Categories
COVID-19 Illini basketball

Don’t be so anxious

As confetti streamed downward from Honored Jerseys to Lou Henson Court, priority recruits joined (their future fellow?) students at the center I, jamming together in a mass of humanity that constituted by far the best super-spreader event of the COVID years, as far as Illini basketball is concerned.

Stoic, taciturn Adam Fletcher, known to you all as “Fletch,” literally danced on the baseline and smiled while doing it. Brad Underwood found Fran McCaffery through the crowd, and congratulated him on a game well fought.

Sarah & Chester, a love story.

Chester Frazier ran around the entire crowd, along the edge of the SFC bowl, navigating the least obstructed path to Sarah, his wife. He called to her over the crowd. Somehow, she heard him. And despite carrying a toddler on her hip, she too navigated the crowd to meet him at the final balustrade/cattle fence.

It’s a good lesson: Remember what’s important. Prioritize. Accentuate the positive.

Illini basketball had just frustrated all its fans en route to an incredibly lucky, mathematically improbable #B1G championship.

Now, five days later, Illini fans will sweat through morning coffee until the ’22 Illini tip off against the B1G’s least predictable team. OR, if you’re in Indianapolis and connected to the DIA, perhaps you’ll be drunk by tip time.

The B1G’s hottest team, Iowa, continued its offensive romp on Thursday, dropping 112 points on Chris Collins’s purty good Northwestern defense.

Iowa had won five in a row before stubbing its toe on Coleman Hawkins, a seven-footer guarding the perimeter, a crazy Puerto Rican whose passes seemed wild as his defense was sound.

And Trent.

When not playing Illinois, Iowa is pretty great. They were pretty great against Illinois, too. At the end, Illinois had more points. Despite everything.

Defense wins championships. On Sunday last, defense won a championship. It certainly wasn’t Belo’s passing or ‘Monte’s free-throws. But those two were instrumental in the lockdown, and ‘Monte again saved the game with an offensive rebound that drove the Hawkeyes Radio Network crew crazy.

Friday morning, Illinois will play a team that lacks confidence. As Trayce Jackson-Davis said after Indiana overcame an error-prone Michigan team, he’s never played on the #B1GTourney Friday before.

Indiana could win, and it wouldn’t matter. Brad would like “back-to-back on something,” and #B1GTourney championships are his best opportunity. We’d all prefer it.

But the pressure is off here. Winning any games in Indianapolis is unlikely to affect Illinois’s seed in the dance. Losing won’t help or hurt in that regard.

The team can play for the enjoyment of the game, and to work on coverages, and to implement sets that haven’t been scouted.

It’s a great opportunity. So enjoy it.

Categories
Illini basketball

Defense, travels

What a stupid way to win a championship. Aaaaaaaand we’ll take it, AMIRITE?!?!?

First, the #LuckyBadgers find they’ve spent all their tokens. Then, the Murray Twins can’t buy a free-throw, while Belo spends twenty minutes throwing the ball away. And when the dust settles, a trophy.

As your hangover recedes, you’re already forgetting how the game unfolded. Twenty years from now, you’ll have no idea.

It doesn’t matter.

#Champions

Andre Curbelo regrets that pass

The feeling you had throughout the championship-winning game was probably something like “BELO WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?” or perhaps “COLEMAN WHY DID YOU SHOOT THAT?!?!?”

Honestly, this game felt like a lifetime. And most of the time, you felt like you were dying.

And then, at the other end of the court, Joe Toussaint moved his feet too much while trying to find a passing lane.

Defense. Travels. It was the theme of the game. And Illinois won it, and a championship.

Everything matters. Every single thing.

We remember the Derek Harper three that got Illinois into the 1983 tourney, but we have no idea what the ’84 Illini did to tie Purdue for the conference championship.

*consults internet*

Ah, yes. They lost at Mackey.

I mean, that’s one way to look at it. You could also sayIllinois beat B1G doormat Wisconsin to clinch the deal.

Or don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter.

Illinois was in position, Saturday, to win a Big Ten Championship on Sunday. It didn’t seem likely, but fundamentally, it’s the putting yourself in position that matters.

Coleman Hawkins says no.

The 2002 Illini championship (or 2001? … nah, not even finna Google this time) had a similar less than triumphant, come-from-behind, all dominoes must collapse in this order feel to it. And that’s how those dominoes fell. I think there was an unlikely Wisconsin loss there too, but I ain’t lookin’ it up.

#Champions

Brad Underwood said something important in the PSU postgame, which was about four nights and a lifetime ago. He said he told his team they’d have four or five games in the NCAA Tournament that were like that.

Scrap, scrape, bang, bend. Don’t break.

Don’t brake.

There’s a lot of pressure on this guy, all the time.

It’s been alarming and unnerving to watch Illini basketball these past two months, and yet here you are, celebrating a championship. How should you feel about that? How should you feel about their tourney chances?

