I mean, look. We're not going to beat the #2 team in the country when we're 4-11. I knew this driving up here. I was trying to think of a more futile basketball game in the last 35 years and honestly, I think this was it. This will be the worst Illini season of my lifetime, and when you play #2 during your worst season in 40+ years, yes, that wins the futility award. There have been plenty of futile games across the street, but none like this in this building.
Now, we've probably been bigger home underdogs. I want to say we played a top-3 Michigan State team here during one of those 13 or 14 win seasons and the line was somewhere around 12-14. The line tonight was "only" 9, and Michigan probably isn't really the second-best team in the country. They simply haven't lost yet (and haven't really played anyone). They beat Villanova when they were #8, but Nova is now unranked. Basically, they've beaten #12 North Carolina and #22 Indiana, both in Ann Arbor. My guess - they finish the season ranked #6 or #7.
But that didn't change my feeling of futility. This isn't "one of those 13 or 14 win seasons" - this is likely a 6 or 7 win season. And even if you're playing the #7 team, when you're this bad, and when you've been as good as Illinois has been for as long as Illinois has been good (21 tournament appearances in 25 years from 1983 to 2007), then yes, Futility Award.
Again, I'm just referencing home games. Was scanning my brain for another game that felt this "there's just zero chance we win tonight" on my way to Champaign. In my entire fandom, honestly, I feel like my feelings have said "we're totally winning tonight" when entering this building 94% of the time. I've been nervous, and I've been worried about unranked Penn State teams coming to town, but I've almost always walked in thinking we'd win. We're at home. We're Illinois. I know that's long gone now, but still, it's so hard to adjust. I'm generally a hopeful guy, so futility feels so weird.
I don't really have a point here. It's just such a weird feeling. I'm beyond "we probably won't win so I'll just watch the freshmen and hope for the future" and now I just sit here and stare off into the distance. I should just get to some bullet points.
+ I probably should have known this going in, but I was really surprised that Michigan only has a six man rotation. Normally, you're not going to find the #2 team with only six players in the rotation. But here were Michigan's minutes tonight:
I honestly can't think of the last Illini opponent to have five guys put up 30+ minutes in a game. Whoever it was, they certainly weren't the #2 team in the country. I think I'll pick against Michigan in the Tournament just based on this fact. You always have to have a bench come March. Always.
+ I tweeted this, but I'm looking for #content here so I'll add it to the post. Illinois played 10 guys tonight, but really it was an 8-man rotation (Griffin played 3 minutes and Jones played 2 - they were the 9th and 10th guys). Which means that the Illinois rotation was 2 seniors (AJ and ADLR), 2 juniors (Kipper and Feliz), 2 sophomores (Trent and Da'Monte), and 2 freshmen (Giorgi and Ayo). Four upperclassmen, four underclassmen. Here's how the stats broke down:
Upperclassmen: 16 points, 6 rebounds
Underclassmen: 53 points, 24 rebounds
Now that the season is over (I mean, it was over before it started, but it's OVER over), I think I want to see a lot more of this. I want Tevian Jones to take as many minutes as he can from Kipper Nichols and I want Alan Griffin to take as many minutes as he can from Aaron Jordan. Nichols and Jordan both give us more, obviously, but I'm 1000% focused on the future. We'll need Jones, and we'll need Griffin, so get them on the court as much as possible.
+ Speaking of "the season is over", is it? I mean technically. It's over, obviously, but are we technically eliminated? We have 12 losses, and we'll lose a BTT game, so we're locked into 13 losses before the Tournament. Does that... does that mean if we were to win out in the regular season (15 wins in a row), we'd still be on the wrong side of the bubble?
Oh God, now this is all I can think about. Are we eliminated from the Tournament on January 10th? No way. I mean, we'd be 15-5 in a really good Big Ten. We'd totally be in at 19-12 (13 losses after the BTT).
(Stay with me. I'm not saying we're going to win 15 games. I'm doing the "the Orioles are 61 games out and were eliminated from the playoffs on August 19th" thing. The Orioles were "eliminated" from the postseason before the season began. But I think they set some record for earliest date actually eliminated from the playoffs.)
Let's talk this out. Obviously, if we won the Big Ten Tournament, we'd be in. So let's assume we win out and then lose in the first round of the BTT. When are we eliminated?
I think the answer is the Iowa game on Sunday the 20th. If we lose to Minnesota next Wednesday, our record in my "win out after that" scenario would be 18-14. 18-14 (14-6) probably still gets us in. But I'm pretty sure that 17-15 (13-7) is out. Heck, 18-14 might be out.
So yes - we'll be eliminated from the Tournament either next Wednesday or the following Sunday. Eliminated on January 20th. That's just... wow.
Futility Award indeed.