Jan 19, 2020

Almost three years ago, after Illinois lost to Minnesota to fall to 13-11 overall and 3-8 in the Big Ten, I wrote a post I titled "Irrelevance". (You can read it here if you enjoy walking down memory lane barefoot over jagged glass). At that point in time we were four years removed from our last NCAA Tournament appearance, and the prospects for the future were rapidly dimming. A program mired in obscurity.

John Groce was fired as head coach after that season and replaced with Brad Underwood. Underwood's first two seasons were primarily an exercise in establishing a culture and laying a foundation for the future. Necessary work mind you, but it didn't do much for the perception of the program. The net result of the past six seasons? Six consecutive seasons of irrelevance.

Fast forward to January 18, 2020. The 24th ranked Illinois Fighting Illini beat Northwestern (more on this in a bit) 75-71 to move to 13-5 overall and 5-2 and in sole possession of second place in the Big Ten conference.

Of course, we know that subjective rankings such as the AP poll mean next to nothing with respect to building an NCAA Tournament resume', and that being in second place in the Big Ten with 13 games still to play is just window dressing, but in the court of public perception - stuff like this means just about everything.

It means that national talking heads make a point to mention Illinois when they tweet about their personal top 25 ballot for the week. It means that BTN studio personalities feature us prominently in their "Power Rankings". It means that every time the Big Ten standings are shown during a game - we see our name right near the top. It means that I don't have to toggle away from "Top 25 Scoreboard" to find us when I access the ESPN App!

It means that - in this little snapshot of time - we are once again...relevant. Which changes everything.

It was sooo much easier for a quasi-pseudo-wannabe journalist such as myself to cover and write about the games because in the big picture they didn't really matter all that much. Sure it was nice to pick off a random conference win here and there, but the stakes were so low that it was relatively simple to offer a clinical and unemotional diagnosis of each game.

But now that every game means so much - my brain wants very badly to regress deeply into fan mode. So while I should be making game notes and tweeting out IMPORTANT BASKETBALL THOUGHTS, instead I zone out and spend the game wringing my hands under the table - aggressively.

Why? Because we are still a far cry away from the true goal - permanent relevance. Permanent relevance like what the program experienced from 1984-1990 and 2001-2009. In those halcyon days, it was OK to lose a few games here and there, because you knew with unassailable certainty that by March the record would take care of itself and you were going to be tuning in on Selection Sunday to find out if you needed to take Thursday or Friday off from work. (who are you kidding - you always took both days).

Right now our newly refound relevance remains in its infancy stage. We'll still likely be ranked come Monday morning, but if we lose the next two games on the road at Purdue and at Michigan, we'll fade back away for a while. That's why every game means SO MUCH. "A while" just CANNOT mean another six years.

That's why it's suddenly unacceptable that a 6-11 Northwestern team should be within shouting distance of us - especially at home. Never mind that they've finished higher than us in KenPom rankings for the past three seasons. They're technically a directional school for crying out loud! Struggling against a bad Northwestern reminds us so very quickly of recent history - of irrelevance. It makes us question how much we trust this Illinois team.

Being 12-5 and 5-2 in conference in mid-January is kind of like having a seven point lead at the under 8:00 media time out. Still relatively comfortable - but man have we blown our share of such leads in recent history. Every game from here on out is so crucial. There are still 57 days to Selection Sunday - over which Illinois will play 13 more conference games and the Big Ten Tournament. I might be a quivering mess by then, but you know, it sure beats the alternative.


+This was a weird game in that despite keeping it close throughout, Northwestern still trailed for the entire second half. Credit to Illinois for never quite giving the Wildcats momentum to burn. Although I should point out that my nightmare late game scenario almost unfolded. My recurring nightmare is always: We are up five points late, but not yet in the double bonus. The opponent makes a three to get within two points and fouls immediately. If we miss the front end, suddenly we can lose on a three pointer. Thankfully…

+Ayo is a closer. After Miller Kopp hit a three with seven seconds left to bring my nightmare into play, Ayo calmly buried two free throws to put this one in the bank. In the final two minutes of each of the last three games - all single possession games late - Illinois has scored a total of 22 points. Ayo has 17 of those points.

+I've been waiting for Trent Frazier to get on a burner for a while now, and after drilling a three on his first shot of the game, one got the sense he was in his shot hunting mode. He finished the game as Illinois' leading scorer with 16 points - including 4/7 from the arc. He also had no turnovers. In fact his last turnover came in the second half of the Mizzou game. That's just 193 minutes of game play - a stretch during which he's become the primary ball handler in the half court. No big whoop. Trent also became the 50th all time point scorer in Illini Basketball history - eclipsing the 1000 point mark in the process. Happy trails Derek Harper.

+After his post game media session, Northwestern head coach Chris Collins passed Giorgi Bezhanishvili on his way out of the press room and jokingly asked him: "Hey- where did that "J" come from?" Collins' was joking but you have to think privately that he was frustrated that the difference in the game may have very well been the 7 of Giorgi's points which came on perimeter jump shots.

