Back & Forth - Ups And (Mostly) Downs
Our emails began right after the Northwestern win last week and then ran right up through this week. So Tyler and I were, how should I say it, faux-happy at the beginning of this... and then right back to the new normal by the end.
I'm going to try a new format here, with Tyler's responses indented. We'll see how it works, and if you don't like it, we'll go back to bold text. Figured this might be easier to read. Here's my first email to Tyler after the Northwestern game.
It's not like I was waiting for a win to do the next Back And Forth post, but... I think I was kind of waiting for a win. Because how many times can you dissect the same frog?
Here's my main thought: I want to win a game where we don't shoot well. We beat Northwestern because we shot 58% and they shot 33% in the second half. You could maybe claim that our defense was responsible for that 33%, but really, it feels like we won because we went 14 of 24.
So my next goal (and, really, no idea why I still have goals at this point) is to see us win a game where both teams shoot evenly but we do all the little things to win. Because this whole "we'll shoot well about one out of every four games and when we do that, we'll win" is played out. I want something different.
But still, hey, YAY - BEAT THE NURDS.
I wouldn't be so quick to explain away our Nerd-stomping as merely a generous gift from the jump shooting gods. This win actually had a little meat on it.
Granted the Kitties were without their leading scorer, but we played a complete game on both ends of the floor. Yes, we shot well on offense - especially in the second half, but this was not a case of us winning the jump shot lottery like it was against NC State, Michigan, and Iowa. We shot 58% in the second half because for the most part we were getting shots from areas on the floor where good offenses tend to live. 60 of our 68 points came from either the paint, the arc, or the free throw line. I credit a lot of that offensive efficiency to one Te'Jon Lucas. He was just fantastic with 11 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists in 33 minutes. I remain juiced about his ceiling because I think there is also a good shooter hiding in there somewhere.
And defensively? Flying Illini assistant coach Dick Nagy was fond of saying "Defense Travels" and that was certainly the case last night. Northwestern finished with a meager 0.88 PPP. We continually forced them away from the rim (only 12 points in the paint) and happily invited them to be the team trying to survive on a diet of longish two point jumpers. Just an excellent all-around team defensive performance. In fact our defense has been quietly trending in the right direction of late.
I saw a legitimate and sustainable brand of basketball from us last night. The kind of foundational performance you could actually build upon - if only it were still December.
So now the question is... can we sustain that? The last time we started a game against Penn State, they hit 100 of their first 101 shots and we immediately trailed by 20. Can we slow them down? Especially in our building?
And if we do - let's be honest, I'm writing this about 12 hours before the game and this might be my only chance to say this before we stub our toe and the whole thing is shot - what happens if we roll off three or four straight here? I mean, we won't - defensive improvement or no defensive improvement, if we lose to Winthrop at home we're not going to roll off three or four straight - but what if we did?
I have friends who have so moved on from Groce. They've moved out, got their own place, signed their divorce papers, and are simply waiting for one final signature before the divorce is final. So imagine their reaction if...
Beat Penn State at home (we absolutely should)
Win at Iowa (not likely, we suck on the road, but possible because they're not that good)
Beat the Kitties again in Champaign
Win at Nebraska (honestly, we should)
Surprise Michigan State in Champaign (Bridges will dominate us but let's play pretend)
Win at Rutgers (they'll finish 14th in the Big Ten)
I mean, there's not a single (no way we beat Purdue or Wisconsin) game left. We don't have any potential good wins left, so, honestly, I'm not even sure running the table would get us on the right side of the bubble, but if we win at Iowa next week, my friends who are waiting for word that the divorce papers have been signed will begin to lose their damn minds. It's not all that far-fetched.
There. I've now successfully set up a scenario where there's no way we beat Penn State tomorrow. Way to go, me.
Here's a little "punch you in the face" nugget: we haven't won consecutive games in regular season conference play since 2015. That's almost two seasons worth of inconsistency. While I do think that run of futility ends today with a win against Penn State - I just cannot realistically entertain the thought of a season saving win streak right now.
While you are right that each of our remaining games is eminently winnable, the likelihood of that happening is close to impossible. I think the true statistical probability is less than 5%. But forget the math - it's more that we don't play the kind of basketball that might allow us to overcome those odds. We have been plagued by wildly uneven play for the better part of three seasons now. It goes back (it always goes back) to a jump shot-centric offense and unreliable defense.
Tell you what though - if we beat Penn State today AND we do it with a performance on both ends of the floor consistent with what we saw in Evanston last Tuesday - maybe then I'll give you license to dream a little bit.
Here is what I'm going to need to see to allow that to happen:
- On defense we hold Penn State at or under 1.05 PPP
- Less than 38% of our total shot volume coming from two point jump shots
We'll talk after.
First, let me get this out of the way first:
LOLOLOL at me last night.
