The Little Voice
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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.
- 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:
Illini basketball and napping - a graphical study.— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) January 13, 2021
All of these games were wins. All of these games had a really weird nap in the middle (and against Ohio U, two naps). #endnaptime #nonaps pic.twitter.com/wVAcb1YJ8f
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.