10 years ago today was Tennessee State. As in, Illinois basketball, makers of 21 of the last 25 NCAA Tournaments, lost at home to Tennessee State and we all realized that we were going to miss the Tournament. We've been to the Tournament 3 times since.
Tennessee State was such a turning point. We had already lost to Miami-Ohio that December, but then we beat Missouri in St. Louis and we all convinced ourselves that it wasn't THAT bad. But losing to Tennessee State meant that we were, in fact, awful. Losses to Duke, Maryland, and Arizona? Understandable. Miami-Ohio? OK, fine, overtime loss in a trap game, just don't do it again. Tennessee State? Oh man we're no longer Illinois basketball.
I want to emphasize that moment a little bit more. Before that moment, four missed NCAA Tournaments in TWENTY FIVE YEARS: 90-91 (would have been in but were on probation because of Bruce Pearl), 91-92 (the scholarship restrictions set in), 95-96 (Henson retired after the NIT loss to Alabama), and 98-99 (had graduated five starters the previous season, Frankie was sitting out for Prop 48 and Marcus was still at Juco). Every other season in that span - we're talking 1983 to 2007 - we made the Tournament.
After Tennessee State - again, 10 years ago this very moment - we went to the Tournament in 2009, 2011, and 2013. That's it. IT. That's all. No other times.
So as we reach the ten-year anniversary of what I believe to be the turning point of Illinois basketball (some might argue Rich McBride's three pointer being 0.1 too late in 2006, but come on, it was Tennessee State while we were all at the Rose Bowl), I feel like I should acknowledge the moment. Normal West big-man Francis Okoro was sitting over there in the corner watching, and I couldn't help but think that a team with Ayo-Trent-Mark-Da'Monte in the backcourt with a 5-star big like Okoro in the frontcourt would take us back there. The State Farm Center would return to being the Assembly Hall. Two likely McDonald's All Americans plus a promising supporting cast - that gets us right back to where we want to be.
When we trailed Grand Canyon by five at halftime, yes, I thought a lot about Tennessee State. Was this another December 30th loss keeping us in our place? Well, no, but I guess it doesn't really matter. I'm not writing this to say "but we WON which means we're BACK". It was just interesting to observe the fanbase at these two moments.
- December 30, 2007 crowd (according to a friend who was there): WHAT IS HAPPENING WE'RE SUPPOSED TO BE ILLINOIS BASKETBALL??
- December 30, 2017 crowd (after Trent hit the shot clock-beating three to give us the lead): I FEEL LIKE I CAN SCREAM WITHOUT RESERVATION NOW BECAUSE THIS MIGHT BE GOING SOMEWHERE.
I mean, the crowd just exploded. Then and on Da'Monte Williams' three to put the game away in the final 15 seconds. The crowd was so quiet all game - I get it, there's just no energy and we're all afraid of another bad loss - so to let it all out on a big three pointer just feels like therapy. Slowly but surely we'll all understand that cheering is OK again - confidence is rewarded.
We won't make the Tournament this year (too young, too inexperienced, too big of a hole after losing to New Mexico State and starting the Big Ten 0-2), but it really does feel like we might go on a long tournament run after this season. All three freshman guards look like the real deal, we add a 5-star guard next year, and then, if the 2019 recruiting class goes well (coughOKOROcough), this place would start to feel like 2001 again.
And we'd all look back at this ten year dip from December 30, 2007 to December 30, 2017.
+ As for this season, I'm not sure where this team would be (or will go) without Leron. Tonight, 20 points on 8-12 shooting and 11 rebounds. We lose this game by 15 without him.
Trent Frazier, too. The crowd started to get a little agitated with Trent missing shots in the late tonight, but they forgave him when he hit that shot clock three. These last two games have been the Trent And Leron Show.
Now let's get some games that are the Smith Show again. And a Finke Extravaganza wouldn't hurt either.
+ One thing I can tell from watching Underwood during the game - he really loves Mark Alstork's defense. LOVES loves. He even mentioned it during the postgame radio appearance. The defense, to him, takes a big step forward when Alstork is pressuring the ballhandler out top.
The fans seem to get a little frustrated with Alstork - all offensive based, of course - but he played 28 minutes in this one and that's all because of his defense. It makes me wonder who that guy will be next season. Underwood likes to pressure the point guard, and Alstork is his guy right now, so maybe... Te'Jon is that guy next year? Trent? Maybe Ayo? Will be interesting.
+ Now that we're headed into the Big Ten portion of the schedule, it feels like the rotation will be something like this:
- Finke and Black get all the minutes they want. If they can both play 34 minutes, they will. Underwood trusts them on both ends and will lean on them as heavily as he can.
- Kipper gets most of the rest of the frontcourt minutes, with Eboigbodin getting the rest, and how much Kipper plays depends on his defense. When he gave up that freebie bunny in the second half in this one, Underwood... was not pleased (and didn't put him back in again).
- I think Lucas, Smith, and Alstork will continue to start but Frazier will continue to take Te'Jon's minutes and Da'Monte will continue to grab minutes from Alstork and Smith. At the end of games, Underwood seems to trust Trent on offense and Da'Monte on defense (in place of Lucas and Smith).
- Teams have wised-up to Jordan and play him out on the three point line now. If he's going to return to his early season shooting performances, it will have to come through proving he's a threat to drive it if they play him too close.
- The biggest thing we might need in the Big Ten is November Mark Smith. If we get UNLV Mark Smith, we can really make a push. If we get Grand Canyon Mark Smith, we're still really limited in offensive options.
End of the day, I still don't think this team has enough to make the Tournament (it would probably take a 12-5 finish anyway, and we might have four Big Ten losses by mid-January). But I still think things are on track for a big season next year. Everyone has learned the system, everyone besides Alstork returns, we add a 5-star guard, the three seniors (Finke, Black, and Jordan) lead us to a big season.
And then Okoro joins and we shoot for the moon.