Illini Basketball

In Praise of Doormat

There’s little reason to complain about Saturday’s win over the (ostensibly? mathematically?) worst team in the B1G.

Everyone agreed it was closer than expected. But everyone hadn’t watched Northwestern’s game at Indiana. They obviously didn’t see NU-MSU. Northwestern has lost most of their games. But they’ve lost most of their games by a handful of points.

As Chris Collins & Brad Underwood said separately, this Northwestern team is last year’s Illini team. As of January, they’ve challenged people. They haven’t learned how to finish.

That’s not to say their execution was bad on Saturday. Collins identified a couple of key moments that probably cost them the game.

But in general, Northwestern was disciplined. They came in with surprisingly (?) great field-goal percentages among their top minutes guys, and then (not surprisingly) shot well.

But because ball don’t lie, it’s necessary to say that NU shot 45% from the field while Illinois made 50%. The Wildcats made 42% of their threes, but Illinois made nine threes (in 24 attempts = 37.5%) while the Cats made only eight.

Northwestern grabbed 30 rebounds. But the Illini grabbed 32, including a key Giorgi O-bound in crunch time.

Northwestern was close to perfect with ball-handling. Five turnovers. But the Illini held themselves to eight.

Both numbers are remarkable, and more remarkable (i.e. worthy of remarking upon, so I will) because three of those Illini TO’s were Kofi Cockburn freshman mistakes.

In fact, the only mild criticism Brad Underwood offered about his team’s execution concerned Kofi’s problems with lob passes.

I’m nitpickin’ he said, acknowledging that asking more than 12 & 7 from a freshman is a lot; and thereby implying that expecting more than 12 & 7 from a freshman is a luxury.

As of January 18, 2020 it’s important to note that Illinois won a Big Ten game Saturday against the longtime patsy of the Big Ten.

The game was exciting & close.

And yet, you felt fairly comfortable in the closing minutes, as the lead fluctuated from a high of nine points to a minimum of 2 + ball.

When the Illini needed players to make big plays, Illini players made big plays. Giorgi’s offensive rebound was huge. Ayo & Dre converted their free-throws.

If you’re as old (fat, bald) as I am; you remember the last era when Illinois won games this way.

Yes, it was close. Yes, the opponent appeared skilled.

Lots of those Illini were on hand for this game, with their increasingly old coach.

In those years, Illinois was ranked. Being ranked was not contemplated. It wasn’t assumed. It was ingrained.

Those Illini featured an exciting mixture of mature performers & frosh stars. Recruiting hummed. And in that era, the Illini won more games than they lost versus extremely capable Big Ten opponents.

Visiting with some of the 80’s Belong to the Illini era players after today’s game, I realized that a lot of us are experiencing a similar prickling sensation: Today felt like then.

That doesn’t mean a safe 8-seed and easily scouted Bruce Weber management style. It’s more like a Lon Kruger oh shit, you did what? because Brad Underwood is smart enough to recognize & adapt.

Illinois basketball returned to national attention last week, for the first time since Michelle Obama’s brother was coaching Ahmad Starks.

It’s the best ranking (qualitatively speaking) they’ve had since 1998, when a coach with ideas and a sense of strategic flexibility put together a contender, and stunned everyone.

We’re back.

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