1989 was a lot more fun. 2005 felt too easy. 1998 was five wastrels against the Big Bad Izzoes, a genuine David/Goliath story.

2001 was a tragedy, but maybe it helped the Big Ten’s front office recognize that referees should penalize players for fouling other players.

The gritty 2022 championship-winning Illini men’s basketball team feels like an offhand remark that’s been weighted down by the gravity of situation: If it keeps scrapping, it might win a championship. You know, like it just did last night.

“I told them they’d have four or five games like this in the NCAA Tournament” became “I’d like to play nine more.”

That was Brad’s postgame observation about his time with Trent and Da’Monte.

You’re smart. Do the math.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Ayo whaaaa?!?

You should probably feel less depressed about Ohio State if you feel depressed about Ohio State.

You should probably feel less anxiety about Iowa if you feel anxiety about Iowa.

This Illini team has demonstrated, throughout this season, that you can’t predict what this Illini team will do this season. Your source of anxiety shall henceforth parrot the reality of March: This team can lose to anybody.

Luckily, your glass is half full: This team can beat anybody, and has already proven its propensity to win seven-in-a-row.

Ayo mentioned winning seven-in-a-row just the other day, but he was talking about a state title, not a national title.

Ayo is voracious about titles. The chip on his shoulder is practically visible. His deference toward teammates & oft-stated respect for opponents belies a singular, individual drive to prove to you and your mom and everyone else that he, Ayo IS YOUR DADDY.

Ayo’s love of competition is infectious, and he’s contaminated an entire team and fanbase.

There have been two hints in recent Ayo Availabilities which should, at the very least, drive conspiracy theories about Ayo returning for a third year.

The most obvious was when he said he was contemplating Journalism as a major.

The other came after that, and I can’t remember which pregame availability it was, but you should probably just click on all the IlliniReport videos anyway.

But the good news about Ayo is that he wants to be The Guy who returned Illinois to jersey-popping status. If His Team doesn’t win three-in-a-row next weekend, or six-in-a-row after that; you can imagine him making another Consequential Decision in your favor.

#UnfinishedBusiness

The alternative is that you celebrate a championship.

Categories
Illini Basketball

Los Feliz

Welp, my plan to publish every day encountered reality, fought it, and lost.

Yesterday, instead of writing this column, I spent every waking hour trying to install a forum at IlliniReport, only to find that WordPress and all its Forum plugins are super-buggy, like an Amish hot-rodder.

The IR forum was intended to replace the IlliniHQ fora, which died Sunday. In the grand scheme of things, neither that community nor the 72-65 defeat is all that important.

But both should be remembered, and this post will memorialize a moment from Sunday that Illini fans won’t want to forget.

This reporter has been Team Feliz since the first open scrimmage of last season. That fealty remains. I get why Coach Underwood wants to bring him off the bench, but I also want him on the floor for 40 minutes.

Sunday should remind everyone why Andres Feliz is a great Illini.

First, to set the scene: It was a warm, sunny Groundhog’s Day in Iowa City. About 45 degrees. The Iowa Caucus was the next day, so every available strip of dirt had a yard sign. Warren, Bernie, Yang Gang.

We found out that a big rally was happening just down the street from Carver-Hawkeye Arena. So we went to see what it was like.

It was big.

Maybe 1,500 people were waiting to get into a small junior high gym. Because we were wearing media credentials, campaign staffers grabbed us and walked us past the entire line, and into the gym. I felt kind of bad about that. But I did take some photos for the file, and I’ll share them with WILL. So it’s legit.

We moved on to Carver-Hawkeye, which was packed to the gills with white-clad white people. It was loud, and the Hawkeyes were playing an aggressive defense unseen in the Fran Era.

All defense has zone principles these days, and all zones have man principles these days. Whatever scheme the Hawkeyes employed, their defenders kept forcing smaller Illini to the baseline and sidelines. Both Alan and Trent got forced out-of-bounds completely.

Andres Feliz stood up to it. And then, he took its ball.

[Jason Marry was sitting to my right, so FightingIllini Productions will have this video in video form, rather than a bunch of 10 fps pictures glued together.]

Things looked pretty good for Illinois after Dre pulled off that unlikeliest of effort plays. The Illini led 59-55.

Even assistant coach Stephen Gentry got excited.

But on this unseasonably warm February afternoon, the sun was literally shining on Iowa City and its Hawkeye faithful.

You wouldn’t have known that Connor McCaffery was in a shooting slump, nor that Luka Garza had never attempted so many threes in his life.

They all went in the basket.

Or at least it seemed like they all went in. The box score says it was only 10-of-23, and that Garza made only 4-of-9.

But on a day when the Hawkeyes (and Brad Underwood) took Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn out of the game, that was enough.

Still, as Dre said in the hallway after the game. “We’re still in first place.”

That guy has grit.