was to refuse to play inside out. Instead, the Zags got a contested three point attempt that missed.
Illinois came down and ran the same set. This time Paul passed on the shot and his squad ran through about 29 seconds of the shot clock. With 6 seconds left on the clock, Paul found himself up top isolated with a big, Kelly Olynyk. Paul attacked him off the bounce and finished at the rim for his 26th and 27th point of the night.
73-64 Illinois with 5:46 left.
Gonzaga cut it to 3, 73-70 a few minutes later and this time Tracy Abrams was the guard who responded, attacking his man off the bounce for a bucket.
75-70 Illini with a little over 3 minutes left.
Paul finally sent the Dawgs to their crate without dinner with another drive to the rim — again, Harris was less than hearty in his objection to Paul’s path — which he finished while being fouled by Olynyk.
Olynyk finally received a pass underneath and instead of going up strong, he faded a little, looking like he expected contact.
Man’s game, no boys allowed.
Abrams, a sophomore, hit two free throws to put the Illini up 80-71.
Illinois came into Gonzaga and controlled the home team.
John Groce has an experienced, grown up group who are fully invested in his philosophy and hungry for success. They get into you defensively and rip the ball out of your hands. They recognize mismatches and attack them offensively. They push the ball. They believe.
Brad Stevens tried to tell everybody that this bunch was for real after getting blitzed by them in Maui.
Folks seemed skeptical.
Please, no more skepticism.
Illinois will be in the mix all year in the Big Ten and will challenge for the top spot.
Brandon Paul will be in the mix for player of the year.
The final score was 85-74 Illinois.
Add one more contender to the list in the already loaded Big Ten.
The Illini are for real.
A media poll of 24 writers who cover the Big 10 was released earlier this week and they all agreed that Ohio State is this season’s favorite in the conference. The Buckeyes received all 24 1st-place votes to easily out-distance the field. The rest of the league is a little less certain in the eyes of the writers, with four teams receiving second place votes as the voting varied greatly from one ballot to the next. Here is the media poll results, with range of selections in parenthesis:
1. Ohio State, 288 (1)
2. Wisconsin, 248 (2-5)
3. Michigan, 233 (2-6)
4. Michigan State, 219 (2-6)
5. Purdue, 194 (2-9)
6. Illinois, 150 (4-9)
7. Minnesota, 142 (3-10)
8. Northwestern, 115 (6-11)
9. Indiana, 111 (5-12)
10. Iowa, 86 (6-12)
11. Nebraska, 60 (8-11)
12. Penn State, 26 (11-12)
Of course this is a new-look Big 10 as Nebraska joins the conference as the 12th member. Why the name of the Big 10 still? Who really know anymore with college sports. Only in this day and age of conference re-shuffling can the Big 12 have 10 teams and the Big 12 have 12 teams. Makes sense…
At the official Big 10 (plus 2) media day, the league releases their official preseason polls. The conference chooses to release only the top-three in the team voting and, to nobody’s surprise, Ohio State was the preseason favorite in that poll as well, followed by Wisconsin and Michigan State. The Big Ten also announced that Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger has been tabbed as the conference’s preseason player of the year. Also on the preseason all-Big Ten team were Purdue’s Robbie Hummel, Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe, Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor and Michigan State’s Draymond Green.
By N.D. Kendrick
It is time to take a look at the Big Ten Preseason predictions now that we know who is heading to the NBA and who is coming back. It should be a down year for the Big Ten as far as teams but plenty of young talent is heading to the conference.
1. Ohio State (34-3, 16-2 Big Ten)
Key Losses: Sr. G John Diebler (12.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg), Sr. G David Lighty (12.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg), Sr. C DallasLauderdale (4.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
Key Returnees: Jr. F William Buford (14.3 ppg, 3.2rpg), Fr. C Jared Sullinger (17.5 ppg, 10.9 rpg), Fr. G Aaron Craft (6.9 ppg, 2.9 spg), Fr. G DeshaunThomas (7.6 ppg)
Key Additions: C Amir Williams, PG Shannon Scott, SF LaQuinton Ross, SF Sam Thompson
The Skinny: Unlike past years the Buckeyes bring back a ton of experience in Sully, Buford and Craft, while the other young man — Deshaun Thomas has a year of experience in the Matta system. Ross, and Shannon Scott should get the bulk of the few minutes that will be available from the bench.