Mike LaTulip's minute of tick ended Saturday when his man drove right and dished for an assist.
That unfortunate outcome also happened the previous time Mike played a minute. But Saturday, against Auburn, Mike made no fundamental mistake. It just happened that Auburn drove right on everybody, all the time. The Tigers hosted a Ball Screens clinic in the first half. Maybe the Illini learned something.
In theory, the Illini already knew about ball screens. John Groce's offense features ball screens. But then, Groce's system also features the three-pointer and a defense designed to close-out on shooters. Auburn schooled Illinois on those topics, too. The first half was like bullfighting, but also like archery. Illinois was the matador, and the butte.
So ideally, LaTulip won't be discouraged at his second consecutive immediate yanking. In truth, he was in the game mostly to allow Tracy Abrams a brief blow and some advice. Because Illinois' clock was cleaned (again) on the boards, I also hope Mike Shaw and Abe Djimde are not discouraged by their permanently assigned seats.
I spent the last four years questioning Bruce Weber's use of his bench. I don't question John Groce's substitution patterns. As long as he keeps winning 92.86% of his games, I will not question anything.
Groce has already figured out a very simple principle of basketball, and he's already instilled it in his new team. It's this: shooting free-throws is good.
Voldemort was recently quoted as saying (something along the lines of), "If you're shooting a lot of free throws, you must be taking a lot of contested shots." The implication was that contested shots are undesirable, and should be avoided. But simplicity is better than theory. We need only see the tautological implication of Groce's strategy: If you're shooting a lot of free throws, you're shooting a lot of free throws. The clever analyst takes it a step further and observes that free throws are uncontested shots.
Tracy Abrams got to the line fifteen times on Saturday. That gave Illinois ... let me see if I can work this out ... okay, about fifteen free shots at the basket. But there's more! Each trip to the line cost Auburn an assessed foul. At the end, Tigers starters had 4, 4, 5, 3 and 2 fouls apiece. Their top sub had four also.
Abrams' eight rebounds, five assists, and four steals were also game highs (as were his 27 points), but it's his energy — that uncharted, unquantifiable quality — that won the game.
DON'T WORRY, THERE'S PLENTY TO WORRY ABOUT
The endgame nearly killed Illinois. With 1:32 remaining, the Illini led 77–68. Auburn initiated a full court press. Illinois coughed up the ball.
Then, Illinois coughed up the ball again.
On offense, in the clutch, Auburn choked. They're 5–7 on the year. choking is what bad teams do. Illinois will not be so lucky next time.
Also, the Illini preserved the win by hitting crucial free throws down the stretch. But on the day, the team shot 67.5% from free, 58% in the second half. Not the type of numbers you'd want to rely on.
Still, 13–1 for the non-con. How can you argue?
WHERE WAS EVERYBODY?
The United Center game is about recruiting, right? Or is it about alums, and giving back? Or is it about drawing a top-flight opponent?
Well, I guess it's the middle one. There was one recruit on hand, and Auburn is terrible. Let's assume many of the 18,136 were alums. But of Illini basketball alums, only Kenny Battle, Robert Archibald, and Jelani Boline found their way to the team/family section.
It's easier to make the point that many Illini players hail from the area. And that was evident from the turnout. But most of Saturday's families are frequent fliers. The Bertrands, the Pauls, the Richardsons, the Berardinis, and the LaTulips make it to most of the games in Champaign. The Abrams family was on hand, and they make fewer trips. Clan Egwu was/ the only family that never attends games in Champaign, but came Saturday.
Yes, more recruits would have come had the game not conflicted with their own (high school holiday tournament) games. Would fewer alums (tickets sold) be the consequence of a Sunday, or an 8:00 p.m. tip-off? I envision fights among DIA staff, featuring these very talking points.