A Funny Thing Happened
In the first half, when we were down 22-12 ten minutes in and only really seeing good things from the freshmen, I tweeted "I'm good with this. Gonna lose this one so run with the kids as much as possible." And then a funny thing happened. Those freshmen led us to a win over #13 Maryland.
I've been tracking the scoring by class the last five or so games, so let me pause a moment to go tweet the stats from today and then I'll cut and paste them here:
Seniors: 7 points, 6 rebounds
Juniors: 15 points, 7 rebounds
Sophomores: 8 points, 5 rebounds
Freshmen: 47 points, 7 rebounds
That, right there, is how to feel encouraged. Not just beating someone - beating the #13 team in the country. And don't just beat the #13 in the country - beat them with your freshmen. If you want to give a fanbase hope, beat the #13 team away from home with your two biggest recruits scoring 20 and 18, is what I'm saying.
Driving up to Champaign on Wednesday night, I told my friends Brian and Ben that Tevian Jones was going to have his breakout game and score 14 points. Tevian Jones scored exactly 1 point. Good call.
And then, today, The Tevian Jones Game. 18 points on 6-12 shooting (4-9 from three) plus 4 rebounds (3 offensive), 2 steals, and perhaps most importantly, only 1 foul. Foul trouble has just destroyed him since he got back from suspension (actually it's more like "fouling so much that Underwood can't really trust him on defense" than it is "put him on the bench so he doesn't foul out"). Today, with only one foul, he got 23 minutes. And he made the most of them.
I made a steak at halftime (no, really - I did). We had this steak in the fridge that really needed to be cooked so I made this big 20 oz. ribeye and split it with my wife (she made a salad and had steak on top and I made eggs and had steak and eggs for breakfast/lunch).
I heard the game come back on in the other room so I went in and hit pause because my steak had just come off and I religiously let a steak sit for five full minutes before cutting into it. I made my eggs, flipped through my phone, refreshed The Deuce, and saw someone post that Tevian hit two back-to-back threes. I hate spoilers but those are the best kind. Now I get to turn on the game and am assured that we're going to score six quick points. I turn the game on and quickly Trent hits a three. So then I'm thinking "maybe I read that wrong and it's Trent who hits back-to-back threes". Nope. Tevian comes in, hits the threes, and I start to believe we might actually pull this off.
But I always do that. How many times in the Underwood era have we been close to a ranked opponent only to either A) fade down the stretch or B) have a chance to win it in the final seconds but come up short? It's hard to go all-in on "this is the day it happens" when it consistently doesn't happen.
Then it happened. And it's so good for the soul. The Minnesota win, that one was one of those "everything goes right for the home team and wrong for the road team" wins. This one - this was beating #13 away from Champaign. This was a signal that these freshmen, if surrounded with more talent, could really rebuild this thing.
I just looked up the KenPom rankings and we're up to #79. Last year's 14-18 season finished #102 (strength of schedule: 58th). This year's strength of schedule is currently #2 nationally (as in, second-hardest schedule out of 353 teams), which is why this 6-14 team ranks higher than that 14-18 team. Does that mean much? Not really - not until our KenPom is at least in the 20's again and we can all look around and discuss how we're finally back. But it does mean that this could be going somewhere, and that's what we're all desperate to believe.
It's weird. I drive home Wednesday night all depressed. I write that post yesterday saying how next year HAS TO BE THE YEAR or else. And then today, we beat #13 in convincing fashion and I can go back through that post and latch onto this part:
The lineup I tossed out in the Kofi Cockburn thread still looks leap-worthy:
Trent (should have been top-100)
Jones (#103, so just missed)
Giorgi (should have been top-100)
To me, that's a sophomore leap from Jones away from the NCAA Tournament (on paper). Next year SHOULD be significantly better.
That's so much easier to see 24 hours later. If this is the future for Jones - if he's a legitimate scoring threat from the wing - then that lineup looks very leap-y. The pathway is overgrown, but you can see the way out.
I'll sleep so much better tonight. This game provided legitimate hope. I'm going to watch locker room videos like this for hours. I'm going to re-watch the game at least two times. Finally, some legitimate hope.
I think I'll just close with a long list of good things from today. I've written about enough bad for three lifetimes. There was a lot of good:
- I think this was Andres Feliz' best game. His 15 points were crucial, as were some of his chase-downs of long rebounds. Helped force a few key turnovers, too.
- It was nice to see the team win with Giorgi having an off day. I think De La Rosa had his second-best game (behind Northwestern) and provided just enough while Giorgi was out. Only had one point, but kept Fernando from taking over.
- For the second straight game Aaron Jordan provided nothing on offense, but those three offensive rebounds were massive (especially the put-back and-one). Good to see him contribute when his shot isn't falling.
- Tevian Jones, obviously, was the story of the day with his 18 points. That's a fluid jumper. And the dunk wasn't half bad as well. Not only did he lead us to a win, he showed us what this offense could be like with a wing scorer. Let's also throw him 17 alley-oops the next game.
- Ayo is so quick getting to the rim. I feel like half of his points came from blowing past a defender for a layup.
- Free throws were huge. 20-22 for the game, 16-17 in the second half. And perhaps most importantly, 6-6 from the line on the 7th, 8th, and 9th fouls while we're in the one-and-one.
- Trent's defense stuck out today, which is great. He only scored eight points, but he limited Cowan which limited the Maryland offense. Great to see.
- That Griffin three on the Giorgi kick-out was so pure. I swore the second one was going in too.
More or less, I think I land here: As the season winds down, I want to see Jones take more and more minutes from Kipper and I want to see Griffin take more and more minutes from Jordan. Jordan is still vital to this team and will get a lot of minutes, and a return from this funk for Kipper would help a lot as well (although he hasn't even scored in four games so is it even possible?), but that's the future. We're all looking to next year, and next year needs to be centered around Ayo-Trent-Tevian-Giorgi-Kofi with Da'Monte, Griffin, Feliz, and Kane off the bench. That's a rotation of nine guys that can get to the tournament.
So I say keep playing the young guys more and more. Who knows what might happen.