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This is the post in which I go off script and let you all deep into my Illini fan mindset - whether you want to go there or not. So let me apologize in advance for my self indulgence as this is as much for me as it is for you. My first concrete recollection of being an Illini basketball fan was of the Eddie Johnson/Derek Harper/Mark Smith led 1980-81 team - so we're talking right around 40 years worth.
All told, it was a pretty good first 30 years. However, any Illini fan swagger I had developed over those 30 years has been methodically beaten out of me over the past decade. One NCAA Tournament appearance and one winning Big Ten Conference campaign over that time span will do that to a man.
As a result, a perpetual sense of dread and angst is now affixed to my Illini fan soul. Quite simply, over the past several years, I have come to expect the worst when it comes to Illini sports. I know that all sounds a little melodramatic and a lot defeatist, but it's just how my brain has rewired itself. Once an eternal optimist - now a grizzled pessimist.
However I do find that I am able to separate the analyst part of my brain from the fan part of my brain and make objective and impartial observations. It's a weird dichotomy, but probably best explained by saying that going into this season, my brain told me that this Illinois team SHOULD finish in the upper division of the Big Ten and make the NCAA Tournament (I predicted 21-11 in our Basketball Preview), but my heart didn't want to believe that they WOULD.
So even with the lofty expectations that were appropriately attached to this team back in November, my fandom couldn't shake the weight of the last seven years. So I settled on one basic fundamental need - MAKE THE TOURNAMENT.
Which is why I've pretty much been a mess ever since the Iowa loss back on Super Bowl Sunday. Because what followed after that game can best be described as a series of rather unfortunate events.
+Maryland comes to Champaign and hands Illinois a major buzzkill of a home loss.
+Ayo gets hurt on the last play of a one point loss to MSU
+Illinois loses badly at Rutgers with Dosunmu watching from the bench.
So now, after four straight losses, I was in full panic mode. There was no guarantee Ayo was going to play for the rest of the season, and the Illini were about to head to Happy Valley to take on a Penn State team ranked 9th in the country and owners of their own eight game win streak.
I pay way too much attention to the "win probability" stat during games, but I find the math that goes into it fascinating. If a game I'm watching has some kind of wild ending - like when a team wins after being down ten with two minutes to play or something - I always go back and pull up the win probability graph. I just like seeing the stat line go from like 95% to 0% in two minutes. It's a visual representation of the crazy stuff that is rather commonplace in college basketball.
So, of course, my brain is going to try to make a parallel between mid to late game win probability and mid to late season NCAA Tournament probability. Thankfully, Bart Torvik has such a stat.
After the loss at MSU to start the new year, the NCAA Tournament probability for Illinois sat at just 11%. Just two games later - after the win in Madison - it spiked to 81%! After beating Minnesota for a seventh straight win...97.2%!!! Even after those three straight losses - hey still at 93% - not bad at all. But now Ayo is hurt? Now I start thinking of all those games I've watched which sat at 93% win probability with 4 minutes left - and ended up flipping.
But then Ayo comes back, we beat Penn State, and we shoot back up to 96%. Now five games left - with two of them against Nebraska and Northwestern who have just three conference wins between them. But still - that nagging feeling. What if somehow we went 0-5? The projection odds plummeted to just a 26% probability - one of the first four teams out. GULP.
So naturally I'm still a mess going into these two games this week as my mind just can't shake the possibility of the worst case scenario. Thankfully this Illini team's mental fortitude is made of much stronger stuff than mine.
Illinois 71 Nebraska 59
Illinois 74 Northwestern 66
Nothing spectacular, but two workmanlike and oh so necessary wins. So now tonight - after the Welsh Ryan scoreboard clock ticked to 00:00, the tournament odds for Illinois sit at over 97%. Even running the numbers using a projection of four straight losses to end the season, the resume' remains tourney worthy with an 8 seed projection. Lock it up. We are IN. Both my brain and my heart tell me so.
What I NEEDED as a fan from this season was simply to hear Illinois' name called again on Selection Sunday. Of course I WANT more (and I know this team aspires for so much more), but no matter how this season ultimately ends, I'll look back on it as a success. Just making the tournament won't be good enough for long, but for this year it will be sweet medicine for my up until now damaged Illini soul.
+ALAN GRIFFIN. His ORtg tonight was an astounding 212. For some perspective - the national leader for this stat on KenPom is 121. Griffin played almost a perfect offensive game tonight.
+The Illini bench is shrinking - rapidly. Tonight all five starters went 30 plus minutes. Griffin played 21, Giorgi 13, and Kipper just 3. That's basically a six man rotation. Underwood said after the game that the plan was for Kipper to play more and foul trouble dictated otherwise, but it sure looks like depth is going to be a concern for Illinois the rest of the way.
+I'm confident that barring injury, the current starting lineup (Ayo/Trent/DMW/Feliz/Kofi) is what Underwood is going to roll with the rest of the way. DMW is not going to be a productive offensive player, but part of the reason the lineup works is that he can guard just about anyone on the floor. He's going to keep playing heavy minutes folks.
+On the other side of the coin - Giorgi's struggles are just as evident on defense as on offense. He's still got a long way to go to find his way out of this funk.