Illinois' 74-72 win over Indiana on Thursday night had the college basketball world buzzing. It also left me with a big question, and it involved an Indiana coaching decision on Tyler Griffey's game-winning layup that I can't understand. IU played zone underneath on inbounds plays against Michigan and Michigan State, yet did not against Illinois. While zone can leave you out of position on the second pass, or create and opening on a skip pass (neither of which Illinois had time for with less than a second remaining), it generally takes a man off the ball and puts one under the basket. If Tom Crean is honest when he watches film, he'll admit the Hoosiers should have zoned all underneath inbounds plays.
All of that said, Indiana's players did not properly guard the inbounds. Three players ran at hot-shooting D.J. Richardson. Despite Crean's decision not to go zone, there wasn't some amazing play, just Illinois' proper read of a defense cheating out on a hot shooter that gave the Illini the win.
Also, it has to be acknowledged that Indiana got no calls down the stretch. For the second consecutive night, the Big Ten had an amazing finish (Iowa vs. Wisconsin the night before in double OT). And for the second consecutive night, the officiating left a lot to be desired. Both games left me wondering how defenders could ever guard someone based upon what was called a foul. The Big Ten does not like to be criticized for their officials. Well, here's a thought if you want to avoid that criticism -- get better ones.
Here are five more takeaways on what Thursday's result means for the Illini and the Hoosiers going forward.
1. While Indiana's Victor Oladipo is an excellent on-ball defender and has very quick hands and anticipation off the ball, it should be noted that he has a tendency to simply chase his man and not help on screens at all. For example, several times in the second half, Illinois used guard Brandon Paul as a screener off the ball, on a cross screen under the hoop. Oladipo might have been in a "no help off" mode with Paul, as Paul is a lights-out shooter, but he has to at least bump the Illinois big men. Do not be surprised if future Big Ten opponents use whomever Oladipo guards as a screener. Despite the defensive shakiness, it's telling that Oladipo was given the ball twice with the game on the line for IU. He made one tremendous layup, and also had the ball stolen on IU's last possession, but more importantly there is a sense that Crean believes in the junior as an end-of-game competitor. Oladipo made a remarkable block after his turnover (with his left hand, showing freaky athleticism) to save the game once. But on the inbounds play, he needed to either provide pressure on the ball, help under the basket or communicate that he was covering the corner. He did none of the three, and Illinois got a game-winning layup.
2. A big reason for the Illini sticking around despite being down 10 late was their defensive intensity, which had been lacking much of the Big Ten season. Illinois was much more aggressive on ball-screen defense and was very physical off the ball inside as well. It wasn't that Illinois wasn't guarding during its recent struggles; it just could not sustain the intensity for an entire possession and failed to keep momentum when shooting the ball poorly.
3. It is impossible not to like John Groce's coaching style. He sat guard Tracy Abrams (0-for-5 shooting for the game) much of the second half because his play did not warrant more minutes, instead going to his hot hand in D.J. Richardson (8-of-15, 23 points) down the stretch. After benching slumping forward Tyler Griffey for the past two weeks, Groce went with him for a season-high 31 minutes, and it paid off. In addition to hitting the game-winner, Griffey also hit a pair of threes after missing 20 in a row. Griffey, who also added a season-high eight rebounds, was 7 for his last 43 from 3 entering the game, after starting off November shooting 57 percent from downtown. Credit Groce with shaking up the lineup after a 12-0 start was followed by a 3-8 stretch of basketball. His teams at Ohio U. had wild swings of wins and losses, too, and some of that was based upon the personality of that personnel, but Groce is hell-bent on letting his guys play as long as they are playing hard on defense and making shots on offense. Style-wise, Groce's an easy guy to like.
4. Despite the defeat, I did not sense any panic from Indiana. Sure, the game got away from them quickly, but it wasn't as if they froze or imploded. Though Illinois ended the game on a 14-3 run, I'm not jumping off the Hoosier bandwagon. Do they need to be better away from Bloomington? Yes. Does Cody Zeller need to get more touches down low? Yes. But give credit to Illinois, which hit some tough shots and got to the free-throw line on a couple tight calls to spring the upset. IU still had the ball with time winding down to win it. You can not turn it over there, but Indiana didn't -- and won't -- go away.
