So OK - disaster averted. I could not have imagined a more disheartening and discouraging way to close out a season than to lose five of six games to stumble to a Wednesday slot in the Big Ten Tournament - only to then lose to a last place Northwestern team playing without its best player.
But again - disaster averted. Still, that tonight's game was even required still leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. Because man, Wednesday at the Big Ten Tournament is generally a depressing endeavor. The Big Ten Tournament is a fantastic event and I was thrilled to both have it back in Chicago AND to get the chance to cover the tournament as working media. But BTT Wednesday? Four struggling teams shoehorned into a sad little side bracket dueling in front of a three quarters empty arena simply to avoid the embarrassment of being an afterthought? It stinks. I'm not even sure Jim Delany comes to BTT Wednesday.
But if you have to be there, then you might as well go ahead and win. Because if you do win - your outlook immediately transforms. A sense of impending dread suddenly turns into an opportunity to do something special. There's just something special about any victory in a "win or go home" tournament scenario.
The last time I checked in on Nebraska coach Tim Miles, he was literally in tears following a sixth straight loss for the Huskers back in February. Fast forward to tonight and Miles was giddily taking a pratfall while trying to joyfully high five fans on his way off the floor following their win against Rutgers. Brad Underwood said after tonight's game that he was thrilled his team had to fight through the adversity of overtime to win - and I swear it sounded like he meant it. That's what one game can do that for your perspective - regardless of the opponent or the aesthetic.
Yes this game was ugly - especially that hideous first half. Yes the Illini defense continues to maddeningly allow open shots on far too many possessions when they don't force a turnover. Yes it was excruciating to watch Andres Feliz biff his Tyler Griffey moment and then to face the prospect of going to OT without the fouled out Giorgi B. I know this fanbase all too well - I know what was going through all of your minds.
But then all of a sudden the resilience this Illini team displayed while winning five of six in February showed back up. In retrospect - that OT was actually...encouraging?
Without Giorgi available, the floor opened up and the Illini guards took full advantage - running the spread offense with great success. Trent Frazier, Aaron Jordan, Ayo Dosunmu, and Andres Feliz all made huge plays in the OT, and the defense finally stepped up to hold Northwestern scoreless over the final 90 seconds.
So now we get late night theater at the UC tomorrow night. A game against an Iowa team who also wheezed across the finish line - losing four straight to close out their conference slate after Fran McCaffery spontaneously combusted following a loss at Ohio State.
Yet unfortunately I'm not all that optimistic about tomorrow. Despite their recent struggles, Iowa is a particularly difficult match-up for the Illini - as evidenced by their 98 (!!!) points per average over the three games against Illinois with Underwood at the helm. Plus Illinois figures to be a tired team. Even though Underwood was able to conserve some minutes tonight by expanding his rotation in the first half, the core guys all logged a heavy load tonight.
But hey at least there is a tomorrow. Play on.
+ Giorgi Bezhanishvili. I'm running out of superlatives with this kid. He just keeps getting better. With all due respect to Aaron Jordan, who was a warrior tonight, Giorgi is truly the heart and soul of this team. I can make a strong argument that what Giorgi brings to the floor on any given night is more impactful than any other player on the roster.
+ While I'm doling out superlatives - how about Andres Feliz? Yeah he missed that layup but he went right back to the huddle, gave Underwood a fist bump and balled out in the OT. 11 points/10 rebounds/6 assists - that's a strong line. If Ayo should ultimately opt for the NBA next season, it's nice to know that there is a rock solid guy ready to assume that starter role along side Frazier.
+ While the debate over the soundness of the Underwood defensive philosophy will always be there for us to kick around, at the very least you could generally count on it being successful at its core principle - forcing turnovers. However, in each of the last four games - the Illini have played to a negative turnover margin. With the relative ease at which a team like Iowa can find shots at the rim and at the arc when not turning the ball over, I do not think that trend can continue if an upset is to be had tomorrow night.
+ A quick note on Northwestern. Chris Collins will always be the guy who coached the Wildcats into the NCAA Tournament, but man their immediate future looks grim with the departure of Vic Law and Dererk Pardon. After the game Collins was trying to draw parallels between his Northwestern team and the 1995 Duke team on which he played which won just 2 ACC conference games following a National Championship season. That's all well and good, but this is next year's last place Big Ten team as well.
+ I can't wait for the next two days. As dull and dreary as is BTT Wednesday - BTT Thursday and Friday are a hoops junkie's bliss. Eight games in two days, and the atmosphere - regardless of the venue - is fantastic. For me it's even better than the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament because of the familiarity I have with the players and coaches in the league. Plus the media hospitality room has a freestyle Coke machine so I am going to have the opportunity to set a world record for Diet Dr. Pepper consumption over the next 48 hours. Play on indeed.