Indiana 65, Illinois 63: Can’t shoot, can’t win. But wait, was this a good thing for the Illini?
Coach Brad Underwood claims extra rest heading into the NCAA Tournament will be just what the doctor ordered.
INDIANAPOLIS — So what do you want first, the good news or the good news?
Don’t be confused. Illinois coach Brad Underwood isn’t. No. 1 seed Illinois lost 65-63 to No. 9 seed Indiana in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals Friday, and, well, what a bummer, right? Wrong, if you listen to Underwood.
‘‘I think it’s great to push the ‘refresh’ button now,’’ he said. ‘‘We came here to win [the tournament]. We didn’t. But it’s not the end of the world.’’
That’s because the NCAA Tournament — ‘‘why [we] really play,’’ Underwood said — is next for the Illini (22-9). They’ll find out the wheres and the whoms Sunday, shortly after a Big Ten final that will take place with the conference co-champs back in Champaign.
The Hoosiers (20-12) will have some exciting travel plans of their own to book. They came to Gainbridge Fieldhouse on the bubble and under all kinds of pressure to win a couple of games. They’ve done that now, and get this: They want to win a couple of more.
‘‘We didn’t pack for two days,’’ said Trayce Jackson-Davis, who scored 15 of his 21 points in the second half and put the Hoosiers ahead from the free-throw line with 26.1 seconds left. ‘‘We didn’t pack for three days. We packed to win the Big Ten.’’
What kind of nutty thinking is that?
The Illini won the Big Ten shindig in 2021, helping them land a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, and we all know how that turned out — with a second-round loss to Loyola that still stings more than a little. After losing a game to Indiana that — let’s face it — the Illini shouldn’t have lost, Underwood seemed almost relieved.
Someone asked him whether a little extra rest might help.
‘‘A lot, yes,’’ he said. ‘‘A ton. A ton. After winning this last year? A ton. We were an exhausted basketball team last year.’’
Is it really better to go one-and-done in the conference tournament after all that work to win 15 league games? As Underwood pointed out, Baylor didn’t win the Big 12 postseason championship a year ago but still went on to crush unbeaten Gonzaga for the national title. Who won the Big 12 event? Texas, which lost in the first round of the Big Dance to Abilene Christian.
Still, banners aren’t to be taken for granted, and whoever cuts down the nets here Sunday is going to get one worth hanging. Underwood even might feel a pang of envy as he sits comfortably at home and watches, but one supposes we’ll never know.
Is winning contagious? Sometimes it seems to be with the Illini, who have won 44 regular-season conference games in the last three seasons.
But poor shooting can be contagious, too, as the Illini demonstrated while dissolving in an ocean of missed shots and turnovers. It was a truly terrible day at the office for Illinois’ offense, with no one other than Kofi Cockburn — who was magnificent with 23 points — and Coleman Hawkins (career-high 18) doing anything he’ll care to remember.
The Illini shot 35.2% from two-point range. Take out Cockburn’s 8-for-13, and it was an astonishing 19% from inside the three-point line. They missed layups as though it was the latest TikTok trend. Hawkins and Omar Payne missed what should have been easy dunks. There were eight missed free throws, too, one of them a front-end killer clanked by the mercurial Andre Curbelo, who later missed a layup attempt for a go-ahead bucket in the final seconds — an ending that was bitterly fitting.
‘‘We’ve just got to make free throws and layups,’’ guard Trent Frazier said. ‘‘That was the game.’’
It sounds simple. It had better become simple, or the Illini are going to be bounced from March Madness without delay.
After Hawkins made a three-pointer for a 57-54 lead with 5:04 left, all five Illini players slapped the floor at the defensive end. This was what you wanted to see. They hadn’t played well, but the real Illinois was standing up, right? No, wrong again.
Jackson-Davis scored back-to-back buckets, with a careless turnover by Curbelo in between. Hawkins and Frazier soon would join him in the late-turnover department. Another Illini possession would end in a shot-clock violation. Was it amateur hour?
And the missed layup at the end? It left Curbelo 1-for-6 on two-point shots. Alfonso Plummer was 0-for-5. So many makeable shots missed — an absurd number, really — and still the Illini nearly won. Which tells you, of course, that they should have won.
Is losing in the conference tournament really a good thing for a team with an NCAA bid already locked up? You can decide for yourself. But there’s losing, then there’s playing at the offensive end like a team whose season hasn’t even started.
Losing ugly might not be all Underwood cracked it up to be. It just might be asking for trouble.