+Defense was the primary catalyst behind the Illini's hot start in Big Ten play, but the heretofore offensively challenged Wildcats converted the best FG% for a game (45%) and best points per possession (1.16) of any conference opponent thus far. In doing so they provided a nice blueprint for other future conference foes. Northwestern inverted the floor with their bigs on top which often drew Kofi away from the basket thereby mitigating his rim protection and rebounding. Those bigs were 5/10 combined from the arc and Northwestern also converted 9 offensive rebounds into 14 second chance points. Any team with bigs who can shoot will present a unique challenge for the Illini defense moving forward. Iowa looms large in that regard.

+Here we are talking about Kofi's struggles - and he still ended up with 12 and 7. I guess his 7th Big Ten Freshman of the Week award will have to wait.


Illiniiniowa on January 19 @ 07:03 AM CST

Collins had a better game plan and the NUrds played with more energy, but they just don't have guys as talented as Ago and Frazier.

ATOillini on January 19 @ 09:03 AM CST

Excellent summary. The ESPN app thing was perfect.

Giovantischixstripz on January 19 @ 09:43 AM CST

First game I've missed since early in Non con, only caught the last 4 minutes. Could someone tell me how Griffin looked? I see the box score and I see only 16 minutes and 3 shots and it makes me wonder. I felt that both the way he was playing and the way Underwood was talking about him we was going to start playing more. The last 3 games I thought the game flow kept his minutes down (Rutgers he was struggling and Feliz was cookin, Wisky he was in foul trouble, Purdue was a blow out). Was there a valid reason his minutes were down this game? From the box score it looks like both Giorgi and Andres were playing well, but it seems like he could have taken a few minutes from Kofi, 34 is a lot for a behemoth like that and in the minutes I saw at the end he looked a bit tired.

Walkon on January 19 @ 11:04 AM CST

Alan had a weird game - just seemed out of sync. He took three jump shots - and all were way off target. His only make was a banked three. I didn’t have that “GET ALAN IN THE GAME” vibe I’ve had in other recent games. Alan’s primary contributions are on offense and our issues yesterday were mostly on the defensive end.

Giovantischixstripz on January 19 @ 11:34 AM CST


mmyers74 on January 19 @ 12:22 PM CST

Spot on assessment of his game yesterday. Some days you just don't have it. And he didn't have it yesterday, and that's ok.

Aside from the 3's, he attempted a drive, early, that was exceedingly squashed. He rushed a few shots.

Alan will improve with more time on the court (obvious statement, I know), but it will be partially because he has yet to figure out his own personal limits, vs game competition. He currently attempts drives when he doesn't have the step, and then when they get stopped, he seems ill prepared to recover, because he had no idea it would be stopped. (It appears at times that he's still in the mode of deciding, before he gets the ball, that he's driving... or that he's shooting, when he gets it.)

That will improve (and largely go away) as the game slows down for him. I'm eager for that, because under control and with a bit more floor and space awareness... (ie Finding that spot, two passes away, for the open 3) he could become a real weapon.

DB50 on January 19 @ 10:26 AM CST

“He also had no turnovers...That’s just 193 minutes of game play...No big whoop.” Really, I mean, did you really say that for sarcasm sake or because you meant it’s no big deal to go 6 straight games in the BIG as the PG without a single turnover and it’s “meh”?

Walkon on January 19 @ 10:48 AM CST

Yeah that was sarcasm. A poor attempt apparently! It’s kind of amazing actually. Even through he doesn’t create a lot on offense - he’s much more than a just a spot up shooter - he’s been the primary ball handler in the half court for a while now. Also.- he’s a drive and kick guy so I think his assist rate would be much better if he had more capable shooters surrounding him on the perimeter.

mmyers74 on January 19 @ 12:28 PM CST

Notice, what has stopped (and thus eliminated a turnover or two, per game for him) are the ill-advised , 1 on 3, drives to the hoop. He has entirely eliminated something he did at least once or twice per game.

6 games with no turnovers is just downright silly. It says that you're either playing uber conservative, or you're truly playing under control. I'd say there's a little bit of conservativism in there (not many over the top Alleys, this year... and a cut down on the drives), but mostly, the man is just playing with a tremendous calm.

I think it's been the most welcome surprise in a season with more than a few welcome surprises.

Giovantischixstripz on January 19 @ 10:49 AM CST

Definitely sarcasm. That is very impressive

PapaDels4me on January 19 @ 01:46 PM CST

The simple proof that we've achieved short term relevance, but not long term, is that we sit in 2nd place in the best conference and are only ranked #24. That should be about #11, except that the pollsters barely remember how to spell Illinois, much less vote for us.

But we're making progress and it sure feels good. It's nice to be talking about the current season. In recent years the conversation has already moved on to next year. Progress for sure.

Giovantischixstripz on January 19 @ 02:05 PM CST

Nah, its because our non conference was so bad. If we had managed to beat Miami and Missouri we probably would be about 11. If we are somehow still sitting in 2nd in the conference in a month we will be 11th.

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