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10 NCAA March Madness tournament observations

Head coach John Groce Illinois Fighting Illini reacts first half against Miami Hurricanes during third round 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball

Head coach John Groce of the Illinois Fighting Illini reacts in the first half against the Miami Hurricanes during the third round of the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at The Frank Erwin Center on March 24, 2013 in Austin, Texas. | Getty

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Updated: March 25, 2013 12:52PM



Illinois’ 63-59 loss to Miami (Fla.) in the ‘‘round-of-32’’ of the NCAA tournament Sunday produced some familiar laments — with the perfunctory bad call from the officials leading the way, of course.

But amid the rubble of a missed opportunity to make the Sweet 16 for the first time since the glorious 2005 season, one promising aspect in particular trumped the disappointment: John Groce, the supposed sixth choice that Illinois settled for to culminate a coaching search that was ridiculed as an embarrassment last spring, looks like a pretty good hire.

Groce was not flawless in his first season as Illinois’ head coach — logic dictates you foul the 6-9, 290-pound, 68-percent free throw shooter who rarely shoots them under pressure with 20 seconds to go instead of the tested-tough, 78-percent shooting guard who lives for big moments with 15 seconds to go when you’re down by two. But for a ‘‘second-tier’’ guy who is not Shaka Smart or Brad Stevens, Groce did an impressive job that bodes well for the future.

The former Ohio coach took the same team that buried Bruce Weber in dysfunction in 2011-12 — minus its best player, NBA-bound center Meyers Leonard — and finished 8-10 in an even tougher Big Ten Conference in 2012-13, earned a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament, won a first-round game and took a No. 2 seed to the limit on Sunday.

Some of the numbers in the loss to Miami were familiar to past Illinois tournament defeats — the Illini shot 38 percent overall, 26 percent on three-pointers and shot seven free throws to Miami’s 15. But the impression is that Illinois went down swinging instead of wilting under the weight of its own malaise.

It provided a promise similar to Weber’s first season in 2004, when No. 5-seeded Illinois beat No. 4-seeded Cincinnati in the second round (the Illini’s first victory over a higher-seeded team since the seeding began in 1979) and lost to No. 1-seeded Duke in the Sweet 16.

But there’s the rub. Illinois teams under Bill Self and Weber regressed in the tournament as each coach recruited his own players into the program (quick history lesson: Self’s Illinois teams lost in the Elite Eight in 2001, the Sweet 16 in 2002 and the second round in 2003 before Self bolted for Kansas). Can Groce avoid a similar fate? The AAU-ification of college basketball consumed a quality coach in Weber at Illinois. Will Groce have any better luck? Maybe the group that got Weber fired ‘‘bought in’’ to Groce’s schtick because they just didn’t have enough time to tune him out.

That will be Groce’s charge at Illinois — finding players he can coach and win with. In the NCAA today, you pretty much win with prep All-Americans like Mason Plumlee (Duke), Cody Zeller (Indiana) and DeShaun Thomas (Ohio State) or hungry, overlooked guys like Cleanthony Early (Wichita State) and Sherwood Brown (Florida Gulf Coast).

Groce has had success with both extremes — he recruited Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook at Ohio State; and Seton Academy’s overlooked D.J. Cooper at Ohio. Groce’s teams at Ohio went further in the tournament as he recruited his own players (the second round in 2010, Sweet 16 in 2012). We know he can do more with less. To win at Illinois, he’ll have to do more with more.

2. As entertaining as the tournament always is, the mediocrity of college basketball is hard to ignore.

It’s not a big surprise that a No. 15 seed reached the Sweet 16 for the first time. The upper-tier talent in college basketball has been steadily declining for years. The No. 1-ranked team in the Associated Press poll lost six times in eight weeks late in the season. Kentucky couldn’t even make the tournament with its prep All-Americans. No. 1 seeds Kansas and Gonzaga were challenged deep into the second half by No. 16 seeds. It’s only a matter of time before a No. 16 seed beats a No. 1.

3. Forty years ago Tuesday, Bill Walton led UCLA to its seven consecutive NCAA championship (and ninth in 10 years) with a spectacular performance in the title game. The 6-11 Walton hit 21-of-22 shots and scored 44 points as UCLA beat Memphis State 87-66. You can check out the highlights of that game at Ed Sherman’s media web site, The Sherman Report (shermanreport.com).

