With 93 seconds left in Friday’s game, Indiana guard Jordan Hulls was pushed to a crucial decision.
In the midst of a 4-on-0 break, and the Illini basket as vacant as a soybean field in winter, he had to choose which teammate to hit in stride.
“One of those guys was gonna do something cool,” Hulls said with a smile, reclining in a big, leather chair in the UC visitor’s locker room. “Vic is the first one I saw, so that’s kind of how I decided.”
Hulls selected 6-foot-5 guard Victor Oladipo, who caught the ball, exploded to the rim, spun a 360 — head above the bucket the entire time — and slammed it home to a thunderous roar from the Hoosier faithful.
“That’s not even close to his best,” said guard Yogi Ferrell. “I thought he might go through his legs. That’s the one I wanted to see.”
The dunk shook the basket from its foundation and shook the noise from the rafters. It gave Indiana an 18-point lead and pretty much summed up the game for Illinois, which lost 80-64 and — unlike the last tussle with the Hoosiers — never really looked like it belonged on the court with Indiana.
“I knew I was going to do something when I caught it, but it was just a last second thought,” said Oladipo, who finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds. “I thought about it while I was in the air, so I just kind of turned around when I was in the air. And, no, that’s not my best one.”
The exclamation point was fitting considering the physical beating Indiana put on Illinois, collecting 26 rebounds to 10 for Illinois in the first half, and finishing with a 38-26 margin on the glass. Points in the paint for the game went 40-24 for Indiana, and second-chance points went 12-4 for Indiana in the first half, when the Hoosiers took a 35-21 lead.
“We weren’t as hungry in that last game at (Illinois) when they beat us at the end,” admitted Indiana’s Will Sheehey. “We were No. 1 already. We were hungrier before that, trying to get to No. 1. Now we’re hungry again. We want to win the Big Ten Tournament.”
Indiana forward Cody Zeller single-handedly took apart the Illini in the first half (14 points, 6 rebounds), and finished with 24 points, 9 rebounds.
“It’s an unbelievable luxury to have that type of paint attack and guys that demand double teams, demand the attention of the perimeter defenders,” said Illinois coach John Groce. “It really opens up some things.
“So we got to kind of develop some of what we have already down (low). And then, to be honest with you, we have to add some things with our program moving forward through recruiting.”
Without scoring and rebounds from their bigs, Illinois is left watching Brandon Paul, and when he goes 2-for-13 like he did Friday, the Illini struggle. Especially against a man defense, the ball goes to Paul at the top, and it doesn’t move from there.
Indiana is simply too skilled, too big and too fast for Illinois when the Hoosiers are getting the ball to Zeller, and when Illinois is missing shots and the Hoosiers are getting runouts galore.
“We just weren’t able to stop them enough down the stretch,” Groce said. “Our offense was good enough in the second half, but our defense wasn’t.”
Despite the quarterfinal loss Friday, it’s been a successful first year at Illinois for Groce — scrutinized at every turn by the alumni and media — and the win over Indiana Feb. 7 played a big role in the season.
Illinois had gone 12-0 before losing eight of 11 heading into the Indiana game, which turned the Illini season again as they won five straight and ran their record from 15-8 (2-7) to 20-8 (7-7).
With impressive victories over Butler, Gonzaga, Ohio State and Indiana, and losses to Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in the last six weeks, the Illini (22-12) can count on an NCAA Tournament invitation, but another win over Indiana would have probably bumped their seed a few spots.
So what to expect now from the inconsistent Illini? When they shoot well, they can compete with anyone, and they did that in the toughest conference in the country, playing a top 10 strength of schedule.
If they face a team foolish enough to play zone, Illinois might win a game or two in the NCAAs, provided they don’t shoot 35 percent, as they did Friday.
“We played pretty good (this season). I told the guys we won seven of our last 11 games,” Groce said. “We have six top-25 RPI wins. The only two programs (with more) are Duke with seven and Indiana with eight.
“We played pretty good basketball. We’re capable of playing really good basketball.”
They are capable, but with these wild Illini, you just never know when they will.
ŸHear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.