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.
ACTUAL BASKETBALL STUFF
+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.