BLOOMINGTON — There’s this team I cover, and they do the damndest stuff.
See, they lose to a team that is, statistically, one of the worst they’ll play this season. Lose, hell, they get walked on, tooled against the worst team in their conference.
And then they come home, lick their wounds, and beat one of the three most-disliked opponents on their schedule. And they pick up their first win over a ranked team in about 35 months.
They take this crew that’s probably going to the NCAA Tournament and they work them over. Jeremiah Rivers, the team’s lone senior, goes absolutely lockdown on one of the Big Ten’s best point guards, forcing a young man that had made beating Indiana his own personal sport in the past to look remarkably mediocre.
Demetri McCamey was an Indiana killer, the kind who played like a guy with a giant chip on his shoulder against the team that he once might have joined. He scored 31 points against them in a loss his freshman year, and 19 in each contest – including a game-winner in Champaign – last season.
Thursday night, Jeremiah Rivers shut him down. I believe the phrase is “beat him like he stole something,” proverbially speaking, of course. McCamey finished with six points and five turnovers, and was absolutely absent when his team needed him most.
“He’s their catalyst, so he makes them go,” said Christian Watford, who finished with 16 points. “And when he’s not going, they all look a little stagnant.”
There’s evidence to support that theory. For the game, Indiana allowed just one Illinois player – forward Mike Davis – to score in double figures, after letting four Iowa Hawkeyes into double digits five days prior.
Tom Pritchard (Tom Pritchard!) hit a game-winning shot. Let that sink in, and I believe you’ll begin coming around to my point.
Thoughts on a 52-49 win over the Illini:
These kids have been criticized for their lack of mental toughness. Lambasted for sagging energy and effort. Their coach occasionally derided for his substitution patterns and schemes.
But on this snowy late January evening, there were no critics.
Only a unified 17,000-plus screaming and shouting and cheering from every nook and cranny in one of college basketball’s great stadiums, rooting their team on to a spirited victory.
This, my friends, was Indiana Basketball.
After all the ruin and rubble this team has been through since Tom Crean assumed the job, it hasn’t felt quite like this. You could feel the swell of the crowd through the TV, if you weren’t one of those in attendance this evening. It was rocking and rolling and jiving from tip to court storm.
Don’t think this fact was lost on the coach.
As Brandon Paul’s three missed and the final buzzer sounded, Crean went and embraced his family behind the bench. He was almost at a loss for words in his post-game interview on the Big Ten Network, beaming as he praised the crowd. And as things went back to the studio, Crean grabbed the game ball, gave Gus Johnson a fist pump and saluted and high fived the Assembly Hall faithful close enough to get a piece of their leader. And if that wasn’t enough, he hit the lobby to thanks fans, too.
He was savoring the moment, soaking in all the reasons he took this job in the first place.
As Pat Forde noted shortly after the contest on Twitter, outsiders will view this game in a far different light. (And probably Crean’s grand celebration, too.) Heck, it finished 52-49. Neither team shot over 40 percent. You were worried this one was going to finish 32-30 because for the first several minutes of the second half it didn’t seem like either team was going to put the ball in the bucket.
This certainly wasn’t one for the NBA purists.
But it was a physical dogfight against arguably Indiana’s biggest rival, save Purdue, these days. It was also Tom Crean’s first victory over a ranked opponent in his Indiana tenure, a win which put the Hoosiers up 83-82 in the all-time battle against the Illini.
This was a big win in so many ways, regardless of the ugly factor.
And it’s one IU fans won’t soon forget.
Listen to the postgame comments of Tom Crean and Christian Watford (16 points, five rebounds) following Indiana’s 52-49 win over Illinois at Assembly Hall on Thursday in the embedded media players below:
Update: Here’s postgame video of Crean, courtesy of VigilantSports.com:
And player postgame video, courtesy of IU Athletics:
They’re athletic. They have playmakers. They boast senior leadership in Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale, while Jereme Richmond and Brandon Paul are youngsters that can’t be ignored.
Of course, they don’t quite come with the undefeated, top-team-in-the-country accolades. Though currently No. 20 in the AP poll, Illinois had a slip-up against UIC during the non-conference slate. And after back-to-back losses to Penn State and Wisconsin on the road and Saturday’s hard-fought loss against the Buckeyes inside the other Assembly Hall, they sit at 4-3 in Big Ten play.
This is a stout offensive team, one that pours in 1.14 point per possession (fourth in the conference). Thanks, in part, to a historic shooting night against Northwestern early in their Big Ten slate, the Illini have the top effective field-goal mark (58 percent) in the conference. It should come as no surprise, then, that this team can shoot the three, as they sit atop the conference with a strong 46.4 percent mark. If the Hoosiers are playing their pateneted “leave the peremiter shooters wide open” defense we’ve seen at times this season and the Illini are hitting, this one could get ugly early.
Illinois is also strong at the free-throw line, hitting 77.2 percent of its attempts (fourth) right behind of the Hoosiers at 77.3 percent (third).
Defensively, the Illini are solid relative to their Big Ten counterparts, ranking fourth in the conference at 1.06 points per posession. The Hoosiers and Illini are pretty even in the rebounding department, as their offensive rebounding percentage (Indiana: 32.2 percent, Illinois: 31.9 percent) and defensive rebounding percentage (Indiana: 67.8 pecent, Illinois: 68.1 percent) are near identical.
If there’s been one glaring weakness of this team in conference play so far, it’s that they’ve had trouble controlling the ball. With a turnover rate of 20.7 percent, only Iowa (23 percent) has fared worse.
Yet, this is certainly a game the Illini are looking to steal on the road, especially if they want to remain amongst the conference elite. I suppose how easy such a win will be for them depends on what version of the Hoosiers show up this evening — and whether or not Verdell Jones, who’s status is uncertain for tonight, is able to play.
All stats via statsheet.com.
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(Photo credit: Jamie Owens)