Illinois head coach John Groce is considered a tournament-time coach, and he's got some mighty tricks up his sleeve when those bracketed games roll around.
To start the opening round of Big Ten Tournament play--or what Groce likes to call "Season Three"--Illinois game-planned to keep the Hoosiers out of the paint and star freshman center Noah Vonleh uncomfortable. Executing a double-team every time Vonleh touched the ball, Indiana had open 3-pointers in the first half and canned them accordingly, to the tune of 6-10 from that range in the first half.
However, the gameplan was a slow play on the law of averages. Regression was imminent for the Hoosiers from 3-point range, where they are statistically terrible on the season. And the clamps on Vonleh restricted him and caused an interesting counter-strategy from Indiana coach Tom Crean. Out of halftime, Crean decided to have Vonleh face-up on the perimeter and initiate his offense from there.
I couldn't believe my eyes as I was watching this. It was a classic Crean strategical mishap for the ages. Illinois was more than willing to have a 6-foot-10 freshman center take difficult shots and make difficult passes from outside of the post. Vonleh finished with six points on three field goals and five rebounds--a neutered performance from the Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
But I'd be remiss not to mention the true star of this game: Tracy "Bulldog" Abrams. Although that nickname might not be totally suitable for his performance Thursday. He was more of an offensive savant, scoring 25 points from all over the court, including two huge made shots from the 3-point line. Even more importantly, he reversed the trends of the second half by clawing Illinois back into the free throw bonus with aggressive dribble drives. Indiana was in the bonus for the rest of the half around the 11-minute mark, but Illinois quickly offset that when Crean rested Vonleh and the lanes to paint magically appeared. We hit 18 of 22 free throws, including a flurry at the end of the second half to salt the game away.
And one last hat tip to Nnanna Egwu. Facing arguably the best big man in the conference, he was a monster on the defensive end. He had five blocks, a few of which were against Vonleh and a few of which made me audibly say, "Oh Shit!" Not a All-Big Ten Defensive Team, my ass.
For the team and fans, we should enjoy this for a moment, but only a moment. This win hardly moves the needle for the goal in sight: a NCAA Tournament berth. Michigan was always the team we needed to beat to re-enter that discussion. Let's get that survive and advance flow going again tomorrow morning.