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I'll be honest. I was so confident in this game tonight that I did something I've never done before. I pre-wrote this post. Well - not the whole post, but a solid outline of the post. I mean this game itself wasn't going to be the story. This game was just a sidebar. A necessary conclusion to the celebration of Opening Night, and an appetizer for the crucial road trip through Arizona looming this weekend.
I was going to have this gamer done before I walked out of the State Farm Center, and I was going to drive home happy and listen to my audiobook and be in bed by midnight. Then a 20 point second half lead was suddenly a 2 point deficit with under a minute to play, and OMIGOD WHAT IS HAPPENING?? Now it's 2:00 AM and I just got home and I've only written these three paragraphs. What do you write about whatever that was? Nicholls State was the 273rd ranked team in KenPom (THEY AREN'T EVEN A REAL STATE!), and we were a triple bounce free throw by Trent Frazier from losing. But that free throw bounced in, we (Frazier) defended the hell out of Nicholls State's last possession in regulation, and the defense woke up enough in OT to allow us to escape with a 78-70 win.
Taking into account the expectations and hype surrounding this season, a case could have been made that a loss tonight (last night) would have been the worst in program history. All of the question marks with this team that I either chose to de-emphasize or willfully ignore were on full display tonight. Concerns about free throw shooting, a lack of scoring punch off the bench, and worries that Ayo and Giorgi were too good as freshman to reasonably expect significant leaps as sophomores. All of these things were swimming through my brain when we were tied with 29.8 seconds left in regulation and Nicholls State had the ball with a chance to walk us off.
Yes, it was the first game, and momentum is a fickle thing. It's still well within the realm of possibility that we go to the desert win both games this weekend (Grand Canyon lost to a DII team tonight). If that happens, what could have been a complete disaster flips back to best case scenario within 48 hours. But this game was a problem. I wrote in the preview that I was bullish on this team, but instead my confidence is now wavering. This team, which was supposed to be so full of swagger played flat scared down the stretch, and that's what had me fretting the entire drive home tonight.
We know that scoring margin against bad teams is a reliable characteristic of good teams, but even good teams have one or two clunkers. Maybe (hopefully) this was our clunker. Better to get it out of the way now I guess. However, I've also seen far too many Illini teams of recent vintage struggle their way through the low and mid-major games on the non-conference schedule before struggling to a middling record. I hope this team is better than that. Afterward, they all said the right things, and they seem like a resilient bunch, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.
Besides, despite all the angst and teeth gnashing, tonight's game really doesn't change a thing. Despite my somewhat dimmed optimism, the expectations are still firmly in place. I concur with Robert's "It Has to Happen Now" segment from our basketball season preview. Three is the magic number. Sure it can take a minute for coaches to get the train rolling (Tony Bennett and John Beilein come to mind immediately), but if it hasn't happened by year three then it's probably never going to happen.
Take a loss tonight, and you are already behind the eight ball with a Quadrant 4 loss on the first day of this critical third season. But Trent's free throw bounced in and now it's on to Arizona to see how this team responds.
Opening Night Nuggets:
+Trent Frazier struggled all night - missing every single one of shot attempts from the field, but he saved this team in the final minute. It takes a lot of courage to knock down two foul shots in that situation after you missed everything else all night. And again, his on ball defense on that final play was textbook. Got over the top of the main ball screen to save the defense from having to rotate, and then walled his guy off all the way to the baseline.
+Giorgi was bizarro Giorgi. Missed most of his layups (2/7) but knocked down both of his three point attempts.
+Nicholls State played an "up the line on the line" style defense very similar to what we've seen from the Illini defense these past two seasons - and they wrought all kinds of havoc. Their athleticism and length were an issue. One might think that the Illini offense would have some experience going up against that style, but 23 turnovers says otherwise.
+By contrast Illinois was not as aggressive on the ball and in the passing lanes tonight as we have been accustomed to seeing. Underwood even made a point to mention this in the postgame press conference.
+The bench was a problem. Alan Griffin was really good in the first half scoring all seven of his points and grabbing four of his five rebounds. But Underwood didn't get much from the rest of his subs - with the only other bench scoring coming on a DMW bucket on which he blatantly travelled. The five starters averaged 35 minutes as Underwood shortened the leash on his bench in the second half.
+A nice opener for Kofi Cockburn with an 11/10 double-double (the first Illini freshman to record one in his debut since since Efrem Winters) and a couple of highlight blocks. However, 32 minutes might be a little much for him as he was gassed on several occasions in the second half and OT. That said, he looks like he's going to be a double double machine.
+Andres Feliz is a rock. I love watching that dude play.
+Despite only shooting 55% from the foul line in the first 39 minutes, in the final minute and overtime Illinois converted 8 out of 9 free throws. That's your ball game right there.
+53 total rebounds? 20 offensive rebounds? A 54% offensive rebounding percentage? Those are staggering numbers. It's rather amazing that the game ended up so close with such a rebounding disparity.