But If We Win The Next One
How many times have I said that in the last ten years? How many times - in football or basketball - have I said "this is a nice little run we're on, but these are home wins - win that one on the road next week and then we can talk". Well, let's talk.
Three weeks ago we're 6-15 on the season. And then we do this (using the KenPom ranking for each opponent):
Beat #15 in Madison Square Garden
Lose to #50 on the road
Beat #35 at home
Beat #4 at home
Beat #88 at home
Beat #37 on the road
Up until tonight - as you could see if you read the Back & Forth post this morning - I was still cautious. The LET'S DO THIS fan side of me wanted to go crazy, but Tyler was right - we should proceed with extreme caution. This run the last three home games was amazing, especially beating Michigan State, but with these road games looming, it felt like a big reality check was on it's way. This is all great, and it's very encouraging for next season, but we still haven't won a single road game. And now we have road games coming up against KenPom #37, #12, and #9. Back to earth?
Not back to earth. 6-8 in the Big Ten. A legitimate chance to win more Big Ten games this year than any of the last eight seasons. I need to say that again, and then I need to break it down.
We have a legitimate chance at the most Big Ten wins this decade. Big Ten wins the last nine years, starting with the 2009/10 season: 10, 9, 6, 8, 7, 9, 5, 8, 4. We're now at six, and here's the remaining schedule (with KenPom rank):
Penn State #59
@Penn State #59
I mean, win the three home games and then win one of the road games and we're 10-10 in the Big Ten which would equal the 9-9 seasons in 2011 and 2015. But neither of those seasons had a Big Ten that was this grueling. 2013 did, and 2014 did, but those were 8 and 7 win seasons. So what's in front of us right now? Winning four of six to finish out the schedule and claiming our best Big Ten finish since 2010. Yes, during the season that started 5-14.
Let's put that into one sentence: the season that started 5-14 might be the season where we have our best Big Ten finish of the decade and that's happening in a year where the Big Ten is the toughest conference in America.
It's crazy. It makes me want to peek at "OK, so if we win out, finishing 16-15 with wins over Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Maryland, do two BTT wins actually put us in a play-in game?" I mean, that's crazy - even the 2003 Illini would lose one or both of these road games coming up. We've improved exponentially, but we haven't "beat two top-12 teams on the road" improved. Still... I'm peeking at it.
I'll be honest, I didn't think we had any shot in this game. Coming off the high of last week - a big home win over Michigan State and then an emotional overtime win over Rutgers - I figured we'd go on the road and get destroyed by an Ohio State team, at home, fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives. Going into this one we had exactly one Big Ten road win under Brad Underwood, and that was at Rutgers last year. Road letdown after several emotional home wins - this felt like a lock for the loss column.
Yet I still had that back-of-my-mind hope. The same one I referenced above. "If we somehow pull this off, it means this run we're on is a legitimate thing". Well, this run we're on is a legitimate thing. Throwing out the crazy "win out and are we on the bubble?" stuff, here's a realistic scenario:
- Finish somewhere between 7th and 9th in the Big Ten standings. If we lose at Wisconsin and at Purdue but win the others, that's a 10-10 finish (what?) and, given what Ohio State and Minnesota have left, likely a 7th place finish in the conference. (Running through their schedules, I see Ohio State finishing 9-11 and I see Minnesota finishing 8-12).
- That means a Wednesday bye and then (hopefully) the 7-10 game against maybe Rutgers or Indiana.
- Win that one and you somehow get to 15 wins, beating last year's win total of 14 after starting this season 5-14.
- Use this momentum to land a quality, ready-to-contribute-next-year wing this spring and then go land a great 2020 class this summer.
- The 2019/20 team, led by Ayo, Trent, Giorgi, and Kofi Cockburn, is fully prepared to make some serious damage next year.
That's where I'm at after this win. That's now what I see as a realistic scenario. When you win a game like this on the road, I feel like it tells you so much about where you're headed.
+ The run of "Trent and Ayo have solid games at the same time" continues. The numbers tonight:
Ayo: 15 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists
Trent: 15 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists
In fact, with Giorgi scoring 13 and Feliz scoring 9, this winning streak has been very repetitive. Team is led by Ayo, Trent, and Giorgi. Feliz, even though he's coming off the bench, is the fourth option on offense. Rebounding comes from everyone, with a surprising number of rebounds pulled down by Feliz and Aaron Jordan. Da'Monte starts and provides defense and The Little Things but no offense. Spot minutes off the bench for Nichols, Griffin, De La Rosa, and Jones.
+ All of this makes me wonder aloud: where will the 2018 recruiting class rank when we look back 10 years from now? I guess a lot will depend on the careers of Tevian Jones, Alan Griffin, and Samba Kane, but just looking at Ayo, Giorgi, and Feliz, it's been a long time since we had one class make this much of an impact.
I remember watching an interview with Brad Underwood before the season where he talked about his "top-15 recruiting class". And I kind of rolled my eyes. Yes, I'm sure some ranking system somewhere put the class in the top-15 due to eight players coming in, but a class of three top-100 players is much better than a class of one top-100 player and seven unranked players.
But now I think it really might be a top-15 class? Ayo has played better than his ranking, Giorgi has played approximately 155 times better than his ranking. Feliz really was one of the best juco players in the country and should have been ranked higher nationally, and I think Griffin really was a senior season breakout player who we landed before anyone else discovered him (he has a long way to go, but his knack for finding the ball - steals, rebounds - is really encouraging). A class that I thought would be seen as Ayo + Tevian + a bunch of Matic Vesels (meaning, long-term projects for 2021) has turned out to be, well, a top-15 recruiting class nationally.
If Kofi plays up to his ranking, we're really, really on to something.
+ It felt like the narrative for this game was going to be "free throws". As in, the refs are giving them to Ohio State which will get them back into this game (and also "we can't make them"). Ohio State ended up 20-25 from the line, which almost pulled them back into the game. We ended up 9-17, which I swore was going to cost us this game.
And when Ayo missed that layup with about seven minutes to go, I already started writing the postgame post in my head. "This one was RIGHT THERE but we're just not ready to win a game like this. If we make some of those free throws, or if that open layup falls, we win. But we're just not there yet."
But maybe we are there? All of those things happened, on the road, and the refs were putting the home team on the line, and yet we wouldn't let them grab the lead. They led by, what, 1 a few times? And every time we fought back to re-take the lead. That's so encouraging. We can win a game on an off night when we shoot 6-21 from three and 9-17 at the line. And we can win that game on the road.
Which means so much for next season. Build some momentum, sell it to recruits this summer, start winning (and winning big) next winter. This season is probably too little too late for any postseason talk, but next year looks so promising now. I'd love to think about continuing the season with an NIT berth, but that ship has probably sailed. We'll most likely lose at Wisconsin and that will shut down any talk of running the table and somehow sneaking into the postseason.
But if we win the next one...