The Little Voice

Jan 13, 2021

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I know that many of you are angry at me. You've let me know countless ways. I know I'm supposed to be the positive fan (and I still am, I think?). It's just that positive, we-can-still-do-this fans can only take so many body blows until they're worn down and weary and susceptible to that right hook. Losing at home to Maryland was the right hook.

Now I'm trying to drag myself up off the mat. And when I look up, I see what was supposed to be our Special Season turning into Michigan's Special Season and I can hardly stand it. The battle for the Big Ten title was supposed to be January 29th in Champaign, not Michigan-Iowa on March 4th. Yes, I probably set my expectations too high, but it's been so, so long since we had a special season. Michigan has had, like, 4 Special Seasons since then. I really thought this was going to be ours. (Deep down, somewhere, I still do.)

If you're wondering why my normally "hang on, everyone! it could still happen! here's the path for Illinois Football to make the Big Ten title game!" self is not clinging to "hang on, everyone! it could still happen!" - especially when this team is still 8th in the NET rankings and 7th on KenPom - it's this: at some point these things cross over from "likely" to "not likely" and that realization sends me to the mat. I shall attempt to explain.

Could the special season still happen? Absolutely. Even at 9-4, KenPom has us as the 7th-best team in the country. Yes, there's a little bit of 2019/20 still baked into the numbers, but we were #17 in his preseason rankings and have climbed to #7 based on these 13 games. If anything, the 2019/20 numbers are holding us back a bit.

So I am not, in any way, saying that it's "over" or anything. I'm saying I was certain of this team's greatness before the season and now I'm not so sure. When you lose to Maryland at home - a Maryland team that just lost at home to Iowa 89-67 and that was with their leading scorer who missed the Illinois game - you lose all of your preseason certainty. And THAT is the gutpunch of all fan gutpunches. The numbers are still there, but when you're watching the games, the Little Voice is back.

The Little Voice was silent during the 2001 season. I've told the story before, but during the 2001 Sweet Sixteen matchup with Kansas, KU had cut a 12 point Illinois second-half lead to 6. Marcus Griffin had just fouled out, and my friend Dave asked me point blank "aren't you worried?". My response (and this is me, still-doing-the-math-when-we're-up-8-in-the-final-minute guy): "not worried at all - we have Frankie". And then Frankie took over. Drives the lane, misses the difficult layup, tips in his own miss. Makes a steal, flips it ahead, gets it back, makes a layup. Grabs a Kansas miss, gets fouled, hits two free throws. Six point game with three minutes left and then we win 80-64. You kids don't understand this, but there was once a time where you could "now watch what happens next" as an Illini fan. Against Kansas in the Sweet 16.

The Little Voice, on the other hand, is all we've known the past 12-15 years. We're constantly aware that we're not good enough. So for the first time in more than a decade, I told that Little Voice to shut up before the season. And now the Little Voice is back and I HATE IT.

What kind of things is it saying?

+ In the preseason media poll, Illinois was chosen as the preseason favorite to win the conference. Minnesota was picked 11th.

Using the NET rankings as of this morning (1/13/21), Minnesota's three best wins: #5 Iowa, #13 St. Louis, #25 Ohio State.

Illinois' best win: #35 Minnesota.

Yes, a lot of that is opportunity. Minnesota gets those teams at home; Illinois had to play Baylor on a neutral site and Missouri on the road. But still, we're nearly halfway through the season and don't have a single hang-your-hat win.

+ We thought that the Duke win meant everything, but the Duke win kind of meant nothing. Duke is #96 in the NET rankings. Bowling Green is #95, South Dakota State is #94, and UC-Riverside is #93. Wins on the road against any of those three would have been better wins in the committee's eyes than winning at Duke.

Sure, Duke might put it all together and vault up the rankings (although if you saw their loss to Virginia Tech last night, maybe they're just bad?), but as of now, what we thought was "WOWW we are freaking good" was just a Quad 2 win.

+ That list I put together in my Sunday night post came directly from the Little Voice:

The Ohio near miss, the Missouri debacle, the 19-0 Purdue run, the 15-point Northwestern lead - maybe I just need to realize that 9-4 is the correct record for this team and drop all my silly dreams about Final Fours.

And that's not even the full list. Here are all the moments so far this season when the Little Voice got really loud:

  • Trailing Ohio University at home with less than a minute left.
  • The second half of the Baylor game when they held our head underwater for a long time and wouldn't let us up.
  • Missouri.
  • Second half against Rutgers when we just couldn't get a defensive stop.
  • The first five minutes at Penn State when it was 19-4.
  • When Indiana hit that three to go up by 5 with about 9:00 remaining.
  • Having Purdue down 13 and then they go on a 19-0 run and suddenly we're down six with 15:00 to go.
  • Trailing by 15 at the half at Northwestern.
  • Pretty much the entire Maryland game.

