Jan 20, 2020

So we moved from 24 to 21 in the latest AP Poll. And we made our debut in the Coaches Poll at 22. It's January 20th and we've won more games than all of last year. And now we... might lose seven of our next eight? Let's try to sort through that.

Sunday morning I woke up and, in my ever-increasing pursuit of NERDstattery, checked KenPom to see where we landed after all of the Saturday evening games were complete. I checked the projections on KenPom's Illinois page and sure enough - we dropped six spots after struggling with last-place Northwestern and he has us losing seven of our next eight. So I tweeted it and asked for opinions (you people who were responding to me at 7:00 am on a Sunday need to seek help and if you find help can I have the number?). I received responses anywhere between 7-1 and 1-7. The average seemed to be closer to 4-4 than 3-5, which surprised me (my guess is 2-6, and remember, KenPom's numbers say 1-7).

Why 2-6? Just take the names off. These are updated numbers from that tweet (that was Sunday morning, and then Minnesota lost to Rutgers), so they won't match that tweet, but just look at this information. The 35th-best team in the country (per KenPom) plays the following schedule:

at #17
at #20
home for #36
at #15
home for #12
home for #7
at #24
at #28

Actually, let's add names back in. Pick some random ACC team last year. It has to be an ACC team with the recent history of Illinois so that's easy: Georgia Tech. They were in the title game in 2004, we were in the title game in 2005. They haven't been back to the Tournament since 2011; we haven't been to the Tournament since 2013. You see that 2019 Georgia Tech has this upcoming schedule:

at Louisville
at Florida State
home for Clemson
at Virginia Tech
home for North Carolina
home for Duke
at Syracuse
at NC State

No way anyone sees Georgia Tech winning more than two of those games, right? Definitely not any of the road games, but maybe Clemson at home? (And that's a close comp - Clemson in 2019 was KenPom 36; Minnesota is currently KenPom 36. All of the other KenPom comps are similar.)

That's the negative side. We've seen this story before in the last six seasons. Opportunity knocks and we don't even walk to the door.

  • Win 5 of 6 out of nowhere including road wins at Maryland and Ohio State in 2019? Lose six of the last eight with the only two wins coming over Northwestern (by 5 and in overtime).
  • 10-3 non-conference in 2018? Start the Big Ten 0-8.
  • Win four straight to get back on the bubble in 2017? Lose at Rutgers in the season finale (and then to jersey-less Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, by 20) and fall out of the Tournament.

Now we've won four straight Big Ten games (including a massive win at Wisconsin) to find ourselves in second place at 5-2. The pollsters have paid attention and we're now ranked (21 in AP, 22 in Coaches). If we win tomorrow at Purdue (we just beat them by 26) and if Michigan State loses at Indiana on Thursday, we're in first place in the Big Ten. Win both games this week and we should absolute be discussing winning the Big Ten.

So, uh, what if we're good? I know that we all know that we're probably not, but what if we are? It struck me today that I really haven't considered it. It made me think of Minnesota's football season. (What, you thought I'd get through an entire post without a football comp?)

Here's how Minnesota started this most recent football season:

  • Trailed in the fourth quarter but came back to beat South Dakota State by 7. Not North Dakota State - South Dakota State.
  • Trailed late but got a massive interception in the endzone and beat Fresno State in double overtime.
  • Scored a touchdown with 13 seconds left to beat Georgia Southern by 3.
  • Beat Purdue by 7, destroy Illinois, and suddenly they find themselves 5-0 and ranked 25th.

At that point, I'm sure there were many Minnesota fans who felt like I feel about our current ranking: it's not long for this world. They knew how close they were to an 0-3 non-conference. Three shaky non-conference wins plus victories over Purdue and Illinois doesn't really point to a team that should be ranked.

But they were actually good. Or, perhaps more accurately, they kept getting better. Yes, they could have easily lost all three non-conference games, but they didn't. They found a way to win when they were playing poorly, and then they found winning a whole lot easier once they started playing well. Next thing you know, they're 11-2 and beating Auburn in a New Years Day bowl.

That's the thing I'm not considering with this basketball team. I see pollsters ranking us 21st and I say "yeah, but look at the next eight games on our schedule - we're about to turn into a pumpkin". I see us beat Northwestern by four and think "man, there's a massive correction coming". I was there for Miami. I saw us struggle with Hawaii. I have a good idea of what comes next.

But what if we just, you know, found a way to win when playing poorly and are about to turn a corner towards playing well? Why am I not even considering that? What if, starting now, we begin putting everything together? Sure, we're not going to roll through these next eight games - everyone loses on the road - but what if we do go through this stretch at something like 5-3? What if we're 10-5 a month from today and staring down games against Nebraska, Northwestern, and Indiana that could move us to 13-5 in the Big Ten? What if we're ranked this whole time? What if we're... good?

Yeah, but we're 6 point underdogs tomorrow and then we'll lose at Michigan, fall out of the rankings, and get back to this "scratch and claw our way to a play-in game" season. We can't shoot, and it's going to be a problem all season, especially on the road.

Of course, what if we start hitting our threes? Man, that would turn everything around.

But that's not going to happen.

But what if it does?


uilaw71 on January 21 @ 07:05 AM CST

When you choose a therapist, make sure it’s one who specializes in dissociative identity disorder!

Sweetchuck13 on January 21 @ 08:38 AM CST

Great stuff here Robert. I don't have any answers - we'll all find out as we watch. But I have to say this team has improved a lot since December. Underwood shuffled his defense and the players seem more used to it (and Trent becoming a shut-down defender). Also, the players seem to fill their roles better on offense - even if it's not always pretty. And Ayo has turned into a full-blown closer.

Also, to me the big test will be can we hold serve at home. Obviously Minnesota is solid and Maryland and Michigan State are really tough, but good teams in the top half of the conference will win at least 2 of those 3, if not all 3. That's the biggest indication of "are we good?"

chuddery on January 21 @ 03:30 PM CST

Winning at home is so huge in the conference this year. Wisconsin is the only other team in conference that has a road win in the non-Northwestern or Nebraska category.

MSU and Rutgers are good, but they're in the same boat we are. They started with a bunch of games at home. Now they get to go on the road, and we'll see how they did. As bad as Ohio State's been, their early schedule was heavily road-weighted. I bet that they go on a bit of a tear over the next month and get ranked again.

jdl on January 21 @ 08:43 AM CST

"he has us losing seven of our next eight"

That's not how probabilities work. We should win 3 of the 8 if his numbers are correct. Just winning the home games would get us there but would be really good for the resume to get another one on the road.

Groundhogday on January 21 @ 04:29 PM CST

Correct. If we play enough games with a 0.4 probability of winning, the probability is really high that we will win some games that we are not favored to win. For example, the probability of rolling a 6 on a die is not good (1/6). But if I roll that die 12 times, I'd expect to get 6 twice.

PapaDels4me on January 22 @ 12:30 PM CST

Exactly ! I logged in to say exactly this. We were not favored in 7 of the 8 games I presume, but we have a real chance to win each of them and it adds to 3 - 5. That has probably changed since the Purdue win, by the way. Maybe he now has us at 3.5 - 4.5. Hope so.

jdl on January 23 @ 07:56 AM CST

Projected to win 3 of the next 7 and 20 on the season, though it's pretty close to being 21.

Groundhogday on January 21 @ 09:05 AM CST

Solid analysis. We might win 3+ of the next 8 games. But to go so, we need to improve (relative to the rest of the league).

Southernillini on January 21 @ 09:18 AM CST

So the Illini started off the season trying to establish a completely new identity. We had 2 players returning to their usual positions but everyone else was either new to the program or moved around. They struggled early. They looked completely lost against Missouri.
It seems they had lost their way, offensively. I dont know what their practices looked like but I'd guess they were 85% defense and rebounding. 15% offense.
They seem to have found their way somewhat as the season has progressed. Just like we'd hope, Ayo is option 1. Kofi is option 2. Trent is option 3. Griffin is that swingman, wildcard guy that can light you up if you ignore him.
Sure the NW game was a struggle, but man it was nice to see Trent establish himself.

This whole Jeckyl-and-Hyde thing should be calmed down by now. Are we good? We don't know. Are we mediocre, but had a lucky run of luck/scheduling? We dont know that either. We will know here in a couple weeks though. One road win and play your hearts out at home, fellas. That's all you have to do.

Groundhogday on January 21 @ 09:48 AM CST

The only guy to substantially change his role from last season was Giorgi. We have essentially the same team back from last season with the addition of Kofi and loss of a role player at the 4. And we had extra summer workouts to get guys used to a new defense.

It turns out that incorporating a guy like Kofi is harder than expected, and we have really missed that role player at the 4. But there were plenty of reasons to think this team could get off to a good start.

danny on January 21 @ 04:16 PM CST

I don’t understand why the overall consensus is the Illini will lost tonight. This team beat Purdue by 25 two weeks ago and dominated the play. Hard to believe home court makes up a 25 point difference. I understand as fans we watch the game not to lose, but this team is playing well - finally. Go Illini

thumpasaurus on January 21 @ 04:25 PM CST

Big Ten road wins have been incredibly rare on the season. IIRC there have still only been six, and two were against Northwestern so that barely counts.

Officiating seems to have a lot to do with this, though Illinois and Rutgers have not really been getting home cooking.

thumpasaurus on January 21 @ 04:31 PM CST

the man who has taken it upon himself to hold back the football floodgates urging us "calm down on that bleak outlook, it's not going to end up as bad as it's looked so far" is here urging us all to calm down on all that hype, it's not going to end up as good as it's looked so far :) :) :)

no but seriously, i get you. i am trying to take some solace from the fact that in the second half it was clear that northwestern was not going to miss a three no matter how guarded they were, and yet we didn't make enough mistakes to lose.

we haven't played any great teams at home, and we've beaten one good team on the road while losing to a good team and a great team.

it'd be rad to get three of these eight, because it would either mean we fought off all comers at home or we beat a good team on the road.

Giovantischixstripz on January 21 @ 08:26 PM CST

it's going to feel real good being wrong about this prediction isn't it? 3-5 would be disappointing after that dominant 2nd half.

we aren't the same team anymore that lost to Miami. Trent has found his swagger and has become a shut down defender. Kofi continues improving (his timing on hunting blocks defensively is night and day from early info non con). Ayo is probably option 1B with Winston of best closers in the conference. Giorgi is knocking down his 3s. Griffin isn't going to do something idiotic every game.

This game stated where we belong in the conference. firmly in the top half. A lot of games to take care of before then, but that MSU game could end up having conference championship ramifications

thegoah on January 21 @ 10:57 PM CST

That’s the wildcard that we never talk about.

Teams can get better.

Good coaches do that.

And it looks like it’s happening.

No rose-colored glasses here. I get that it won’t always be like tonight, and sometimes we won’t match up well (Iowa) or shots won’t fall, but what I saw tonight was improvement.

Purdue may not be a great team. Maybe not even a good team. But tell that to sparty.

And we just swept them in the revenue sports.

Wisconsin, Purdue...who else is in the crosshairs still? Rutgers I guess. Is that it?

Giovantischixstripz on January 22 @ 12:01 PM CST

for the sweep Rutgers is all that's left. MSU is the other team we can still beat in both sports, and 2 outta 3 vs them would be fantastic.

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