It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.
Lazy passes, wild passes and inattentive defense. John Groce is probably still boiling about these things. Let's hope Norfolk State proves the worst game of the year for Illinois men's basketball.
For the first time this season, Groce's Toughness & Togetherness mantra failed on both ends. Yes, the Gardner-Webb game struck many as a fiasco. Yes, Western Carolina was too close for comfort.
Neither game bothered me.
Chris Holtmann (G-W) and Larry Hunter (WCU) are intimately familiar with the Illini coaching staff. Their teams presented match-up problems. Illinois shot poorly. But in both cases, Illinois executed its plan. The shots didn't drop, but that's the nature of the game.
This was just bad basketball. The Illini offense, to the extent that it existed at all, was forced. It didn't push itself insistently at Norfolk State, it ran headlong and willy-nilly into their trap.
I've contrasted last year's early uglies (Cornell, Saint Bonaventure and Nebraska) from this year's too-close wins. Remember, the reason the crowd booed the Illini (in my opinion, Bruce Weber specifically) was for failure to run any kind of offense. This Norfolk State game was similar.
The Illini proved resolute in the face of adversity, again. They got "punched in the mouth" again. The toughest two guys got knocked out, then got up, then lifted the team. So my titular criticism is not about effort, or backbone. It's about Achilles' Heels. Everyone's fatal flaw presented itself, simultaneously. This abortion of a basketball game was the result.
Nnanna Egwu was confounding in the first half. He's a "starter" in the same way that Derrick Nix or Marquise Gray was a "starter" at Michigan State. You hope he becomes a starter in the way Andre Hutson was a starter at Michigan State (rebounds, defense). Egwu was quite simply not with the program in the first half. When he launched an errant shot with 10 seconds left, Groce punched the scorer's table in anger. The shot allowed Norfolk State another opportunity before the clock expired.
Mike LaTulip is recovering from a pair of broken ankles which, in basketball, is a mental condition. Mike got an unexpected and early call in a tight game. Entrusted with that responsibility, Mike lost his man on the Spartans' next possession. "He looked to his right, toward the guy coming to screen him," said Mike's dad Gary LaTulip, who described the split-second mistake as the cardinal sin of guarding the point.
The cardinal sin of running the point is dribbling into a double team. The ordinal sin of running the point is missing all your free throws. Tracy Abrams had his worst game, from this perspective.
Illinois passed the ball to Norfolk State, frequently, in the closing minutes. Once on an inbound play under the Spartans basket, another time in the lane under the Spartans basket, Brandon Paul fluttered a dying quail reminiscent of his younger self.
DJ threw a lazy pass from the wing, creating a "pick six" as Groce calls fastbreak steals. Maybe he was still woozy from that elbow to the neck. His play in the first half was certainly sharper.
With 5:31 remaining and Illinois clinging to a 52–49 lead, Tracy Abrams found himself under the basket with a defender closing. He tossed a half-hearted lob for Egwu, who was positioning himself for an offensive rebound. "C'mon Nnanna!" Tracy cried in exasperation. I went back to watch the play on ESPN3, because it seemed pretty obvious to me that Egwu couldn't possibly intuit a lob at that point. The camera angle proved inconclusive, but I discovered that you can (just barely) hear Tracy's cry.
Tracy is a street baller, a lifelong basketball player. Egwu is a textbook player, new to the sport. On the playground, maybe the lob made sense. To a guy like Egwu, footwork & positioning was the primary directive.
After the Gardner-Webb debauch, John Groce spoke of an argument he overheard between players. He said he didn't know who was right and he didn't care. "It's not what this team is about." In this case, it wasn't a disagreement. Two guys were on different pages. Or rather, one guy was on a page and one guy was on asphalt.
There was one Illini possession which, had Brandon buried the shot, would have exceeded the much-loved 15 pass possession of 2005. It looked a lot like Tubby Smith's attack in last year's game at Minnesota. Five Illini took turns penetrating and kicking, screening and rolling until the Norfolk defense broke down. Brandon was completely alone at the top of the key.
Tracy redeemed himself too. With a minute remaining and a five point lead, he rebounded his own miss, turned around, and marched the ball out past the arc. It was his best play of the night. It was the opposite of Nnanna's clock management brainfart.
But Nnanna also redeemed himself. In the second half he made two brilliant plays. The latter was a second-effort blocked shot after NSU's bulky Rashid Gaston stripped Nnanna of a defensive rebound.
The former was a third-effort steal, possibly the exemplary play of Egwu's short career. Coming from the weak side for a rebound, Nnanna just missed getting the ball before it was grabbed by a smaller (theoretically quicker) Spartans guard. Nnanna stayed with the play, chasing the ball and the man through the key. He reached in and disrupted the ball-handler, eventually coming away with the steal.
It took a ton of energy and perseverance. And that's what Egwu brings to the table. It's chaos. Sometimes it works.
In the end, Nnanna saved the Illini. He calmly stroked two free throws to put the game out of reach.