Day one of the NIT gave the Big Ten both sides of what can happen in NIT play. It’s almost impossible to tell how typically successful programs are going to react to missing the NCAA Tournament. Illinois reacted well despite the last week’s anniversary, while Indiana had a hard time getting anything going, as their season came to an end.
Second-seeded Illinois (19-14) advanced with an 82-57 win over seventh-seeded Valparaiso (24-9), while third-seeded Indiana (18-16) dropped a 75-63 decision to sixth-seeded Georgia Tech (18-16).
Let’s go over a few thoughts from Tuesday’s NIT action.
-Illinois is going to make a go of it.
One couldn’t help but think Illinois might roll over in the NIT. The Illini were starting to get their hopes up about an NCAA Tournament bid before losing to lowly Rutgers in the regular-season finale and being blown out by Michigan in their opening game of the Big Ten Tournament. Those disheartening losses, combined with the dismissal of head coach John Groce over the weekend, could have been the formula for a short-lived appearance in the NIT.
However, Illinois put that to bed in the opening minutes on Tuesday night. The Illini jumped out to a 16-6 lead after a Leron Black dunk with 14:53 to play in the first half. They eventually took a 41-24 lead into the locker room, and the game was never in doubt as Illinois handed seventh-seeded Valparaiso an 82-57 loss.
The Illini looked like they had nothing to lose on Tuesday, forcing turnovers, crashing the offensive glass, and getting to the basket in a free-flowing offensive showing. Their 82 points were the most they have scored since an 85-69 home win over Michigan.
Illinois is hoping the momentum snowballs into a nice tournament run, starting with a second-round game against sixth-seeded Boise State (19-11). If the Illini can get by that one, they’ll have no problem waking up for a potential round-three matchup against in-state rival Illinois State (27-6), the top seed in the quadrant.
The Illini have enough talent, but the length of their stay in the NIT will likely depend on how they respond to adversity and how they assimilate to interim head coach Jamall Walker.
-Illinois will miss Malcolm Hill.
Malcolm Hill jump started Illinois’ momentum. The 6-foot-6 senior hit back-to-back 3-pointers, then added a jumper on the following possession to stake the Illini to a 10-4 lead with 16:52 remaining in the first half. Hill eventually scored a game-high 25 points on Tuesday, shooting 7 of 12 from the field, including 4 of 7 from behind the arc, and 7 of 8 from the free-throw line.
The NIT will cap off the collegiate career of Hill, who has been a mainstay in the Illini lineup since day one. A three-time all-Big Ten selection, Hill was a second-team pick this year after averaging 16.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.2 steals per game. Hill’s departure, combined with the change at head coach, will give the Illini a completely new look next season.
-NIT format benefits Illinois, bites Indiana.
The wrinkle that the NIT provides is that the higher-seeded team gets to play at home in the early rounds. This advantage may have been extra beneficial to the Illini, as they got to stay at home and play in front of their fans after a tough week. Illinois also improved to 13-5 at home on the season, while they are 3-6 on the road and 3-3 at neutral sites.
Indiana on the other hand was kind of set up to fail. The Hoosiers declined to play at home despite being the higher seed. After hearing their seeding and destination on Sunday night, they had a quick turnaround for a Tuesday night tip in Atlanta against a Georgia Tech team that was 15-4 in home games.
Indiana also struggled away from home all year long, going just 2-8 in true road games and 2-3 in neutral site games during the regular season. The trend continued on Tuesday, as the crowd got behind Georgia Tech and helped the Yellow Jackets pull away late in the second half.
-Indiana didn’t have it on either end.
Indiana wasn’t consistent on either side of the ball this season. Offensively, the Hoosiers scored more than 90 points in 10 different games while being held to fewer than 65 points nine times. Defensively, they gave up 73.3 points per game and allowed an opponent to score at least 80 points on nine occasions.
Those inconsistencies showed up against Georgia Tech. The Hoosiers dug themselves a 17-4 hole after the opening tip on Tuesday. Then eventually found their footing, giving up just 17 points over the rest of the half to go into halftime with a 34-27 deficit. At one point, Indiana took the lead and was within 49-48 with 10:30 remaining in the second half before the wheels came off again.
However, Georgia Tech ripped off a quick 10-1 run and Indiana didn’t threaten the rest of the way.
Indiana shot just 37.9 percent (22-for-58) from the field, including 26.3 percent (5-for-19) from behind the arc. But shots don’t fall sometimes. More disturbingly, the Hoosiers had no business giving up 75 points to a Georgia Tech team that hadn’t reached that mark against a Division I team since a 78-56 win over Florida State on Jan. 25. Defense was the knock on the Hoosiers coming into the year, and it eventually came back to bite them in most of their big losses this season.
-NIT rule changes weren’t noticeable.
The NIT is playing under a set of experimental rules this year. The games are still being split into halves, but the tournament has adopted rules that, in effect, split it up into quarters. Each half has two 10-minute segments, with the fouls resetting 10 minutes into each half. Teams are only allowed four fouls during each 10-minute segment, with each additional foul resulting in two free throws. There is also a 20-second shot clock when the ball is inbounded in the front court.
None of these changes really came into play on Tuesday, as neither game was close enough to truly illicit any noticeable differences. There will definitely be a game or two in the tournament when the new rules really stand out, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. Right now, it appears the NCAA is intent on moving to quarters in the near future.