Really Good, Then

Jan 21, 2020

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.


mmyers74 on January 22 @ 01:10 AM CST

First... how fun was that?!

Trent shooting 3's like he WANTS to shoot them. Controlling the pace of play. Swagging the swag of old Trent. (The Trent that was option 1, 2 and 3.). We. Need. That. Trent.

The rest, I would just be repeating, so I won't. Hats off to some tremendous team and individual performances tonight.

I will instead, say this.

As stupid as Griffin's decision was, tonight... and it was STUPID, I think it is important to note something.

I love his edge and his fire. (when not misplaced with shoulder bumps and chest stomps.)

I FIRMLY believe that one major turning point this season, took place in that Missouri game, when we were getting beaten down … Not just beaten on the scoreboard, but beaten in every facet of every possession. We were getting out worked and out hustled and embarrassed.

And Alan Griffin was the only one, and I do mean the ONLY one, on the floor for Illinois that night, that visibly seemed to care. And when some (former IL) Missouri players starting to have some fun, taunting a bit and showboating, and openly celebrating, Alan Griffin embodied, to me, what all of us wanted someone to do. He stood up. He started jawing. He stepped up and told a few Tigers exactly what he thought about that, about them... and maybe what he thought about their actual skill level…

Brad Underwood immediately ripped him a new one, and I wanted to yell to BU to open his eyes, as Griff was just doing what he didn't. He's reminding his teammates that what happens out here, IS personal.

I think in that moment, he reminded the rest of his team just how important this is. (In a game that shouldn't have required him to do so.)

Underwood had called that Mizzou game "just another game"... and then Mizzou players came out and played us like it was the most important game they would ever play again.

and Griffin said "enough"...

From that moment, this has been a different Illinois basketball team. A different attitude.

Not the only thing... but a real thing.

All that said. STUPID move tonight. This was not that. He will learn, and we will all be better for it.

ktcesw on January 22 @ 04:13 AM CST

Great comments! Everyone wants the Lucas Johnson attitude then, condemns Griffin for showing it. I distinctly remember Johnson kicking a couple of guys during the course of his career. We want guys to play with a chip on their shoulder and condemn them when they do so. I agree that he needs to be smarter with his actions but, lets not be hypocrites here.

escot on January 22 @ 08:59 AM CST

Who's being a hypocrite? You can play with an edge without stomping on a player laying on the floor.

ktcesw on January 22 @ 09:32 AM CST

There was no stomp. He barely stepped on him. I was referring to all of the praise for one's actions while abhorring the other's.

mmyers74 on January 22 @ 09:39 AM CST

Escot- You are 100% right. He was in the wrong and deserved the ejection. (Lucas had the benefit of not having cameras everywhere and replay that is watched and utilized immediately.). Brian Cardinal, the same.

But you are definitely correct. He cannot do what he did last night and deserves the punishment.

That simply doesn't erase what he HAS given this team... and it is bourn from the same place. Two sides of the same coin.

I'm sure there are hypocrites out there, but my intent was to praise Alan while holding him accountable.

Giovantischixstripz on January 23 @ 01:32 AM CST

don't forget the Miami game. we were getting our ass handed to us, he comes in, subtly shoulders lykes (who was unconscious nba jam on fire at the time), gets a reaction, double techs, sends lykes to the bench with his 2nd foul. he fires up the team, fires up the crowd and the comeback that fell 1 play short starts there.

stepping on a player is just stupid. hopefully he can learn to stay on the right side of the line between instigator/ nuisance and goon.

mmyers74 on January 22 @ 01:27 AM CST

(Sorry for that long post. I was excited.)

Southernillini on January 22 @ 07:58 AM CST

Yes he went too far. Deserved the ejection. Sure. I'm good with all that.

But you guys are right. I'm reminded of Bob Gibson. Crowd the plate? He hit you. Take too long outside the batter's box? He hit you. He's been quoted dozens of times saying how much he HATED his opponent on game day. We love that fire and competitive attitude. Griffin us an 18 year old kid that just needs to learn where to channel that aggression a little better. He will learn and be a better young man for it.

ktcesw on January 22 @ 09:35 AM CST

100% in agreement!

AHSIllini32 on January 22 @ 11:46 PM CST

Throwing an object at someone because you don’t like what they’re doing on a field is a ridiculously asinine thing to do and it’s akin to what griffin did so no I don’t want griffin to have that stupid competitive spirit Gibson had.

I do want Alan to continue playing with an edge, jawing at opponents, etc that doesn’t cost his team. Love the kids talent and potential and think is just a one-off poor decision.

IlliNYC on January 22 @ 11:28 AM CST

I just love this team. It's so great to see almost every piece figure out their role and start to succeed in those roles.

On AG: It was stupid, but it wasn't something that was going to injure/seriously harm the kid.

Norcal Illini on January 22 @ 11:43 AM CST

I agree that what AG did deserved an ejection, but what he did was child's play compared to the end of the KU-KSU game. That was ugly.

Groundhogday on January 22 @ 01:52 PM CST

As this team rounds into form, and players settle into roles:

  • Big three are Kofi, Ayo and Trent. Expect these three to play well over 30 mpg in competitive games down the stretch. Post, perimeter creator, shooting PG. Really nice synergy between these three.
  • Next two in the rotation are Giorgi (big) and Feliz (guard). Seem to be settling into their supporting roles, defer to the big 3 offensively, keep teams honest with efficient contributions. ~25 mpg
  • Griffin, Nichols and Williams are the 6-8 guys. Depth. Yeah, Williams starts, but prior to Griffin getting tossed, DaMonte was averaging 17 mpg over the past few weeks.

Only question is whether Griffin moves into the 25 mpg Tier 2 category. Seemed to be trending in that direction prior to the brain fart. I could see Underwood going to a 6-man rotation, with Williams and Nichols getting 15 mpg for depth.

Groundhogday on January 22 @ 02:45 PM CST

For comparison with 2005

  • Big 3: Williams, Head, Brown (35+ mpg down the stretch)
  • Key contributors: Auggie, Powell (25 mpg)
  • Ingram and McBride - 6th and 7th guys in the rotation

DB50 on January 22 @ 06:31 PM CST

If the Illini would have brought this type of edge to the Missouri game it would have had a totally different ending. I don’t know how long this will last but I like them in every game left with the passion they’ve played with at Mackey.

Eagle on January 22 @ 11:56 PM CST

Lucas Johnson was one of my favorite players, and those who play with an edge spread their competitive fire around the lineup. However, to be a championship team you can't have that person play in a way that you can't count on him for a number games. Lucas got a few more technicals than average but you could count on him being available to fight (figuratively) every game. We really have at least 5 players with serious fire in the belly!

Groundhogday on January 23 @ 04:13 PM CST

So 2 game suspension by the league (not including missing most of the Purdue game.) This is more or less what I expected. Thought he might only get one game given that he effectively missed the PU game already.

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