College basketball craziness knows no end

Tyler Griffey was an even bigger man on Illinois' campus after his buzzer-beating winner Thursday. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

A heavy unease has permeated the entire country.

There are no guarantees right now. No easy nights. No assumptions except for the fact that no team is safe.

With so many letdowns, upsets and surprises, it’s risky to invest in numbers. It’s not wise to believe in “talent” alone. Nothing makes sense today.

Illinois’ illogical -- but fitting -- come-from-behind 74-72 victory over No. 1 Indiana on a buzzer-beating layup in Champaign on Thursday night was simply the latest thriller in a season packed with late-game theatrics and stunners.

I figured I’d witnessed this act in the past. At some point, Indiana would extend its 65-54 advantage with 6 minutes, 46 seconds to play, I thought.

And then it happened. Again.

A struggling team refused to die in a matchup it had no business winning. The Fighting Illini had gone from a seat in the royal palace (12-0 start) to a role as national jester (2-7 start in the Big Ten). Their NCAA tourney hopes were evaporating. Their dreams of a finish in the top tier of the league in John Groce’s first season as coach had become a laughable fantasy.

Until the final two minutes of Thursday’s game -- the only game that mattered for a team without promises.

The Illini, a team I’ve criticized and questioned all season, decided to fight. A D.J. Richardson 3 (game-high 23 points, 4-for-8 from long range) cut Indiana’s lead to five points with 2:53 to play.


Another Richardson 3-pointer with 2:05 to go. A two-point deficit for the Illini.

What’s happening?

A Victor Oladipo layup followed a Richardson jumper, resulting in a 72-70 lead for the Hoosiers. Just 52 seconds to go. A fortnight in a year filled with last-minute turnarounds.

Brandon Paul tied the game on free throws. Oladipo committed a turnover in the final seconds but glided down the floor like Spider-Man and swatted Richardson’s potential game winner.

This is crazy.

Just 0.9 seconds to play. Enough time for a shot but not enough time for a good one.

And then a wild thing happened in that final nine-tenths of a second. Indiana, a squad ranked 12th in adjusted defensive efficiency (per Ken Pomeroy) prior to the game, abandoned the area near the rim in a confusing defensive possession.

Cody Zeller drifted toward the perimeter as Tyler Griffey snuck behind him, galloped down the lane and converted Paul’s inbounds pass for a layup that has to be one of the most perplexing game winners in recent memory.

Oh my! Oh my! Oh my!

This is the norm now, I guess. A 13-2 rally for the Illini in the final 3:36.

Per ESPN Stats & Information, Illinois overcame the second-largest halftime deficit in a win over a No. 1 team (12 points) in the past 15 years. It’s the sixth loss of the year for a No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll -- the fifth consecutive week this has happened.

What’s so surprising about Illinois' win is that Indiana played well throughout the game even though it committed 14 turnovers. The final four minutes cost the Hoosiers the game, but they belied the overall stats.

The Hoosiers connected on 50 percent of their field goals (52.9 percent from the 3-point line, 92.9 percent from the charity stripe). Indiana is the first No. 1 team since the 1996-97 season to shoot 50 percent or better from the 3-point line and lose, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Illinois entered the day with a BPI of 70, five slots behind Illinois State. Yet the Illini now have victories over Gonzaga, Butler, Ohio State and Indiana. If La Salle, Virginia and Iowa are still in the at-large conversation, Illinois is in the conversation.

As for Indiana … questions. The Hoosiers are still jousting with the concerns about their challenges outside Assembly Hall. This was supposed to be the tuneup for a crucial matchup at Ohio State on Sunday.

And for the bulk of this game, the Hoosiers were in control. They were not rushed. They were not hurried. They were not worried.

The Illini exploited that calm as other teams have in matchups against favored conference title contenders in recent weeks. TCU over Kansas. Indiana State over Creighton and Wichita State. Arkansas over Florida. Saint Louis over Butler. Villanova over Louisville and Syracuse. South Dakota State over New Mexico. LSU over Missouri.

Most of those matchups were road games for the ranked.

We all recognize college basketball’s parity. We all know that we’re still waiting for a great team to rise. But the limited separation within the Top 25 is based on the ongoing problems those squads have had on the road.

Away games are always tough -- I get that. But it feels as though the difficulty has been elevated in 2012-13. Every night, it seems, another proven program falls.

Those hostile venues have been the stages for many upsets, a statement backed by everything that happened in the closing minutes of Indiana’s loss at Illinois on Thursday night and everything that occurred in college basketball prior to that.

In closing, here are five quick thoughts on the upset:

  1. A young man (South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters) scored 53 points in a win Thursday, and he’s not even the top story in college basketball right now.

  2. Indiana at Ohio State on Sunday is the biggest game of the season for the Hoosiers and Buckeyes, if it wasn’t already the most significant matchup of the year for the latter.

  3. The Illini deserve a lot of credit for what they overcame in that win in Champaign.

  4. I may owe this Illinois group an apology after weeks of questioning its heart, toughness and talent.

  5. I certainly owe the game a promise: I’m through with assumptions.