It’s almost 2 pm in New York. Michigan/Wisconsin just reached halftime, tied at 31. I know, because I turned on the 19” Philips TV to channel 2.1, on a hunch.
If yesterday’s Illini game hadn’t been moved forward in time – a rescheduling prompted by COVID postponements in other league programs – it would have been broadcast on Fox rather than ESPN. I could have watched it on this tiny TV.
Yes, I’m still in New York. I’ve been in two ice-related accidents as an Illini basketball reporter. The totaled Dodge hemi wasn’t mine, and nobody was killed, so walking away after climbing up & out through the driver’s side window felt slightly triumphant. The other slip-n-slide broke a tie-rod, cost $600 and featured no spectacular flips and rolls. Not as exciting.
Point is, I don’t mess with ice storms anymore. Winter Storm Miles moved through Illinois, so Midway closed. Then Miles moved to Michigan, so I couldn’t go directly there. Then Miles came here, and the storm squalls have been howling for two days.
At least I have old TV shows. Star Trek TOS is on six nights a week, on channel 9.4. Then every other Star Trek brand runs until 2 AM. (I’d never even heard of Enterprise.) Yesterday, a Six Million Dollar Man marathon on Cozi prompted me to wonder how John Groce is faring in the MAC this year. All boys born in 1971 owned a Steve Austin action figure, with arm skin that could be rolled back to reveal the bionics inside.
But now I want to watch basketball. The B1Gest game of the year tips off at 4:30 CT, and it’s not on broadcast TV. It’s on FS1. I won’t be able to see it unless I go down to the lobby and watch online. (The apartment has been vacant since 2018. There’s no internet.)
I might go.
Perching a Surface is cumbersome, and a 6” Android screen is not ideal. But I watched Illini @ Minnesota there, the last time a snowstorm stopped me from leaving New York, two years ago. Of course, there was no mask requirement in the lobby back then.
I might go down. I want to watch Rutgers/Purdue. I really hope Ron Harper’s finger is healed.
He seemed to jam it on a rebound. The quizzical grimace didn’t change, it’s always plastered across his face. But could it now mean “what just happened, and why does it hurt so much?”
It’s easy to root for Rutgers. Harper is a likeable chubster. You remember him from college. The funny, big-boned guy who keeps the girls amused but isn’t really competition. Paul Mulcahy is also unlikely to steal your girlfriend, but he’s tremendous threat to steal your basketball, because he never stops trying. You like to root for that guy, too (when it’s not your team opposing him).
And you have to appreciate, as a basketball fan, what Steve Pikiell did for a program that has a single season to remember, and decreasing numbers of people alive to remember it. I can’t recall the name of the elderly 1976er honored during a media timeout on Wednesday. I didn’t recognize his name at the time, either.
Imagine trying to recruit to a program that hasn’t seen success since Jimmy Carter was a maverick pipedream.
Pikiell makes his team play defense. His personal humility allows him to ask 100% effort from his players. They know they can’t outwork him, and they know he’s doing it for them. So they’ll sprint to Jacob Grandison in the corner. They’ll stay in front of Alfonso Plummer. They’ll hack-a-Kofi until B1G officials decide that whistle-hesitancy has become too obvious.
Illinois is not easy to defend. It takes a lot of hard work and effort. But there’s a formula, and anyone can do it.
Grandison spent a lot of RAC pre-game time practicing his shot from the arc. Grad assistant Marcus Anderson counted off his makes. When Jake got five in a row from the top of the key, he could move to the wing, and hit another five in a row. Then move to the corner.
Presumably, Jake did something similar six hours later, in Champaign. But his 3 AM workout with team managers was equally effective at prepping him for B1G defenses as was running a Princeton offense for Bill Carmody: Not at all.
Watching Jake shoot alone, you begin to understand the mechanics. He looks like your grandmother on TV. It’s almost a set shot. The low delivery makes it easy to block, and that’s something B1G opponents have noticed.
But it looks really smooth when he’s shooting uncontested. There’s a slight curveball action to his mechanics. It’s like watching a slider break over the inside corner. Jake can make 75% of his shots when defenders aren’t closing in. Same for Fonz. Maybe more.
When Illini media, social and traditional, cried out for Brad Underwood to shake-up the rotation, it’s this scoutability that prompted a call for change. What once surprised opponents no longer surprises opponents.
It’s not the starters’ fault, and replacing them isn’t the answer. Underwood needs to introduce some new actions, so opponents can’t call out the plays, like Trent does to them.
Tom Izzo was unable to motivate his players to defend Jake effectively. But MSU doesn’t match-up as well, either. Smaller guards, slower forwards. So Jake made 6-of-10 in East Lansing. That’s why Illinois won there. It’s why they lost at the RAC.
Purdue was successful against Illinois because it brought the effort on the wings, and DJ Carstensen called both games. Hack-a-Kofi was allowed.
I like Matt Painter. I don’t blame him for taking advantage. He gets paid to win basketball games. You use the tools available.
I like Steve Pikiell, too. I’d heard about Pikiell greeting & thanking everyone in the room after his RAC pressers finish, but I’d never seen it before Wednesday. We’re typically outside the Illini locker room while he’s speaking.
Kofi’s family was in town that night, so we cut that interview short. Hence, I was able to get back to the media room in time for Pikiell’s closing remarks. He came around and shook our hands. He knows we’re getting the word out: There’s a basketball program in Piscataway.
Today, we’ll all be rooting for Pikiell. Not just people in Champaign and New Brunswick. Everybody.
The Badgers and Wolverines have concluded with a brawl, which is apt given their respective mascots. The Wolverines proved more vicious, and the Badgers more cunning. It figures.
I’m in the elevator now. The lobby has good WiFi.
New Yorkers have cable and satellite options, and those providers are now paying the BTN because, according to both Uncle Jim’s logic and NJ Transit timetables, Rutgers is part of the New York metropolitan area. At 4:30 pm, dozens if not hundreds of tri-state sets will be tuned to FS1,assuming there’s not an Islanders game, or LaCrosse on a different channel.