Other titles considered for this article:
Finding New Ways to Lose
A Hard Daze Night
Recalling Hassan Adams’s failure to save Arizona at the end of That Game in 2005, I’m wondering how to compare the Illini collapse at Maryland, 2019.
Ideally, your team shouldn’t need to overcome a fifteen point deficit. Ideally, it builds a 7-to-12 point cushion in the first half, and then expands that lead to a comfortable 15-ish, wears down the opponent emotionally, inserts the walk-ons for the last minute, then bring on the dancing girls.
Did Illinois mount a furious comeback against Arizona in 2005? Or did Arizona blow it?
That debate renewed when Brad Underwood stepped in front of the Xfinity Center lectern, wiped tears from his eyes, and defended his youngsters, their execution; and his own decision-making in the nitty-gritty crunchtime of an intensely contested basketball game.
The fury of Maryland’s defensive effort was palpable in those closing minutes. Andres Feliz didn’t go too soon, but he did get stripped … by a pre-season Player of the Year candidate.
Calling a foul in that situation, where the game would otherwise be decided by overtime, might be credited as a brave act of officiating. Maybe it was.
Reading the reaction of Illini fans, you’d think the officiating crew had sided with Maryland for 40 minutes. Sitting at (sometimes on) the feet of Terps fans, I learned that the stripes were actively working for an Illinois win. D.J Carstensen heard “you’re literally a human dildo!” They had fun with Kofi’s last name, too.
Overall, the Maryland fans lacked originality, and resorted to simple (if loud) profanity. But fan perspective notwithstanding, the game was well officiated.
Even “collapse” might be a bit strong. In truth, the Illini lost a game by 13 points when the betting line was 11. Technically it was a one-point game, yes. But the fact that Maryland found itself down 14 at halftime is simply the product of unbelievably bad bounces. The north end basket refused the ball entry. In and down and up and out, clang clang clang. The Terps missed bunny after bunny, and the Illini got all the rebounds.
In the second half, they changed sides and the results were similar. And then Maryland played intense defense, and Giorgi (3 FGs on 8 attempts) tried again, and failed again, to get past Jalen Smith.
For the second game in a row, Kofi Cockburn watched the endgame from the bench. Underwood said the defense was working without him. But what about making buckets?
A fundamental problem with this Illinois team is frontcourt depth. Jermaine Hamlin would redshirt if any other option existed. That he was asked to play crucial minutes against a team of Maryland’s stature demonstrates the depth of the problem.
But here’s the thing: Even during its big comeback rally, Maryland still couldn’t sink a shot. And it took an immediately ridiculed coaching decision to ensure their victory.
So whether it really matters in the grand scheme of thing, the question must be asked: Who among the Illini brain trust thought that timeout was a good idea? (EDIT: answered at end, below)
DOES IT MATTER?
A week after the Northwestern loss, Illinois Football was rewarded with a trip to the (relative) warmth of Silicon Valley. Maybe Max Levchin will show up. (Mark Andreesen … probably not.) That disastrous performance against the Purple Fitzes might seem insignificant when its end result is … nothing. Illinois went to the bowl it wanted. A win over the ‘Cats and Illinois would have gone to the Redbox Bowl anyway.
Maybe, by Christmas Eve, you’ll be basking in the glow of big wins over Missouri and Michigan, and a warm fireplace and a fortified nog.
Meh, it’s just a game, right?
NO! These Illini players are learning, with each collapse and bizarre coaching maneuver, that they don’t know how to close games. Moreover, they’re not learning how to close games.
The confidence alone is worth having, but internalizing that learned lesson how to execute can’t be taught in practice. It can’t be seen in video sessions.
It matters because with each collapse, these players are losing sight of how to win. Instead, they’re learning how to lose.
In Brad Underwood’s defense, he was probably right to keep that timeout in his pocket when Illinois had the ball, the shot clock was off and the game was tied. What could possibly go worse than a missed shot and overtime? (Statistically speaking, of course.) Calling a timeout, and thus disrupting the flow, would give Mark Turgeon a chance to set his defense. It’s exactly what Bruce Weber would have done.
And then Feliz, unlike Hassan Adams, tried to penetrate the wall of Deron Williams in front, Dee Brown to the right, and Luther Head on the left. But in this case, it was Anthony Cowan, whose quickness and heart might remind people of Dee, on the right.
If Feliz had attempted a closely-guarded three as time expired, it likely would have been just as effective as the Hassan Adams heave. People would be angry about the drive he didn’t make.
So basically, Illinois was shorthanded, in foul trouble, and matched against a fierce opponent who’d finally shaken the rust from its Under Armour.
But that timeout call … there’s no explaining that. It would have been great if someone had asked about it in the postgame press conference. Right?
I can only speak for myself, but because nobody else asked, I’ll say that I think we were all confused by the Public Address announcer. In the moment, if I recall it correctly, the original announcement was that Maryland called timeout. I think everyone (media) buried their heads in Twitter updates, or rewriting their Illinois Stuns #3 Maryland stories, and missed that crucial datum … as did the coaching staff.
The only logical answer is that Underwood forgot, in the heat of the moment, a crucial bit if information that Joey Biggs had just fed him, and fed him 30 seconds before that, and also another 30 seconds before that.
Geoff Alexander and Jamall Walker now sit behind the bench (likely to help control their impulse to jump up and bark instructions to players, which is verboten). They probably provided Underwood with printouts and dry-erase boards featuring top either/or scenarios for the exact circumstances Illinois faced.
EDIT: Brad explained the decision at the end of the subsequent press conference, three days later. He heard Mark Turgeon directing Anthiny Cowan to miss the second free-throw, so he decided to call the timeout. In hinndisght, he wishes he’d called another timeout after the subsequent rebound, get an administrative technical foul, give up another free-throw, but have a deal ball inbound play before the final hoen. Here’s that video: