Really Good, Then
My post last night pondered two things: the next eight games are quite difficult, so this fun little 5-2 start in the Big Ten might fade quickly. But on the other hand, what if we're really good? Tonight, we were really, really good. Tonight, we ran out to a double digit lead in the second half and then never let them get closer than 9. Tonight, we made the ESPN play-by-play guy ask out loud - "can Illinois win the Big Ten?"
I'm not ready to go that far, but I am ready to start a list of random things that keep popping into my head.
- Nebraska and Northwestern are trash, but the other 12 teams in the Big Ten all have legitimate NCAA Tournament hopes. Leaving Nebraska and Northwestern out of it (they'll probably both lose seven home games), here are the road wins in the Big Ten so far: Wisconsin won at Penn State and at Ohio State and Illinois won at Wisconsin and Purdue. That's it. Everyone else is either winless on the road or has only beaten Northwestern or Nebraska.
- If Indiana beats Michigan State on Thursday night (not all that crazy to suggest - remember, four decent road wins in the Big Ten total so far), then Illinois will be tied for first place in the Big Ten.
- We won 14 games in 2018 and 12 games in 2019 and now 14 games by January 21st, 2020.
- In this Big Ten, with so many Quad 1 games, 10-10 will probably be enough for us to get on the right side of the bubble. We might only need four more wins to assure ourselves an NCAA Tournament spot, and after that we'd be playing for a better seed.
- We jumped to #22 in KenPom with the update a few minutes ago. Now the polls AND the NERDstats love us.
- Perhaps most importantly, I feel like I haven't felt in... seven years? If Twitter is any indication, you feel it too. The whole "you're DAMN RIGHT we're Illinois basketball" thing.
Yes, I'm probably getting ahead of myself. Purdue did demolish Virginia and Michigan State at Mackey, but they're still a 10-9 basketball team. We might look back at the end of the season and say "well, Purdue did go 6-14 in the Big Ten, so that big win makes a lot more sense now". We still lost to Missouri exactly one month ago.
But we didn't just win, we dominated. What Purdue did to Michigan State in Mackey last week, we did to Purdue in Mackey this week. In my wildest dreams I didn't expect this to be a "don't foul, the game is over" kind of a finish. Once they cut it to nine, I expected them to cut it to four with a minute left and then a bunch of knee-knocking one-and-one free throw attempts. Instead, it was a 17 point game with two minutes to go and the fans headed for the exits.
Purdue fans had seen 15 consecutive Big Ten wins in Mackey... and then, not only did they lose, they headed for the exits early because they were blown off the court by the same team that blew them out in Champaign. I imagined a lot of scenarios for this game today but "total and complete second-half demolition" was not one of them.
So now we head to Michigan for the gravy game of all gravy games. No one would have looked at this schedule and said "road trips to Wisconsin, Purdue, and Michigan in January - I think we can go 3-0 in those". A loss is oddly fine, with three of the next four after that back in Champaign. If we somehow do win at Michigan to start 7-2 in the Big Ten with road wins over Wisconsin, Purdue, and Michigan? Katy bar the door.
+ I think the most encouraging thing was how we won the game. I'm big on "how". When it looks like you want it to look, I feel like that's some assurance that you're really getting somewhere.
What do I mean by "looks like you want it to look"? Mostly the contributions from the main four guys:
- You want Trent to be the scoring threat from outside. He hit 5 of 7 threes and scored 21.
- You want Kofi to be a beast in the paint. He had 22 points and 15 rebounds.
- You want Giorgi to be post moves, rebounds, and maybe a three to keep 'em honest. 10 points, 5 rebounds, 2-3 from three.
- And you want Ayo to make the whole thing go and be your "now THAT'S a first-team All Big Ten player" when it counts. 18 points, 11 assists, stopped the Purdue mini-run (when they cut it to nine late) with two daggers.
That's the team I envisioned when daydreaming this summer. How did I think we'd go 12-21 to 21-12? Trent hits threes, Kofi controls the paint, Giorgi is the utility man, and Ayo makes it all go. Every bit of that is clicking right now.
+ I'm also a big "and that set the tone" guy, and the first 50 seconds of the second half really set the tone. Here's the play-by-play of those 50 seconds:
Missed jumper by PUR #50 Williams, Trevion at the inside left
Offensive rebound by PUR #20 Eastern, Nojel
Missed 3PT jumper by PUR #55 Stefanovic, Sasha at the outside right
Offensive rebound by PUR #20 Eastern, Nojel
Missed layup by PUR #20 Eastern, Nojel under the basket
Offensive rebound by PUR #32 Haarms, Matt
Missed jumper by PUR #32 Haarms, Matt in the paint
Defensive rebound by ILL #15 Bezhanishvili, Giorgi
Made alleyoop dunk by ILL #21 Cockburn, Kofi under the basket
Assist by ILL #11 Dosunmu, Ayo
Personal Foul on PUR #55 Stefanovic, Sasha under the basket; shooting foul.
Made Free Throw by ILL #21 Cockburn, Kofi (1OF1)
After that, Purdue goes down the court, Kofi blocks a layup attempt at the rim, they get the rebound, miss the putback, Illinois comes down the court and Giorgi hits a three, and suddenly a 30-29 halftime deficit is a 35-30 lead and they'd never be that close again. Two minutes into the second half, game's over.
+ I'm thinking Alan Griffin probably misses more than just the rest of this game. No place for that. I'll guess a one-game suspension and he misses the Michigan game.
+ It's rather crazy that we won a game where Giorgi got his second foul four minutes into the first half (requiring four minutes from Jermaine Hamlin), Griffin was ejected, and Purdue still shot more free throws than us even though they fouled us six times (12 free throws) in the final two minutes trying to cut into the lead. Fouls were 17-12 before they started intentionally fouling us at the end, free throws were 21-7 at that point... and we won by 17.
Which means we're, uh, we're probably pretty good. We won some games there (Northwestern, Rutgers) where we didn't play very well. Now we're playing well and picking up Big Ten road wins. Is it crazy to dream about a third conference road win on Saturday? Probably.
But I think I'm going to anyway.