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I told someone today that this game was bigger than the famous 1989 Indiana game (Nick Anderson's shot). I'm not even sure I believe that, but I said it to emphasize how rare it is to have a chance to hang a Big Ten Champions banner. This was a huge opportunity, and now it's gone.
Well, I guess it's not GONE gone. All we need to happen is Wisconsin to lose at Indiana and Michigan State to lose at home to Ohio State and Maryland to lose at home to Michigan - if all of that happens and we beat Iowa then we can still share. (That's not going to happen.)
But the reason this was such a rough loss for me was the opportunity to grab a share of the Big Ten title. We could have cut down nets in Champaign on Sunday, and now we can't. That's a huge loss. Who knows the next time we'll be in this position?
The reason I said that about the 1989 team is because Indiana had already wrapped up the Big Ten title when we played them with three games to go in 1989. Going into that game, they were 14-1 and had clinched at least a share while Illinois was in second place at 11-4. There was still technically a chance to tie them if they lost out (they weren't going to lose out), but really, the Big Ten title chase was over that day and Indiana had already won. Yes, it was two top-10 teams, and the outcome of the game lives forever, and we went to the Final Four and they didn't, but... it wasn't a game like this where we controlled our destiny.
That's why I drove six hours today and will drive six hours tomorrow. These opportunities don't come along very often. Two wins from a banner, and now that's gone. It's 1:30 Columbus time but I'm nowhere near sleep. This one will bother me for a while.
To make matters worse, the Ohio State crowd doesn't really seem to care. There's nothing worse than driving six hours to watch your team play a team whose fans don't seem to care and would never drive six hours to watch their team. Football, sure, but not basketball.
When I tweeted these thoughts tonight, many responded with "yep - Football School", but that's only partially my point. Yes, the guys behind me as I walked out tonight were discussing how their defense struggled to stop the jet sweep (I mean, I'm a football guy but your ranked basketball team beats another ranked team and you're discussing football? In March?). But my point isn't just "these fans only care about football". It's that they weren't really even into the game until they were winning. At least that's how it was in the section I was in. Let me see if I can describe this.
There didn't seem to be any investment. You go to a game at Michigan State and the fans are fully involved in the game. They'll cheer for the good, sure, but there's also a lot of grumbling. Foster Loyer will throw the ball away and the fans will be "get Foster out of there and get Cassius back in!!". They're living and dying by the result of this game and so they sometimes need to help the coach along. Usually while calling the players by their first names.
I didn't hear any of that tonight. The whole game I had the same "it's weird how this crowd doesn't really care" feeling. My buddy and I traveled to Ohio just for a chance to see us pull out a win and stay in the Big Ten title race, and as I said on Twitter, I'm nearly certain that no one in that stadium would have done the same. OK, I guess someone would have done that, but you just don't get that "these fans are living and dying with this game" feeling at all.
For the most part, the crowd wasn't into the game until Ohio State was winning. I'm not suggesting they should cheer when they miss nine consecutive shots, but... here, I think I know how to say this.
You know you'll be in the State Farm Center and we'll be losing by two and then the opponent will go on a 7-0 run and suddenly we're losing by nine? And when that happens, you can hear the entire crowd have the same "come ON, guys" reaction? Like, 15,000 people saying "ugh" at the same time? There was none of that tonight. There was grumbling after a turnover or whatever, but that normal Big Ten ebb and flow from the home crowd just wasn't there. They quietly sat around for an hour and a half while it was tied or they were losing and then they cheered for a half hour once they started winning.
It was just so strange. And so hard to take on a night like this. I drove all the way here for a chance to see us climb to one win away from an improbable Big Ten title banner and I had to watch us lose to a team whose crowd would have apparently been fine had they lost.
Perhaps this is what an Ohio State fan feels like when they come to Memorial Stadium. The empty seats would be jarring to begin with, but the lack of booing the officials on every flag would probably startle them as well. Illini fans still at their tailgate 15 minutes after the game has started? An Ohio State fan would probably pass out when they saw that.
So maybe this whole thing is as simple as "football school vs. basketball school". But it's still jarring. And so hard to be around when you're dying to see your team pull out a win.
+ This was a homering to be sure (fouls 22-13, free throws 28-10), but it still feels like we had a chance to respond to that homering in the last 10 minutes and faded instead. We couldn't hit a shot, we were turning the ball over - the game slipped away from us fast. We got lots of open threes in the second half as their defense appeared to shift to "make anyone but Ayo beat you", and we had no response. Kofi had his worst game of the season, Trent and Feliz had open threes but couldn't knock them down, and the game slipped away quickly.
The most glaring issue in the second half: rebounding. Here we are, one of the top rebounding teams in the country, and Ohio State out-rebounded us 24-14 in that second half. 10 of them were offensive rebounds, and they scored on several of those second chances. If we can't rebound, we're not going to win many games (and we're certainly not going to win on the road when the foul calls are stacked against us).
+ I worry about this blueprint - stop Ayo and you stop Illinois. That really hasn't been the case most of the season. I feel like Ayo would get his points quietly, not in a "you know who's taking this shot" way. Kofi would have a huge game one game, Trent would go off the next.
But tonight was "stop Ayo, stop Illinois", and once they did, the game was over. Let's maybe get back to "Feliz made the plays down the stretch" or "Griffin just went OFF".
+ I don't think I have much more to say about this game. This one just really hurts. I'd like to think I'll have another opportunity soon to go on the road and watch us inch closer to a Big Ten title in March, but given the 15 years we just went through, I know that these opportunities don't come along very often. What if it's another 15 years before we have another opportunity like this? Please tell me it won't be another 15 years.
I'm sure I'll regroup tomorrow on the drive home and rebuild my focus towards the Sweet 16. Get a good draw and get to that second weekend. But tonight, I'm just thinking about the Big Ten title going out the window and the fans who took it from us not seeming to care.