There have been so many opportunities for doubt to creep in. I just didn't expect that this season. Maybe that was foolish of me, but... I just didn't expect that this season.

+ It's probably easiest to just embed the tweet I put up for this next point. I looked through the win probability graphics on ESPN and I found that they are a very good way to point to our "naps" that we seem to take right when a game is rolling along:

I looked through the same chart on about 12 different wins last season and I honestly couldn't find a single one with spikes like that. There were games with droughts here and there - the Iowa game we led by 16 in the second half and only won by 2 - but even that game was a "too little, too late" comeback from Iowa where our win probability in the second half never dipped below 70%.

And I should note - which team should win those games is baked into the percentages. In the Purdue game, Illinois began with a 75% win probability. When Ayo made a layup with 8 seconds remaining in the first half, it was a 94.3% win probability.

For that to then be a 64% Purdue win probability with 15:50 left in the second half requires a NAP nap. I get that there are runs in basketball games, but my goodness do we nap a lot.

My hope - my goal in life - is for this post to look ridiculously silly in two months. We'll have figured out our issues, the freshmen will have matured, Ayo will be dominant, nap time will be over, and when we get those opportunities against Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin, we take them. Iowa, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin are 3-4-7-9 in KenPom right now, so those four upcoming games (home-only against Iowa, away-only against Michigan, home and away against Wisconsin) will define the season. Show up big there and Maryland doesn't matter.

But right now, the only data we have is above. We've lost all of the games that mattered and only have two Quad 1 wins: at Penn State and at Northwestern (and both could eventually fall to Quad 2 wins as those teams continue to lose). We thought we had a big moment against Duke but, so far, it looks like they might be worse than South Dakota State (which, any other year I'd be celebrating). We talked about the Rutgers loss as a "really tough to win there and they're top-15 good" loss but now they've lost 4 of 5 to fall below Indiana and Purdue in the NET.

So the data has been trending in a bad direction. And then we lose to Maryland. And then I completely bottom out. And then you get mad at me. And now I'm telling you why I've bottomed out.

All the while, the Little Voice is laughing. When it whispers "Iowa is a Final Four team and Illinois is going to lose in the Round of 32" I nearly scream out loud.

Somebody make it stop.


orangeandblue on January 13, 2021 @ 07:55 PM

You're not wrong Robert. The team isn't living up to expectations. Even reasonable expectations would have this team winning more and performing more consistently. The one thing I kind of hang on to is how much we are asking two freshman to contribute. They are freshman. Freshman are inconsistent. Freshman make infuriating mistakes. Freshman have slumps. But good freshman at the end of the season become more seasoned. To me that's the key. We can be a sweet sixteen team and maybe better if our freshman are good and I think they are good.

Dix on January 13, 2021 @ 08:33 PM

I'm with you. This is not the caveat season. The excuse season. That was last season. That is likely next season. Those were and will probably be good teams, but not great teams. Frustrating losses, unexpected wins. Growing pains, etc. Good teams.

This was supposed to be THE SEASON. Finally, a great team. Yes, we know anything can happen in the B1G, but I thought I'd be going into our upcoming tough stretch with confidence and excitement, not trepidation and the nail biting we experienced last year. I thought the Iowa game was going to be an all-timer. It still may be, but it's looking more like we're going to get run out of the gym by them and Michigan. The prospect of getting run out of the gym was not supposed to be a part of this season. Ah, there's that Little Voice Robert was referencing.

IlliniBobLoblaw on January 13, 2021 @ 08:49 PM

I know that many of you are angry at me. You've let me know countless ways.

People have every right to disagree with you, but getting angry with you? Not cool. Downright silly, in fact.

Having said that, social media often isn't very good at accurately communicating voice and/or emotions. Emojis, etc., are supposed to help, but (and this is hard to believe considering how often they're used) I don't think we've really figured out how to use them effectively. And sometimes even our moods can affect our interpretation of voice "on the page". Hope it's more of that and less of actual anger.

skibdaddy on January 13, 2021 @ 09:25 PM

The great thing about the NCAA tournament is that it's so unpredictable. We definitely have the pieces to beat any team in the country (except maybe Gonzaga and Baylor), but maybe we will get a lucky draw in the tourney?

