Smile Politely

The game changer game

Kelvin Sampson’s rap — apart from being a serial NCAA rules violator — was that his teams wore down as the season progressed. By March, they rarely had any gas left in the tank.

John Groce’s rap is the opposite: His teams peak in March. For the second consecutive year, Groce patiently waited out a January doldrums, and found his team playing its best basketball in March.

An NCAA bid is now possible. We’ll know by Wednesday morning whether this team will go dancing. And then we’ll know again Sunday morning. An 8-10 conference finish = a lock for the tourney.

Optimism has been in short supply in 2014, so let’s just go ahead and think big for the next 36 hours.

If you view Saturday’s game at East Lansing from the Illinois perspective, it’s an historic win. If you view it from the Spartan perspective, it’s an aberration. So here’s the question: Did Illinois play great, or did MSU play like crap?

Apply that same question to Illinois’ season, generally. Did they play like crap or were other teams just really sharp, especially on the defensive end?

Tom Izzo thought his team played like crap. 14,000 Spartans fans thought their team played like crap. As the Spartan offense choked — throwing away entry passes on possession after possession after possession — the Breslin Center sounded like Bruce Weber’s most bemusing Assembly Hall moments. The simultaneous groan of 14,000 sports fans creates an eerie echo in the wake of offensive ineptitude.

Travis Trice appeared lost at the point for MSU. He could do nothing right, even when his choices didn’t land the ball in the hands of Illini defenders. Presented with a wall of defenders, Trice could get nothing going on offense.

Does this analysis conclude that Travis Trice can’t play basketball; or that Tracy Abrams, Kendrick Nunn and Rayvonte Rice have grown into a superior and cohesive defensive front? I lean toward the latter. Illinois has held four straight opponents under 50 points for the first time since the 1947-48 season.

If you do get the ball inside against Illinois, you encounter Nnanna Egwu. Egwu’s presence is a growing theme around the Big Ten. It’s not a fun theme for them. It’s a horror story.

Another stat to consider is forced turnovers.

At 12:28 of the first half, MSU committed its second unforced error. That is, they turned the ball over without any help from the Illini. The final official stats credit Illinois with 14 steals and MSU with 16 turnovers. That means the Spartans didn’t commit any unforced errors in the game’s final three-quarters. And that means that all audible groans from the Breslin crowd were forced audible groans.

To the second iteration of The Crap Question: Of Illinois’ season, generally, did they play like crap or were other teams just really sharp, especially on the defensive end?

The answer, no matter which choice you make, is Tracy Abrams.

Abrams has refined his game. He’s picking better moments to drive to the rim. He’s reading defenses better, recognizing when multiple defenders are in position to collapse on him.

On this possession, Tracy penetrated and scored.

But he’s still a long way from perfecting his reads. He’s still not as good at the kick-out as you’d want from the point guard in a dribble-drive offense.

More often now than in January, Abrams demonstrates patience, and recognition of spacing. But there are still moments when he tries to do too much..  With a little over 12 minutes to go in the second half, and about 12 seconds to go on the shot clock; Abrams reverted to his mid-season form. He tried to bulldoze his way through a packed defense. A series of ball screens brought multiple defenders to the high post. Tracy opted to dribble through all of them, and quickly discovered that Keith Appling, slump or no, is still capable of picking a pocket. Three seconds later, Appling laid the ball in the far goal, and John Groce called timeout to re-explain, once again, the basic principles of basketball.

When he can, Groce reiterates simple concepts, and game situation considerations. At 6:35, the Illini had an inbound play under their own goal. It was a six point game. The ball had just rolled off Adreian Payne’s foot, a lucky break for Illinois. (Because MSU never had possession, this gaffe counted as an offensive rebound by the Illini, rather than a turnover by Payne. Thus, MSU still had only two non-steal turnovers.)

At this point, Groce stepped into the baseline and called to Abrams: “Trace, we have three timeouts. If you don’t like what you see, it’s okay to use one of them.”

Abrams didn’t like what he saw. He used one of them.

On the subsequent play, Abrams made the same deep pass that was available on the first go-around. Maybe he didn’t see it the first time. Whatever the case, we know that Groce reinforced Abrams, and Illinois did not commit a turnover on the possession.

Effective management of Tracy Abrams won this game for Illinois. Groce refused to rate the victory as monumental, but Abrams conceded it’s a signal win.

How hard is it to win at Breslin? Well, there’s a lot of statistical evidence available, if you want to look for yourself. The Izzone is not as raucous as those irritating cymbalists from Minneapolis. But they’re better at psychological trickery.

For example, the Izzone’s fake shot-clock countdown comes in multiple varieties. Sometimes they attempt to rush the opposing offense into launching a bad shot. Sometimes they attempt to lull the opponent into a false sense of security. When time ran out on Ray Rice Saturday, the Izzone was still chanting “7, 6, 5 …” I think they actually fooled him.

That play turned out badly for MSU. A shot clock violation creates a dead ball, which in this case nixed an MSU steal and bucket. It was indicative of the game as a whole. Everything went wrong for the Spartans. But it’s not because they puked on their shoes. The thing that went wrong for the Spartans is that a confident Illini team came into their house, and punched them in the gut.

Enjoy your coffee, and the wonderful, quirky Midwestern weather. This is a great Monday to be alive, still.

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