Bent Not Broken
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The clock at Mizzou arena read 76-76 with 3:18 left to play. Illinois had just pulled even after trailing by 13 just six minutes earlier. Ayo Dosunmu had everything working and the momentum had clearly shifted. After a listless 35 minutes of play in front of a few hundred select fans, the Illini appeared poised to take control of this game down the stretch.
Narrator: They didn't.
Three pointer miss from DMW - Ayo missed layup - Ayo turnover - Ayo offensive foul- Kofi dunk (but flagrant foul) - Ayo missed three. Five empty possessions out of six down the stretch. These were not the droids we were looking for.
Mizzou wins 81-78. Of course the Braggin Rights game and all its baggage was right there to faithfully deliver an extra holiday portion of angst to Illini fans.
The Tigers dictated everything about this game in the first half, and afterwards Brad Underwood was once again at a complete loss to understand why his guys have failed to answer the bell in this game for three years running. Despite the fans scattered throughout the arena, it's not like Mizzou was drawing energy from the crowd. However, it seems quite clear that this core of Missouri players has this game circled on the calendar with brighter ink than do ours.
Never mind that Mark is the third best Smith on the Missouri team and Jeremiah Tilmon's best comp is a fallen tree. Never mind that Missouri is better without those two (they combined for more fouls and turnovers than points and rebounds). Then again, they didn't seem to mind much when they were posing with the Bragging Rights trophy at center court alongside Javon Pickett - the third member of the Slighted Illini.
Those three seem to have set the tone however. Whatever juju they have cooked up clearly resonates with the rest of the Missouri team, because for the third year in a row, they played the majority of the game with more energy, fight, and focus than Illinois.
Energy? Mizzou had a 20-14 fast break points advantage.
Fight? Mizzou owned the glass with a 35-26 margin and an offensive rebounding percentage edge of 31% to 19%. Not one Illinois player corralled an offensive rebound in the first half. That is almost impossible.
Focus? Mizzou shot 84% from the foul line compared to 61% for the Illini and ended the game with a 26-19 free throw advantage.
Yet this game still came down to a few random basketball things. A few missed free throws. A bounced in three pointer for Mizzou. A phantom flagrant foul. If any of these go the other way, maybe tonight's post takes on a different tone. But should it really?
Annoying? Yes. Frustrating? Yes. Happy to be wearing a mask and socially distanced while on press row so I can curse with impunity? Yes.
But season defining? Hardly. Illinois only dropped a couple of spots (to 17) in the KenPom rankings afterwards, and of course, we all remember prematurely writing off the season last December after a similarly aggravating loss to Missouri in St Louis.
Of course, we would all feel BETTER tonight had we made a few more FTs and eked out a narrow win, but I'm not sure the outcome helps to inform us as to what this team will ultimately look like come March. The calculus is unchanged. There is no recalibration of goals. This Illini team entered this game with Final Four aspirations, and it leaves this game with Final Four aspirations.
The game was a crushing disappointment and this team can still be great. Both of these things can be true. Still tonight didn't exactly do much to ease that feeling of impending dread which is all too familiar to Illini fans.
To just about any impartial observer this was just a great (but horribly officiated) college basketball game between two pretty damn good teams. In that context it's just like any other great non-conference matchup in December. One of the good teams wins, one goes home disappointed, and both still go on to successful seasons.
This is how good teams (and fans of good teams) view games like this. You learn a little bit (or a lot I think in this case) about your team, and you continue to adjust and grow. Tonight feels like a wasp sting, but come March it turns out it was a necessary part of the journey.
However, when you haven't been good, which Illinois of course, has not been for the better part of a decade, then every game like this becomes a referendum on the season as a whole. Yet another disappointment playing on a loop.
The Duke game is the other side of the same coin. Illini Nation was positively giddy on Tuesday night - because wins like that have been so few and far between in recent history. When we do get one, then we damn well better party like it's 1989 because who knows when we'll get the chance again. It's because we feel like (we KNOW) the next punch to the soul is lurking just around the corner.
So until we are GOOD again, Illini fans will continue to ride the wave of emotions that come with rooting for a perpetually inconsistent program. This Illini team still has a chance to be great and can help to build a little trust equity in the program - so here's hoping we can all enjoy the journey.
+This Illini team is still searching for consistency from all players not named Ayo. Andre Curbelo streaked and whirled his way to 12 first half points, but he only managed two free throws in the second half. Trent Frazier only took three shots from the floor in 31 minutes. Giorgi struggled through 13 foul laden minutes. Adam Miller has not reached double figures in scoring in three straight games. While appreciating the necessity of the situation tonight, the Ayo-centric nature of the Illinois offense is not a sustainable way of doing business. 36 points from Ayo make for fun tweeting, but it's not how this Illini team is going to win games. That Duke box score is where it's at.
+After the game Brad Underwood was asked about that final awkward Ayo three point attempt and he revealed that it wasn't the shot he was looking for. That seemed kind of obvious, but then he also offered that he wanted Ayo to take it to the basket for a quick two. Not so sure the math adds up on that one.
+We can all gnash our teeth about Kofi's hands, but we also probably need to accept this is just his reality. He can juggle as many tennis balls in the pregame as he wants, but I'm not so sure that "catching the ball" is a coachable skill. The simple fact is that he's going to fumble a few away each game,. and we are likely just going to have to keep playing through that.
+The flagrant foul on Kofi was garbage, and that's all that really needs said about that. We still had a solid chance to tie the game after that nonsense, but it was the perfect capper to a horribly officiated game. No one needs a 50 foul game.
+The empty (mostly) arena thing was of course weird and lame. This was one of those classic second half ebb and flow Bragging Rights games in which a full St. Louis crowd would have been insane. The Missouri crowd when they stretched to 13 and then the Illini crowd after those monster back to back Kofi dunks and the Ayo jumper to tie the game at 76? Man that would have been something. Here's looking forward to next December - angst and all.
+Big Ten play starts next week! Man that snuck up on me. We have four league games still left in December - opening against Minnesota on Tuesday night at the SFC. The Gophers are 6-0 against a softish schedule - all home games. That needs to be a win - no two ways about it.