I have probably said "it just blows my mind that…" at least 25 times this season. But here's another one: it just blows my mind that our final six games are against...
13-12 Penn State
An 18-6 Northwestern team we just beat
15-10 Michigan State
...and it's LOL funny to even consider going on a run against those teams. This is easily the easiest closing stretch of my lifetime and we'll probably go what - 2-4? 1-5? The Flyin' Illini team.. wins every one of those games by 25 points? Hell, you probably would've gotten to play in the final two minutes of every game.
That will always be the thing that I will struggle with from this season. Over time, people might not remember just how bad the Big Ten was. Some middling team in the ACC could come over to the Big Ten and win 12 conference games this year.
And here we sit - 4-9 in the conference.
Don't sweat it - there's more than enough LOLOLOL to go around. Most of it reserved for our basketball team. But while we're self-deprecating...LOLOLOL at me praising our defense for playing well of late. I asked for under 1.05 points per possession (we had been better than that in the last six games). Instead we got one of our worst efforts of the season - giving up 1.20 PPP. Only the games against West Virginia and Indiana were worse. I didn't even bother to analyze our offensive performance because it didn't matter a whit.
My irritation with this season has largely manifested itself in two different ways - sadness and anger. Yesterday was all anger. Like needing to hide potential TV damaging projectile anger. When you see a visible uptick in defensive effort - like you saw from us in the second half - that's nice and all, but it's also a harsh indictment of the first half effort. It was flat out inexcusable. You mentioned the Flying Illini. While we did throw up a couple of clunkers after Kendall went down, the defense NEVER took the day off. Defense travels? Ours doesn't even bother to show up at home.
But you know, lousy Big Ten or not, we probably should have seen this season coming. We lost 19 games last year and were often not competitive. With the advantage of hindsight, it was unrealistic to work under the idea that that team was just Tracy Abrams, Leron Black, and a couple of sophomore leaps away from 20 plus wins. The signs were also all there in November when we were struggling with the likes of Northern Kentucky and IUPUI and getting annihilated in our first encounters with real basketball teams. Don't misunderstand me though - this is not an attempt at blame shifting. It's just more evidence that the reboot that's likely coming has been two full years in the making.
We've stretched this out over a week now and I think that's a good thing. I just read back through our emails... there I was, all happy (relieved?) after we beat Northwestern. And then beside myself after losing to Penn State. Reading your last email, the one thing that strikes me is - and this is going to sound awful - I don't know why I still care.
Most of my friends gave up on John Groce last season, but there I was, hanging on to "wait until we have everyone back and everyone healthy and in this Big Ten THIS TEAM CAN WIN". And when we lost to Winthrop, that was the moment where I should have stopped caring about this team and flipped the calendar to March. Most of my friends were right - the collapse at the end of the 2015 season was the end. Those final five halves - blowing a 13 point lead at Purdue in the final game (which would have put us in the Tournament), then the complete collapse against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, and then the complete destruction by Alabama in the NIT game (what was it, 41-15 at one point)? Several friends tuned out then and aren't going to tune back in until next month.
But I kept hanging on and hanging on, believing that the senior year for Malcolm's class would bring us back. And now we're there, and it's falling apart, and here I am still caring. I'll always "care", of course, but I'm not sure why I always hold out hope. You're right - the reboot has been coming. Yet up until this week, I was still hoping it wouldn't have to come to that.
I'm in a weird state of mind as well. While I will also always care to some degree about our games (really my brain knows no other way), I'm afraid I'm just about fresh out of emotional investment. And hope? Not much point in that either.
All that sadness and anger I mentioned earlier - I doubt that shows up the rest of the way. And man, it's rare for me to find myself in this place. Probably in 2012. Before that maybe never. I even kept spending emotional currency on last year's team even though it was arguably worse than this one. Probably for the same primary reason you noted - I still held out hope for this Malcolm-led core group. Plus since we knew Groce was likely returning as coach, performances in those late February and March games still carried some big picture relevance.
Now with the NCAA Tournament once again out of reach, and with Groce's job status tenuous at best, I'm not seeing as nearly as much in the way of relevance. The next three weeks will be like September for a baseball team heading for 95 losses. Just playing out the string - in every aspect.
There will be a few basketball things of interest to watch - mostly from the underclassmen. I want Lucas to continue to grow in the lead guard role, I want to see if JCL can regain his footing (figuratively and literally), and I'm looking for consistency from Mike Finke and Leron Black. Yet since everything will be so different come October - both with the coaching staff and the roster, it's going to be difficult extrapolate much from these last few games.
Finally I'm also hoping for Malcolm, Mav, and Tracy to have a strong finish over the final games of their Illini careers. It's been such a long and ultimately frustrating journey for those three (especially Tracy) and I'd really just like to see them smile some more before it's all over.