A Play In Four Acts
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It's kind of crazy how emotionless this game was for me. One, Ayo is out, and Rutgers is undefeated at home, so I had already counted this one as a loss. Two, it's Rutgers, and I feel no "rivalry" whatsoever. I don't clench my fists when I see their fans celebrating - honestly, I feel kinda happy for them because they have the worst fan situation in all of major conference college sports (no bowl since 2014, no Tournament since 1991). Combine all of that with a game where a so-so shooter goes 5-5 from three and it's over - this isn't a game we're going to win. Whatever.
We also now know that the seven game winning streak was a little bit of smoke and mirrors. OK, yes, no seven game conference winning streak is "smoke and mirrors", but.. we simply didn't know we were playing the bad teams in the conference at the time. As of right now, the class of the conference rests on the east coast: Maryland, Penn State, and Rutgers. When we were beating Purdue and Michigan, we had in our minds that we were beating last year's Purdue and Michigan, but as it turns out, last year's Purdue and Michigan are named Penn State and Rutgers.
Here's probably the best way to put that. The record against the AP top-25 for all of the teams in the Big Ten:
Penn State 4-1
Michigan State 3-4
Ohio State 3-2
And that one win over a ranked team wasn't even during the seven-game winning streak. We beat Michigan when they were #5 in December, and now they're unranked. Which means we've beaten exactly 0 teams in the current top-25.
So yeah, we were overrated and this losing streak was probably inevitable. Up next is Penn State (who might be top-10 on Monday?), and we're not winning that one, especially if Ayo is out. Which means the 8-2 start in the Big Ten is about to become 8-7. The ranking is long gone and the winning streak feels like it was a month ago. As I tweeted this afternoon, please, let's just get this Penn State loss over with so we can begin the business of trying to make one final surge this season.
I've written several times about this stretch of eight games and how I was thinking we'd probably go either 2-6 or 3-4. We won the first three (of the eight) games, and we got all excited, but it looks like we really are going to go 3-5 over this stretch. Let's get the PSU loss over with so we can start Act IV.
If you're curious, here's the first three acts:
Act I: Nicholls State through the game at Michigan State. We lost every meaningful game. Every single one. Didn't have a single game to hang our hat on.
Act II: The seven-game winning streak. Impressive road wins at Wisconsin, Purdue, and Michigan plus four wins at home. We climbed from Big Ten nobody to appearing in the polls for a month.
Act III: A five-game losing streak. Yes, we've only lost four of those five, but we're not winning at Penn State. We couldn't win at Penn State when we were still ILLINOIS BASKETBALL. Now Penn State finally has a great team and we're absolutely not winning that one. So, five game losing streak here we come.
Act IV: TBD
When we get to 16-10 (8-7) after the PSU loss (I'm trying to triple reverse jinx it here), the "will Illinois go from #19 to out of the Tournament?" takes will be at full volume. 16-10 is a scary spot to be in, especially if Ayo is out for an extended period of time.
For the full game today, I found myself just wanting Act IV to get here. We'll fall to 16-10, and then let's see what we have. A late season surge to push us to a solid seed? Or a late-season collapse where we find ourselves on the bubble or perhaps even in the NIT? I just want to get to the final five games (Nebraska, Northwestern, Indiana, Ohio State, and Iowa) and then the Big Ten Tournament to see where this all ends up. The seven game winning streak was fun, the four (possibly five) game losing streak has sucked, now let's see the final act.
I tweeted after the Iowa loss (where we played so well) that I thought two things: we're going to go 1-4 over this brutal stretch, and then we're going to the Sweet 16. That's really how I saw the rest of the season playing out. The strength of the Big Ten was going to catch up to us, and then we'd put all of the pieces together, maybe even go on a run in the BTT, and then have a great opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. When things are clicking for this team (just think of that road game at Purdue), they really click.
But when Trent shoots 1-9 from three, and when the team is only 19 for 61 from the floor, this team can look as bad as it did in the second half today. That team (especially when Ayo is out) isn't getting anywhere close to the Sweet 16. It's a bit of a mess right now, with these long stretches (first half against MSU, second half against Rutgers) where it looks like last year.
After Penn State, though, we'll get to see the final act. Five games to close out the regular season + the BTT. Three wins are needed to lock up a bid, and after that, we're playing for seed. The second act made us think we might actually contend for the Big Ten title, and then the third act took that notion and tossed it in the trash. Now, after a bloody scene at Penn State next week, Act IV, where everyone's fate is decided.
Hopefully with Ayo in the leading role.