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With 5:28 remaining in the second half this afternoon I knew that regardless of the outcome of the game I was going to write about toughness. I had just watched 6' 2" Andres Feliz wrestle an offensive rebound away from a pair of Iowa giants - the 6' 11" Luka Garza and 6'10" Ryan Kriener - and score on a putback to give Illinois a 59-55 lead. That lead ended up being a short lived one as the Hawkeyes outscored the Illini 17-5 over the final five minutes on their way to a 72-65 win. It did not, however, diminish the Feliz moment in any way. The shortest guy on the floor ripping the ball from the two tallest to deliver in a crucial moment for the Illini. Toughness personified. It's plays such as this one which have defined this Illinois basketball team since the calendar rolled over to 2020.
Coming into today, 7 of Illinois' 10 conference games were two possession contests with under two minutes to play. Make it 8 of 11 after today's slugfest. That the Illini have found a way to win 6 of those 8 games speaks to that toughness. They were tough yet again for 35 minutes today, but faltered in the final 5 in a game which was absolutely peak Big Ten. Two conference heavyweights slugging it out in a contest high on both skill and physicality.
Afterwards, Brad Underwood lamented what he called the "one casual play" that Illinois committed - the turning point in his opinion. He was referencing the giveaway from Giorgi Bezhanishvili against token Iowa pressure that led to a game tying basket from Joe Wieskamp and erased the margin that Feliz had given Illinois just 19 seconds earlier. It's indicative of the razor's edge on which these games are played. One play late in the game which turned the momentum one final time in favor of Iowa. Fortunately for Illinois, lapses such as these have been more exception than rule in league games.
As Underwood (or any coach for that matter) is more than happy to explain - basketball toughness is a layered concept. Of course, it can be physical toughness - such as Feliz showed this afternoon or as Kofi Cockburn has demonstrated all season with his nine double doubles in helping Illinois to become one of the nation's best rebounding teams.
Yet the toughness that coaches really yearn for - that "next level" toughness - lies beyond the purely physical construct. It's the ability to play through emotion and fatigue, and yet still be able to perform at a winning level in these intensely rugged games. Coaches in the Big Ten regularly equate the experience of league games as akin to something between trench warfare and laboring in an early 20th century coal mine. So for these 18 to 22 year olds to succeed under that level of duress - to not only physically perform, but to also stay mentally in tune with scouting reports, game plans, and play calls - takes an immeasurable level of toughness. Such as...
+Showing the resilience to be unfazed - neither by history nor the moment. Illinois was down seven with five minutes to go in the Kohl Center - a building in which they had not won in nearly a decade - yet found their way to a one point victory over Wisconsin.
+Having the courage and self-confidence to not only want, but demand the ball late in games, and then being good enough to close those games out. Hello Ayo.
+Stepping to the foul line and making free throws late in games to secure close wins. The Illini have converted 86% (24/28) from the line in the final two minutes of those six close conference wins.
+Making game sealing plays on the defensive end of the floor when the offense is struggling. Thank you DMW.
+Going into hostile road arenas and not allowing teams extra possessions due to momentum swinging giveaways. The Illini are only averaging 10 turnovers in conference road games.
Yet as tough (and as good) as Illinois has been over the first half of league play - much work remains. The first three weeks of February are a death march. The coaches are right - this league is relentless.
A stretch of five Quad 1 games in a row started today (home against #15 Maryland; home against #14 MSU; @#25 Rutgers; @#24 Penn State still remain). I think 15 wins hangs you a Big Ten regular season championship banner - and 14 wins may still earn you a share. To come through that gauntlet with 14 or 15 wins still in range will require the Illini toughness to remain on full display. But man isn't this fun for a change?
+Luka Garza is a beast. He was the best player on the floor today (as he has been in most of Iowa's games) and that really was the difference. He had 25 and 10 while Kofi and Giorgi managed just 12 and 13 combined. His 25 points came from everywhere. 10 in the paint, 12 from the arc, and 3 free throws. The dude is borderline unguardable. He's my BTPOY until someone proves otherwise.
+Coming into today I would not have bet that Connor McCaffery would match Trent Frazier in made threes.
+We had a good old fashioned kerfluffle after the game ended. The Illini bench was upset that Iowa pushed up the floor for a Wieskamp dunk while up 8 with 12 seconds left and with Illinois showing just token defense. Then after a meaningless Dosunmu three pointer, the Illini upped the gamesmanship a notch by calling time out - still down three possessions mind you - with just 4 seconds on the clock, and applying more than token pressure on the ensuing Iowa inbounds play. This in turn irritated the Hawkeyes - and pleasantries were exchanged between the two benches in the post game handshake line. Nothing too crazy - but I'm guessing the Illini coaches and players will remember that dunk come March 8.
+Dosunmu was called for his second foul with 8 minutes left in the first half - and got the "auto-bench" from Underwood for the remainder of the half. DMW got the same treatment with 17 minutes left in the half. It's becoming apparent that Underwood sits on the extreme conservative end of the spectrum when it comes to trusting his players to play with first half foul trouble. The Illini are 345th out of 353 D-1 teams in allowing players with two fouls to play in the first half of games. (Yes, this is an actual stat that is measured - "2 Foul Participation"). The Illini ranked 306th and 258th in this stat in Underwood's first two seasons. I think it's worth noting also that Ayo and DMW each finished the game with just those two fouls each - and I'll just leave that there.