Three B1G teams stink. Losing to any of those three teams should embarrass you, the fan. Northwestern is not one of those teams.
On the other hand, Illinois already lost to Maryland, one of the icky three. And yet, here remain the Illini, alone in first place.
It’s a brutal league, and the Wildcats compete with everyone. They’re especially tough defensively. And that’s why Illini fans can feel good about Sunday’s dogfight.
Ryan Young’s offense is the reason NU is under .500 in league play, but his defense is terrific. Robbie Beran is worse at the former, and even better at the latter. That’s why he’s remained a mainstay of the Chris Collins era, despite averaging 6 & 4.
These two defenders and their coach calculated that hacking Kofi Cockburn for 40 minutes might give them a chance to win. Adding Elyjah Williams’s five fouls to their arsenal, the Wildcats probably figured they could finish regulation with one big undisqualified.
Of course, that strategy required some hacking from the wings, too. And Chase Audige obliged. He and Beran fouled out. Young and Williams finished with three PFs apiece.
Bert Smith, Keith Kimble and Lewis Garrison reported 22 Northwestern fouls to the official scorekeeper. The Illini committed, as far as those three were concerned, just 14.
Kofi officially drew 11 fouls, and unofficially drew two or three per possession.
That NU’s free-throw attempts lagged the Illini just 18 to 19 demonstrates that the ‘Cats did a lot of hacking in non-shooting situations. That Illinois reached 20 turnovers for just the second time this season (Marquette, 26) shows that the hacking worked.
Expect more hacking. Paul Mulcahy will certainly bruise Kofi’s forearms on Wednesday. Caleb McConnell will be the triple-teamer who forces held-balls.
Kofi is among the most emotionally balanced players ever to feel the bright lights, elbows & fingernails descend upon him. That’s the reason Illinois fans can hope for some success in the NCAA Tournament this year, regardless of their B1G Championship aspirations.
The B1G has clearly decided that its referees won’t stop play every time someone hacks-a-Kofi. But as James Augustine can tell you, it’s different in the post-season.
Sunday’s 73-66 verdict demonstrated a championship-caliber persistence in an Illini team whose stars have been saddled by ever-developing scouting report information. Grandison and Plummer surprised some people early in the season.
There are no surprises in February. Not among foes whose budgets afford top salaries for human scouting, plus plenty $$ remaining for proprietary analytics.
On the other hand, the tendencies of Casey Simmons and RJ Melendez haven’t been compiled to the point that dribbles right on 97 % of ball screens at the top of the key can be deduced from previous performances.
And, of course, they’re both surprisingly bouncy.
Simmons was fantastic for the Wildcats, mostly on defense. Perhaps because, as a freshman, he hasn’t learned to play conservatively. He gambled and won time and again, most obviously when he intercepted Illini passes, and returned them for touchdowns.
RJ’s play, offensively, was the same thing he’s shown at every opportunity this season. It’s the reason Illini social media clamors for additional Ramses every time he gets tick. As Geoff Alexander promised in the pre-season, “he’s exciting.”
Whether RJ’s defense was any good in November, it wasn’t as good as Da’Monte’s defense. Whether RJ’s defense is better in February … still maybe not the point. Melendez minutes don’t require RJ to displace a veteran. As legs tire, as the gauntlet of a 20 game conference season reaches its trench warfare phase, RJ’s minutes will, ideally, provide exactly the kind of difference-making spark that beat Northwestern Sunday.
As Belo keeps Trent fresh, and provides a disorientingly unTrent-ish vibe on offense, so RJ can disrupt opponents simply by being unpredictable.
The weird thing about both these Puerto Ricans, however, is how cool they remain under pressure, despite their manic offensive explosiveness.
And if RJ remains as unflappable as he’s seemed throughout his brief Illini tenure, you can feel good about putting the ball in his hands at crunch time. For a guy who won’t be able to buy beer legally for another 10 months, that’s a remarkable quality.
Brad Underwood deviated from a standard 9-man rotation only to the extent that Ben Verdonk played two extremely meaningful minutes, keeping Kofi from committing a third foul before halftime.
That Luke Goode is sometimes the ninth man, that Coleman Hawkins sometimes doesn’t play meaningful minutes: These are indications that Brad is balancing PT based on match-ups, and doing his best to keep everyone involved.
It doesn’t mean that 10 or 11 guys will see meaningful tick in any game. It means that Podz will be ready the next time Trent hurts his knee. It means Coleman will be available to extend a packed defense.
It’s a great time to be a fan.