Exhibit A: 1988 Kansas - 11 losses, many to unranked teams including our Illini one year before they were flyin'!!!

ktcesw on January 14, 2021 @ 12:20 AM

The B1G! The best and toughest conference in the country. All games are tough, grind it out games! There are going to be losses! No such thing as a bad loss! Just keep playing!

orangejulius on January 14, 2021 @ 12:20 AM

If you really want something to worry about, besides that this is our season to great and we are merely good, how about that Kofi and Ayo will be in the NBA next season and we missed on all of our top recruiting targets except for one.

Robert on January 14, 2021 @ 01:13 AM

For whatever reason, I'm not overly worried about that. Transfers, spring recruits, the possibility of Da'Monte and Trent returning... I don't see it as some huge setback.

I'm more worried that we won't put up a season that will create the distance for a step back next year.

OrangeBlazer on January 14, 2021 @ 08:37 AM

I think a lot of the context this year makes it really difficult to compare this season to past seasons. We were all hoping for a special season, but even in my wildest expectations I never imagined something like '89 or '05. I was hoping for '01, and perhaps it's looking more like '03--senior leaders surrounded by talented freshmen still trying to put the pieces together. But that's ok! '03 was a really, really, fun year. Not as fun as '01 or '02, sure, but still lots and lots of fun. And yes, if we exit in the second round, it will be disappointing to have all of the anticipation fall short, but there is a LOT of basketball left to be played.

Regardless, not only are the power numbers remarkable, but if we had had a regular non-COVID season, we likely would have added 5 more cupcakes to the schedule--wouldn't a 14-4 record feel a lot different right now than 9-4? Because that's what this is, a 14-4 team.

And let's put some of the losses in context. Very good (but not great teams) lose head scratchers ('01 had 7 losses after all and not all were to Dukes and Arizonas). And while home losses are harder to take, home losses this year are not like home losses in other years, and losing to a middle of the pack Maryland team in this conference, is not like losing to a middle of the pack conference team in other years. And also: we lost Trent for half that game. The offense bogged down in the second half precisely when we coudln't spread the floor because Curbelo's man didn't have to guard him on the perimeter. Frankly, if Trent plays his normal minutes, I'm certain we win.

Account for COVID, the strength of the conference, and a roster with two freshmen figuring things out, and it's easier to adjust the expectations and realize that everything is still there for a special season. You mention that feeling of knowing Frank would take over. I still feel that about Ayo. He didn't do it on Maryland, but Frank didn't do it every game either. But Ayo has done it so many times already, he's earned the benefit of the doubt.

As a duo, Ayo and Kofi are unlike anything we have ever seen. Just try to enjoy it.

'89/'05 special, no, but that was never in the cards. '01/'84 is still very much a possibility.

uilaw71 on January 14, 2021 @ 12:27 PM

OrangeBlazer said my thoughts, pretty much word for word. Even great teams stumble, including the Flying Illini.

ktcesw on January 14, 2021 @ 02:53 PM

I would emphasize the point about the virus' impact upon the summer and fall. There was no opportunity for the freshmen to see where they fell into the pecking order. Everyone is still learning each other's game. No real non-conference season to get use to how each member reacts in a given situation.

Sweetchuck13 on January 14, 2021 @ 02:56 PM

This is really well said. The variance is much higher this year than we thought it would be, but it doesn't mean we can't get hot and go on a run.

This team could easily flame out in a game like this where they fall asleep, but there's not a single team in the country that I'm scared of this team playing. We can go toe-to-toe with anyone, and that makes me excited.

JJNorthside on January 14, 2021 @ 06:49 PM

Looking back it seems odd we are where we are. Having Ayo and Kofi back plus 2 senior starters should've been a recipe for Top 5, and then it wasn't. Is it coaching? Player development just not where it should've been? No clue.

NC_OrangeKrush on January 14, 2021 @ 06:49 PM

No matter which game.. The team seemingly goes idle at any 3 - 9 point lead. So it is those possessions no one talks about because we still have the lead.... We make 3-4 more stops for each of them yet consistently have 3-4 dry possessions. That is the momentum turning points

Illini_1105 on January 15, 2021 @ 04:40 PM

Dang Robert, you are right. If we take our Illini blinders off, objectively it looks like we just aren't the team we thought we were. Michigan is having the Illini season we thought we would have.

Not to say things can't change by the end of February, but it helps the hurt of the gut punch if we try to remain objective throughout the year. Dang....

Illini_1105 on January 15, 2021 @ 04:40 PM

Dang Robert, you are right. If we take our Illini blinders off, objectively it looks like we just aren't the team we thought we were. Michigan is having the Illini season we thought we would have.

Not to say things can't change by the end of February, but it helps the hurt of the gut punch if we try to remain objective throughout the year. Dang....

Ellisrt1031 on January 16, 2021 @ 07:25 PM

Shouldn't be any more questions about your statement now Robert. We are above average but no where close to excellent

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