Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Top 10 Teams Hit The Road. Two top 10 teams hit the road Thursday night with disconcerting challenges on tap. One team, playing and succeeding beyond expectations in its first year in a new league, ran into a defensive death trap it couldn’t overcome. The other did what its been doing all season – what has caused many to doubt its merits as a real national or (even conference) favorite. If you haven’t figured it out by now, the first team is Butler. The second is Arizona. On a night packed with boring match-ups, the above two – Butler at Saint Louis and Arizona at Washington – stood out. The Big Ten also gave us something to talk about, even if the end result fell in line with the most basic team assumptions about the nation’s best conference. Thursday was a little light on intrigue, but don’t fret, a promising weekend awaits.
Your Watercooler Moment. Encouraging Signs From Illinois In East Lansing.
They weren’t going to stay cold forever. We had plenty of evidence suggesting otherwise. The Illini built a reputation in the non-conference season on three-point shooting. John Groce’s team not only shot a bunch of threes, for a good two-month stretch it also sank a high percentage of those long-range shots. Illinois stormed through the Maui Invitational, picking up a blowout win over Butler in the process, then barraged Gonzaga in the Kennel with – what else? – 11 threes and 35 points from Brandon Paul in an 11-point win. At the time, Illini fans were rightfully thrilled about their newfound offensive explosion and about Groce’s ability to unlock the upper reaches of his team’s offensive parts in just his first year on campus. Illinois was winning, times were good in Champaign, but all the while the Illini’s hot start was taken with a token of skepticism. Devoting so many possessions and shot attempts to three-pointers is fraught with risk, and once the conference season arrived, Illinois was swiftly introduced to the repercussions of that strategy by losing five of its first seven Big Ten games. Entering Thursday night, the Illini had posted the Big Ten’s worst three-point field goal percentage in conference play (24.5%). A little bit of three-point fall-off was a realistic expectation, what with all the rigorous defenses throughout the Big Ten. But 24 percent? The worst mark in the conference? Something had to give.
The Illini lost their sixth conference game at Michigan State Thursday night, but unlike most of its other league losses – the majority of which were downright ugly – Illinois had a brief re-encounter with its nationally-relevant self of 2012. The Illini stroked five three-pointers in the first half and committed just one turnover to stake a 10-point lead at the break, kept it close throughout the second half thanks in part to Tracy Abrams’ three-point shooting, and hung around long enough to very nearly spring one of the most surprising upsets of any team in any league. Keith Appling’s season breakout – 24 points, eight rebounds, seven assists – stemmed the tide in the waning moments, and the Spartans, a legitimate Big Ten contender, held on at home. Taken together, despite leaving the Breslin Center with another conference L, John Groce and his staff can’t walk away with any real complaints. To the absolute contrary, he should be measurably encouraged. A hot-shooting Illini team is a dangerous one. The Illini may never recapture their lights-out form of November and December, but anything close would be good enough to turn around the Illini’s thus-far ugly league season.
Also Worth Chatting About. For Arizona, Winning Isn’t Enough.