You don’t see post play like that in basketball at any level anymore. Walton is an extreme — he was a three-time NCAA Player of the Year. But whether its Kentucky’s Anthony Davis last season or Indiana’s Cody Zeller this season, the demise of post play in basketball is a negative development that has impacted the game at every level. There’s a reason why the Spurs’ Tim Duncan is an MVP candidate at 36.

4. There are three teams from Florida in the Sweet 16, but none from Illinois. In fact, there’s only one school in the Sweet 16 within 225 miles of Chicago — and No. 3-seed Marquette knows how lucky it is to be there after escaping Davidson in the first round and Butler in the second.

The state of Illinois has not had a Sweet 16 team to call its own since 2007, when No. 4-seed Southern Illinois lost to No. 1 Kansas.

5. Michigan and Michigan State are in the Sweet 16 at the same time for the first time ever this season. The Wolverines play Kansas and the Spartans play Duke on Friday.

The Big Ten, in fact, didn’t get many breaks from the bracket. Indiana plays No. 4 Syracuse on Thursday night. Ohio State plays No. 6 Arizona in the Sweet 16 on Thursday, but might end up having been better off playing No. 3 New Mexico.

6. Is the pressure getting to Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan? The veteran coach came off as a jerk with snippy answers in an abbreviated, 30-second halftime interview during the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State last week. The Badgers lost a one-point lead and the game, then crapped out against No. 12-seed Ole Miss in the first round of the tournament on Thursday.

Ryan won four Division III national championships at Wisconsin-Platteville in the 1990s. His Wisconsin teams have generally overachieved in his 14 years as head coach. But his team’s have lost to a lower-seeded team in the tournament five times in the last seven years — in 2007 to No. 7 UNLV as a No. 2 seed; in 2008 to No. 10 Davidson as a No. 3; in 2010 to No. 12 Cornell as a No. 4; in 2011 to No. 8 Butler as a No. 4; and to No. 12 Ole Miss as a No. 5 this year.

The loss this season was particularly painful because the bracket broke Wisconsin’s way. The Badgers would have faced No. 13 La Salle in the second round and No. 9 Wichita State in the Sweet 16.

7. Is the tournament such a crapshoot that it no longer can be used as such a measurement of coaching success? Notre Dame’s Mike Brey is one of the best coaches in America in the regular season. But his teams fall prey to the dreaded ‘‘bad matchup’’ in the postseason even more than Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin teams do.

Notre Dame is 2-6 in the tournament in the last seven seasons, with losses to No. 11 Winthrop (2007), No. 11 Old Dominion (2010), No. 10 Florida State (2011), No. 10 Xavier (2012) and No. 10 Iowa State (2013).

Both Ryan and Brey are doing everything right to get the most out of their teams in the regular season. But both have to ask themselves if they need to recruit teams that are built for postseason success, because something’s not working.

8. Upsets often pave the road to the Final Four, but Kansas probably knows better than to root for No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast over No. 3 Florida should the Jayhawks beat Michigan on Friday.

The Jayhawks, who had an easier time with No. 8 North Carolina in the second round than with No. 15 Western Kentucky in the first round, have a history of struggling against lower-seeded teams under Bill Self. They’ve lost to No. 14 Bucknell (2005), No. 13 Bradley (2006), No. 9 Northern Iowa (2010) and No. 11 VCU (2011) and nearly lost to No. 10 Davidson in 2008.

9. The Sweet 16 rankings: 1. Louisville; 2. Kansas; 3. Michigan; 4. Florida; 5. Michigan State; 6. Miami; 7. Duke; 8. Ohio State; 9. Florida Gulf Coast; 10. Oregon; 11. Arizona; 12. Indiana; 13. Wichita State; 14. Marquette; 15. Syracuse; 16. LaSalle.

10. The funniest moment of the first weekend was the flap in the huddle between Michigan State’s Derrick Nix and teammate Keith Appling during the Spartans’ second-round victory over Memphis. Not just Nix waving a towel in anger at Appling on the other side of the huddle, but coach Tom Izzo’s reaction — or lack thereof. He acted like it happens all the time and apparently it does.

When you’ve made the Final Four six times and won a national title, you can have kiss that stuff off and get away with it.

‘‘I need players to get on players sometimes,’’ Izzo said after the game. ‘‘Sometimes, though, Nix doesn’t know exactly how. He’s trying to please me and he doesn’t know exactly how. But trust me, it was fun. Players were a lot more vocal today. I just loved that.’’



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