You’d be hard pressed to find a more bipolar basketball team in the history of the Illini than the 2016-17 version. After ending 2016 with one of the worst losses in John Groce’s tenure, 59-84 at Maryland, the Illini responded with a strong open to 2017 by beating Ohio State 75-70 at home.
Yet, even within the OSU game itself, Illinois (11-4, 1-1) showed its Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personalities. After falling behind 17-19 with 10 minutes to go in the first half, the Illini went on a 17-2 run to grab a big 36-21 lead. Then, despite holding an 11-point lead at halftime, the Illini were unable to stop the Buckeyes’ (10-4, 0-1) assault of the rim, as the visitors routinely stifled the large State Farm Center crowd as they started to rev up.
In sum, the game was a microcosm of John Groce-coached teams: the talent is available and shines so brightly at times, then inexplicably gets bogged down before doing just enough to get the right result. After the embarrassment at Maryland, and with billionaire alumnus Shahid Khan courtside (and locked in lengthy discussion with athletic director Josh Whitman at halftime), the Illini allowing a 45-34 lead turn into a 57-58 deficit in 9 minutes seemed like a backbreaker for the coach. But his team responded to keep doom and gloom from setting in.
One of the biggest criticisms the “Fire Groce” section of the Illini fanbase has is his frustrating in-game coaching. For example, the way Illinois failed to stop the Maryland dribble drive, though it was established early in the game, was grounds for dismissal according to many fans. On Sunday night, however, I felt Groce responded well to what OSU presented. After a very even opening 10 minutes, his team went to a 2-3 zone defense that effectively silenced the Buckeyes scoring options. He pulled the same rabbit out of his hat in the second half and again stopped the guests chipping away at the Illinois lead.
Whether it was in-game strategy or game plan or just a good night, the biggest factor for Illinois against OSU was Tracy Abrams. The senior guard put the team on his back during multiple stretches and was the biggest factor in the outcome. In years past, Abrams had a similar tendency to play hero ball and try to carry the team alone, but with frequently poor results. This year has seen a different version of hero Tracy, which was encapsulated on Sunday. Obviously Abrams’ shooting has improved, and although his three-point shooting wasn’t the most impressive against Ohio State his 6/12 for 16 points included multiple dribble-drives that broke up scoring runs and came exactly when needed. His presence was particularly valuable when Malcolm Hill, who led the team with 20 points, was forced to the bench with foul trouble.
The bench also gave Illinois exactly what it needed, particularly Michael Finke and Maverick Morgan. Though forward Leron Black was an absolute monster on the glass, grabbing 15 rebounds, his offense wasn’t as sharp, which is where Finke picked up the slack by netting 12 points in 20 minutes off the bench. Likewise, Mike Thorne could not buy a basket, or even a good possession, which pushed him to the bench for the vast majority of the game; however, Morgan was on hand and proved more than capable, with 11 points and 6 rebounds.
Illinois beat OSU in bench points 25-9, made more free throws than the Buckeyes attempted (17 to 11), and kept things competitive in the paint (24-30 points in the paint) against a team with good size. These small aspects of the game made a big difference for Illinois, and showed the best side of the team’s personality. Whether or not that good side is on display any given night, however, is an open question. With a big test at Indiana next on the schedule, the potential for extremes -- agony or exhilaration -- looms large.