5. Though there's a long way to go, it's looking like Illinois will be a really tough call for the selection committee. The Illini (16-8, 3-7 Big Ten) have to get to a minimum of eight Big Ten wins to get into the NCAAs. With a 9-9 record out of that league, they would be a lock -- seven and they have no chance. U of I can beat Purdue (Feb. 13), Penn State (Feb. 21) and Nebraska (March 2) at home to get to six. But road games (Minnesota, Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa, Ohio State) are going to be the key. Though they have shown they can beat good teams, the Illini have shown the ability to lose in bunches, too.
Jayhawks rocked by back-to-back losses, and the way forward
Back on Dec. 8, I made my debut on CBS at the Half and proclaimed Kansas and Illinois the two most overrated teams in the country. That night, Kansas thumped Colorado by 36 and Illinois beat Gonzaga by double digits to move to 10-0. Twitter was fun that night. Though the accusation in these cases is usually that I'm "hating" on a certain team, coach or program, my criticism is and always will be be about the fundamental flaws in certain teams that are not fixable. While writers and coaches joke about wanting to trade certain players, it isn't possible in college basketball, and so what you got is what you got. Flaws get exposed as the season wears on, and you learn which teams are capable of flat-out playing poorly.
While Kansas is clearly a better team than Illinois, and even in spite of the Illini's big win, I feel much better about my analysis of both teams.
So what is the deal with Kansas, which dropped a shocking result to a TCU team that was previously winless in the Big 12, on the heels of a home loss to Oklahoma State? Let's go back to the way that I felt way back in December. First, the Jayhawks have no true point guard. Look around the country, and note that teams that are talented and well-coached but struggling, be it with turnovers or just uneven play, usually have a weakness at point guard. Other teams are not great but are solid at the point -- Ohio State comes to mind -- to overcome their deficiencies. Meanwhile, inconsistent Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA and UNLV all lack a quality, true point guard. The Jayhawks have made do with a converted point in Elijah Johnson and a backup in Naadir Tharpe.That's really more of an A-10, low-level Big East type of combo than one that will be able to carry them against elite opponents. Johnson has 32 assists and 35 turnovers in Big 12 play, and his confidence is at an all-time low. Tharpe shoots too much, misses some bunnies and, despite great quickness and intensity, doesn't do the one thing that a point guard has to do -- make people around him better. Freshman and leading scorer Ben McLemore is not passive, but is also not an alpha dog and is not capable of dropping 40 to carry KU.
Additionally, Kansas has played "small" all year. Kevin Young is essentially a three-man playing the four. And with Perry Ellis not close to being able to start, undersized Travis Releford has also played some at the four. The advantage for the Jayhawks when that happens is that it's difficult for traditional two-big-man teams to guard. It also has spread out Kansas' high-low offense, making it harder to guard. But that won't work against every opponent. Oklahoma State plays small quite often, and TCU is undersized and super athletic at the four. So what is normally an advantage is marginalized. When you factor in that Jeff Withey, though a much improved low-post player, has been "rooted" out of position, Kansas has struggled to score. KU's inability to get easy buckets in transition and its half-court limitations have caused it to dip. Young has been ineffective, Johnson isn't shooting as well as early in the season, but the key problem is that when no one is creating shots and the game is played in the 60s, KU is beatable.
Kansas is a good, solid team, one that will still likely win its ninth straight Big 12 title. While they have to go on the road to play Oklahoma State (16-5) on Feb. 20 and Iowa State (16-6) on Feb. 25, along with a tough matchup with K-State (18-4) in Lawrence on Monday, it isn't like Bill Self hasn't seen a mid-season slump before. That said, this is a team that used its early experience advantage and a relatively soft, home-loaded schedule to create a false image of a powerhouse. As McLemore blossomed with some prodding from Self, KU once again looked like a national contender, and truth be told, still might be. But their limitations at the point, their lack of a shot creator and the early strong play of an older team (even McLemore is a second-year frosh) gave us an unreal view of their upside. If they want their stock to rise again, the Jayhawks must get back into transition, get Johnson playing better and make shots early as to not get the "here we go again" eye-roll going. In the meantime, I may gloat a bit on an early-season prediction that took a while to come through.
Doug Gottlieb is a college basketball analyst for CBS Sports. A former player at Notre Dame and Oklahoma State, Gottlieb is 10th in NCAA history in assists. Watch Doug on Lead Off, weeknights at midnight ET on CBS Sports Network, and listen to him on CBS Sports Radio weekdays from 3 p.m. - 6 p.m. Follow Doug on Twitter @GottliebShow.