I've probably told this story here more than any other story: my conversation with some random dude in Madison, Wisconsin the night of the Christian Laettner shot in 1992. He told me how Wisconsin was ascending in both sports. I laughed and laughed and laughed. And now it's been 26 years and he continues to be right. It haunts me.
It's a difficult story for anyone under the age of 35 to understand, this concept that "Wisconsin will be top-25 in both sports soon" being laughable (and I mean LAUGHABLE). No one remembers how bad they were in 1992. It would be like... it would be like this:
You take a trip to Oregon. You're sitting eating some clam chowder in Depoe Bay, Oregon at The Chowder Bowl watching the little train run around up by the ceiling. And you strike up a conversation with the guy at the next table. He tells you that he's an Oregon State fan, and in the conversation, he brings up how Oregon State will soon be a national power in both football and basketball. And they'll sustain that power for decade after decade.
You'd laugh, right? Sure, they might hire the right coach and build a few nice teams, but national power? Oregon State basketball? Oregon State football overtaking the Ducks to be the football powerhouse in the state? No chance in hell.
Well, that's Wisconsin and Illinois from 1992 to today. In 1992, Wisconsin hadn't been to the NCAA Tournament since the 1940's (yes, the 1940's - like, the decade). Wisconsin had last been in the Tournament 18 months after World War II ended. I'm having this conversation with him in 1992, and he's telling me the team that hadn't been in the Tournament since 1947 was soon to be a national power.
And it's not much different for football. At that point, Wisconsin had been to three bowls in the previous 30 years. Illinois had been to bowls in 1983, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1992, and Wisconsin had been to three bowls from 1963 to 1992. The idea that they'd soon have a better football program than us was a joke. An absolute joke.
Now? Now we just lost our 14th straight basketball game to Wisconsin. According to the BTN stats guys, that's the longest Illini basketball losing streak to any opponent ever. We've never lost 14-straight to anyone. And we've now lost 14 straight to the team that didn't go to the Tournament a single time from 1947 to 1992. Can you even... how is it possible that... WHAT??
I'll say it like this. Go to some sports bar in Michigan. Find a Rutgers basketball fan. I don't care how - just find him. Then walk him over to a group of Michigan State fans. Have that Rutgers fan tell them "some day soon, Rutgers basketball will beat Michigan State 14 times in a row". Would the MSU fans ever stop laughing?
That's what has happened here. While we were asleep at the wheel, that's what was going on. We've lost 14 straight to Wisconsin, and it's now impossible for me to describe two things to people: Wisconsin used to be Rutgers, and we used to be Michigan State.
I drove to this game with my freshman roommate Brian. On the way up, we talked about how his mom and dad took us to the Illini-Wisconsin game in 1989 (thirty years ago, somehow). Illinois, #2 in the country at the time, won that game 103-80. We were, in every way, what Michigan State is today. And Wisconsin was Rutgers. Fast forward 30 years and... here we are.
+ This game was so incredibly winnable. I kept tweeting the whole game how every stat was in our favor. Wisconsin was turning it over at twice their normal rate, giving us so many more shots, which is how this whole thing is designed to work. Fouls were 15-6 at one point, so we weren't letting Wisconsin run away from us at the line. Happ was off, Wisconsin went on this long 4-for-22 shooting slump, and the game is right there for us to take.
22-62 from the field (35.5%)
4-21 from three (19%)
12-22 from the line (54.5%)
All of that effort, a bad game from their star, just a normal shooting game and we win, and we do THAT.
I mean, even the refs were cooperating. I could sense the Wisconsin fans throwing things around their living rooms when the fouls were 15-6. We're getting a nice homering, we're forcing turnovers, and we lose by 12 at home. Unbelievable.
+ Let's talk about Giorgi because I need to talk about something good. Let's just put it this way:
Giorgi: 8-14, 20 points, 8 rebounds
Rest of team: 14-48, 40 points, 22 rebounds
He's all we've ever wanted and more. We entered this season with massive frontcourt issues and then hit on a 40:1 darkhorse - an unknown recruit playing like he should have been ranked in the top-35. Somehow, he keeps getting better and better.
And yet we lose by 12 because the other starters go 10-37 from the field. Sorry - I know this was supposed to be the "something good" bullet point, but I just can't get over how poorly we shot the ball.
It's so strange to go into this season with "Trent and Ayo will make up one of the best backcourts in the Big Ten but the frontcourt is nonexistent" and end with "Giorgi and Kofi are the key to next year's turnaround".
+ If it hasn't been said yet, it needs to be said: we are now officially eliminated from the NCAA Tournament. On January 23rd. This is, by far, the earliest we've ever been officially eliminated. We could win all 12 remaining games to finish 13-7 in the Big Ten... and would still miss the Tournament at 17-15. Our only shot is to win the LOLLOLOLOLOLOL sorry I almost said it.
Eliminated by January 23rd. That's so crazy. We're the 2018 Orioles.
+ I think my biggest takeaway tonight is that all of the pieces do not scream 5-14. In 1999 when we were running Arias Davis and Cleotis Brown out there, you knew that it was going to be a rough season. We had lost all of these starters, we were trying to plug the gaps with jucos, help hadn't arrived yet (in the form of Frankie, Cook, and Griffin the next year). You looked at the players on the court and you knew it was going to be a 13-win season.
I don't get that feeling this year. I see the players on the court - I see Trent and Ayo and Giorgi - and I don't think they should be 5-14. I feel like if you put this team up against 1999, as the players were walking out for the opening tip, you'd heavily favor 2019. And yet, 1999 won 13 games and 2019 will win... seven?
What a difference a week makes. One week ago, we watch this team finally put it all together. One week later, we lose our 14th straight to Wisconsin, our 14th loss of the season,