I watched some of the (skiing) Cross Country World Championships last week. No idea why. It was late at night, my wife was in bed, I'm tired of watching basketball, so I flip on something called The Olympic Channel and watch a bunch of Norwegian fans lose their minds over (what appears to be) the only sport in the world to them. Norway beating Russia in the 4x10k relay appeared to be their Griffey layup to beat Indiana.
Anyway, they get to the anchor legs and it's the matchup that the fans were waiting for. Norway's Johannes Klaebo vs. Russia's Sergey Ustiugov. These two had gotten in a shoving match during some other race earlier in the week, so the announcers were so ready for these final laps. Finland had fallen off during the third leg, so it was just going to be Klaebo and Ustiugov battling one-on-one for the gold.
For a while it was a race. I think it was four laps of a 2.5k course, and for the first two laps, they were right together. Everyone thought they were going to get what they wanted - one final sprint between these two guys in the "stadium" portion of the course where one guy edges out the other by sticking the toe of his ski across the line a centimeter in front of the other guy.
But it didn't happen. Ustiugov completely bonked. Like, BONKED. One minute he's neck and neck with Klaebo, the next minute he's 20 seconds behind. He faded so quickly that the France and Finland, more than a minute behind, content to rest for three laps and then battle with each other for the bronze, started to pick up the pace, thinking they might finish second and third. They didn't - Ustiugov finished 40 seconds behind Klaebo, France a minute behind - but if there was half a lap more, Ustiugov might have finished fourth. He reached this point where he suddenly had nothing left. Complete and total bonk.
That's how the last two weeks have been for Illini basketball. Honestly, without an excellent homering against Northwestern where we made only two field goals but were gifted 19 free throws in the final 11 minutes, we're probably talking about a six game losing streak right now. Everything starts to click, we're rolling along, winning a road game at Ohio State and then hanging with Wisconsin on the road right down to the final minute, and then BONK. We basically had one more good half of basketball (the first half at Purdue) the rest of the season.
Why? No idea. As quickly as it clicked, it un-clicked. We beat Maryland in New York City, we beat Michigan State in Champaign, and we beat Ohio State in Columbus... and then we lost to Penn State and Indiana at home (and then, for good measure, Penn State on the road).
Me, February 10th: IT'S HAPPENNNINGGG!!!
Me, March 10th: WHAT'S HAPPENNNINGGG???
I guess it's not all that surprising to see a young team bonk on the final lap. Years ago, my middle son's first varsity cross country meet was like that. He was so amped-up about running varsity for the first time as a freshman that he went out and bonked himself. Paced himself the first mile, felt really good running on all that adrenaline so he went way, way too hard the second mile, and then BONK. Got too comfortable with "I feel great - this is easy" and forgot to save anything in the tank.
Maybe that's what this is. Maybe we simply ran out of gas. Maybe this happens to young teams. I mean, I've been talking about winning 11-12-13 games all season (and were briefly discussing "what if we only win six games?"), So finishing the regular season 11-20 was maybe just... inevitable? We thought we might be worse than that, then we thought we might be better than that, and then we were just that. 15 was my "stretch goal", we won 11.
But maybe it's something more concerning? Maybe "take the lead at halftime, fade in the second half" is a flashing warning sign? As we faded in this second half of this one, on Twitter, I started listing the games I could remember where we led at halftime (like Iowa State and Purdue) but then faded in the second half. And as you were all responding with other games where we led at the half and then lost (FAU, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Northwestern), this guy Andrew was looking up our record in first halves vs. our record in second halves. He sent me this:
Went through the box scores. 18-12-1 in first halves. 9-21-1 in second halves.
-- Andrew Mogensen (@AndrewMogey) March 10, 2019
Well there's a flashing warning light. With a siren and maybe some kind of nuclear fallout buzzer. Had the lead 18 times (and tied in another game) but win only 11 games? That's a highly disturbing trend.
Again, though, like I said after the Indiana game, this doesn't really "mean" anything. We were picked to finish 13th in the Big Ten and finished tied for 10th. With the awful schedule (ended up 3rd-toughest nationally per KenPom) and the eight newcomers, this was always going to be a bad season. I mean, I was making 15 wins and 16 losses my "stretch goal". All that matters is how we put this together next year. Keep the team together + add Kofi and then go win. That's when games will start to mean something.
But still, to have all this hope and then to flat-out bonk is hard to stomach. I mean, if we just win one of the Penn State games + the Indiana game, we'd be the 7-seed in the Big Ten Tournament. 7-seed after being picked 13th? There's some serious hope for next year. All it would have taken is two home wins against teams that went 8-12 and 7-13 in the Big Ten. Or maybe one home win over Indiana and then one road win at Penn State.
Could we make that happen? Nope. Bonk.
+ I'll look for a positive note: I thought the zone decision was great in the first half. And I thought Da'Monte Williams was great at the top of that zone. Maybe part of it was Penn State adjusting, but once Da'Monte got two fouls and came out of the game, it felt like Penn State came to life.
By the way, in case you were wondering, I'm still Team Da'Monte. He's never going to be a big scorer, but I love guys who do the little things. If we take a big step forward the next two seasons, I think part of it will be Da'Monte Williams, Glue Guy.
And I wouldn't count out his offense just yet. As I noted during the Evansville game when he came out with the big knee brace again, I'm not sure he wasn't hindered by knee issues for a second straight season. Now, maybe that means he'll have knee issues his entire career. But I'm looking forward to "Da'Monte Williams, Finally Healthy, Ready To Take A Big Step Forward" stories next fall.
+ Trent Frazier, 29 minutes, 1-2 from the floor (1-1 from three). HOWWW?
Someone please explain this to me. I'm willing to listen to any and all theories. Hasn't been healthy since he left those back-to-back games with injuries? Had the flu so was going to get limited touches? Penn State fans holding his family hostage, promising to release them as long as he only took one three pointer in this game?
I mean, he was obviously struggling against Penn State's length in the first meeting. I believe he was 1-9 from three, mostly forcing shots over the long arms in front of him. So maybe he was on a shot restriction in this one because the coaches knew he'd struggle to get clean looks.
But still, we have this guy shooting 40.5% from three and he only takes one three? I don't understand.
+ I think the hardest thing about this bonk is losing all of the good vibes from a month ago. Basically what I wrote after the Indiana game on Thursday. It's all right there, ready and waiting - a 7th-place finish in the Big Ten and some "watch out for Illinois next year" buzz, and we couldn't make it happen.
Which is - and yes, I'm repeating myself - just like the football season. In early November we beat Minnesota handily. This doubles our win total from the year before and, with three games left, we all talked about how great five (or, by some miracle, six) wins would be for the future of the program. Big ol' surge of offseason momentum.
And then this basketball season we somehow get to 6-8 in the conference after a 0-5 start. We only won four conference games last year, so here's a real opportunity to double our conference win total (and maybe somehow get to 9-11 or 10-10?) and build some serious offseason momentum.
83-76 home loss to Penn State
73-56 loss at Purdue
92-74 home loss to Indiana
72-56 loss to Penn State
All this possible offseason momentum and then... bonk.