13 year-old me who cried in the laundry room when his heroes lost to Austin Peay in the 1987 NCAA Tournament is fairly happy. I needed this. It still hurts. Ken Norman is my favorite Illini of all time and he didn't deserve to go out like that.
But let's be honest. That was a complete and total homering. Austin Peay led by four with 5:53 remaining (yes, really), and from that point on we shot 14 free throws, Austin Peay shot none, ballgame. This was not Peay fouling to get the ball back - this was Austin Peay shooting at their end (and their coach begging for foul calls) and then it was Illinois getting fouled and going to the line on the other end (and the Austin Peay coach ready to lose his mind).
Now, were we aggressive and driving to the hoop? Yes. Were they fouls? Yes - there are always fouls all over the place. But one glaring statistic decided this game: Illinois shot 20 free throws in the second half (15 in the final six minutes), Austin Peay shot two, ballgame.
It couldn't happen to a nicer memory.
Seriously, if you're old enough to remember the 1987 Tournament, you remember how painful it was. Snake could score from any angle in any situation in the paint. Doug Altenberger - seated 10 feet to my right as I type this - could drain it from deep (and was on that team because of an injury redshirt in his first senior season). Tony Wysinger made it all go, Kendall Gill and Steve Bardo were freshmen off the bench, even Jeff Finke - still seated up in the stands over there, waiting to talk to his son when he comes out of the locker room - was on that team.
And they had such a good chance to get to the Final Four. They were the three-seed in their region with a vulnerable one-seed (Georgetown, who wasn't 1980's Georgetown that year and tripped into a one-seed) and a bad two-seed (Wimp Sanderson's Alabama team). The six seed, Providence, coached by a young Rick Pitino, won the regional. My bracket had Illinois in the Final Four (yes, I filled out a bracket in 7th grade - I ran a pool in the cafeteria, thankyouverymuch).
Losing in the first round to 14-seed Austin Peay was so PAINFUL. It just couldn't happen. I refused to believe that it had actually happened for weeks. The whole Dick Vitale standing on his head thing and "Let's Go Peay" and Snake's last game... ugh.
So do I feel bad about homering Austin Peay in one of the worst games I've ever watched in this building? No I do not. There's part of me that needed this. Deserved it. Keep blowing those whistles, stripes. I love me some good home cookin'.
+ It feels like the whole team is in a rut right now. With about eight minutes left I tweeted that our six guards had scored 4, 3, 2, 2, 1, and 0 points. Against one of the worst opponents we'll face this season. Play like this and 2-16 in the Big Ten is in play.
That won't happen, of course. This is a process, and this seemed to be the "I won't get all that angry - I'll just let them self-destruct out there and then maybe they'll understand" game for Brad Underwood. He'll get them there. "There" isn't the NCAA Tournament, but "playing better basketball and ready for a leap next season" will do.
And I guess that after two emotional overtime conference games, we were due for a letdown. It makes sense. We sleepwalk, they hang around, we put them away with a little help from our friends in stripes.
But man, that was just SO BAD. Burn the tape.
+ In the "Back And Forth" post that Tyler and I are bouncing around right now (published Friday, most likely), I asked him if DaMonte Williams >>> Mark Smith right now. You can see that discussion later but please note - DaMonte started the game and Smith came off the bench tonight.
Of all the funks, Smith's seems to be the deepest. And of all the "man, he brings it every night" players, I probably put DaMonte at the top. He still has a long way to go (and let's be honest - that's a really big knee brace with metal hinges and he won't really be 100% until he can remove it), but he just does so many little things. Heck, the comeback (we needed a COMEBACK against AUSTIN PEAY) was probably sparked by his steal and breakaway layup.
Smith will snap out of it (and learn how to play defense), but for now, Team DaMonte.
+ I'm still so "no no no YES" with Leron. I need to snap out of it. He had some really nice post moves tonight, and that rainbow that looks like it comes off his wrist seems to drop so softly, but when they send the ball into the post I still get anxious for some reason.
I guess I really haven't reached a comfort level with any of the players besides DaMonte. I should explain that.
To me, "comfort level" is the lack of anxiety. When Trent or Te'Jon is bringing the ball up against the press, I'm still nervous. When AJ is doing anything besides spotting up for three, I'm nervous. When Kipper goes into his Euro-step, I'm nervous. And when Leron gets the ball in the low post, I'm nervous. I need that "BP3 has it with the clock winding down - we're good" feeling. Or Ray Rice, or Malcolm - it's not that any of those teams were great, we just had players where I knew what we'd get. I'm not there yet with this team.
But that's OK. We beat Peay and exorcised a few demons. It's the first year, the team is still going through the growing pains of learning a new system, Ayo went off in a high school game last night - the future is bright.
Tonight, though... werf.