Back & Forth - New Year
You have currently viewed 1 story this month.
IlliniBoard now offers two free stories per month, for more please subscribe.
Sometimes this back-and-forth format isn't just a way to publish a new post on the site. Sometimes I really need Tyler's help and I allow you to watch me seek that help in real time. OK, probably not "in real time", but that would be cool. Maybe I'll let you guys livestream our texts some day.
Anyway, I sent an email to Tyler. He responded. We emailed back and forth. Here's our whole conversation. Starting with my first email to him:
Here's my main thought after 11 games:
I've never gone more "forwards then backwards" in any season of Illini basketball. I'm talking fandom. Not just "I feel great about this team" followed by "I have concerns about this team", but from "we're winning it all" to "are we gonna go 9-11 in the Big Ten?" over the course of the same game.
The obvious example of this would be the Penn State game. We had just lost 3 of 4 (to Baylor, Missouri, and Rutgers) and started that game down 19-4. That's when I tweeted my "hovers over 'maybe we're just not that good?' button" tweet. Then we turned it on, outscored Penn State 94-62 the rest of the way, and looked like one of the best teams in the country.
But that's just the thing. Here's the season so far for me:
Beat NCA&T and Chicago State by 50+: "Final four lock".
Need two threes in the final minute to beat Ohio: "Uh oh."
Lose to Baylor to fall to 2-2: "Baylor is Final Four good. We're just not there yet."
Beat Duke and never trail by single digits in the second half: "OK we're Final Four good."
Lose to Missouri: "Check that - we take these naps during games and it's going to bite us all season."
Beat Minnesota by 27: "This Minny team is surprisingly stout this year and we simply demolished them. Maybe we really are top-5 material."
Lose at Rutgers: "Another second half nap, another loss. 5-3 is a worst-case-scenario start to this season."
Win at Penn State: "OK, so we might nap here and there but we also have a nitrous switch."
Beat Indiana and Purdue: "Won both games by 8-10 on what I'd consider to be 'off' nights. That's actually kind of encouraging."
So I don't know where to land so far. We push the lead to 13 against Purdue (with defense, not with offense) and I'm ready to declare us as a balanced team that can beat you all kinds of different ways. Then we give up a 19-0 run and it's "OK, scratch that, we're not as good as I thought we were because great teams don't give up 19-0 runs to 7-5 offensively challenged teams".
Please help me find some footing. (And the answer might be "why do you need footing?").
You already have solid footing. That footing is the rock solid foundation of the Big Ten Conference.
The strength of the conference makes the top 9 (and probably even top 10) teams virtually bubble proof. You finish .500 in this league and you're a stone cold lock for whatever iteration of the NCAA Tournament takes place come March. It's just that good.
In our preseason preview I predicted a 15-5 conference record. If that prediction were to hold, we would enter the Big Ten Tournament at 19-7 and still be in the mix for a # 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. 2 seed at the worst. I'm reminded of the 2001 season in which a 24-7/13-3 record was still enough to earn HRF and the crew a #1 seed.
The conference wins are going to continue to carry heavy weight, and there just aren't many opportunities for "bad" losses remaining the rest of the way. Only the two Nebraska games and home against Penn State would qualify as such. (I cant bring myself to type the words "at Michigan State would be a bad loss").
I'm not moving off my prediction, but even if we fall short of that, I'm not even going to be mad bro'. I'll just wrap myself in the cozy blanket of the Big Ten conference SOS. Heck we could go 8-7 over the balance of the league schedule to finish at 12-8 and still likely be a 4 or 5 seed at 16-10 overall.
Here's how I see the league standings playing out with respect to NCAA Tournament seeding:
16 league wins = 1 seed
15 = 2 seed
14 = 3 seed
13 = 4 seed
12 = 5 seed
In this season - where it kind of looks like its Gonzaga and Baylor vs the field, and "protected seeds" aren't really going to be a thing - I'm going to be cool with a 5 seed or better. But that said, nothing I've seen through these first five conference games dissuades me from the notion that we're still one of the best three or four teams in the Big Ten.
Of course, all this "big picture zen" won't stop me from scaring my dog with angry couch noises during 19-4 and 19-0 stretches from opposing teams (I still can't believe we comfortably won both games in which we allowed those runs), but it sure should help mitigate my stress levels in the downtime following those tough losses.
"Gonzaga and Baylor vs. the field". Tell me that 20 years ago and there's no chance I would believe you. It just sounds so absurd.
I think I've told you this story before, but 25 years ago I was in Park City, Utah for spring break. My friend Jason and I decided to take a day and go down to Salt Lake City to watch the first round games in the SLC regional. We saw four games that day, and it's amazing how many names I still remember. This was one of eight regional sites in one Tournament in 1995 and yet you'll remember so many of these teams.
We saw the Danny Fortson Cincinnati team struggle with, but finally overcome, the Rick Brunson Temple team. We saw a snoozer win for 2-seed UConn (the Ray Allen/Donny Marshall team) where they destroyed Tennessee-Chattanooga. The least memorable game of the day was 11-seed Texas over 6-seed Oregon (I can't remember any names on either team). And then there was the Joe Smith Maryland team (the 3-seed) taking on 14-seed Gonzaga. I can't remember any Gonzaga players from that team, but I do remember that Maryland had Exree Hipp!
(How dumb is my brain? I don't know what a US Ambassador does but I remember that the 1995 Joe Smith Maryland team had Exree Hipp.)
I remember Gonzaga's fan section that day. It's a 10 hour drive from Spokane to Salt Lake City, but a lot of them made the drive. And I found it to be kind of neat. All these fans of a 14-seed who get to experience the Big Dance even though their team is going to get absolutely destroyed (and they did - Maryland won by 24). Gonzaga had never been to the Tournament before, so these fans weren't going to miss the opportunity to see their tiny school play in an actual NCAA Tournament game.
Now, 25 years later, "Gonzaga and Baylor vs. the field". Just so insane.
Anyway, yes, that does make me feel better. I don't think I'm worried about missing the Tournament, but I would like to narrow down just how good we are. And I guess I want to do that because I want to temper my Big Ten Champions hopes if we're really not going to get there. I'm asking for my safety, and in this Big Ten, I don't think that's possible.
I guess fans of the other Big Ten teams probably feel the same way. Michigan fans know they haven't played a single good team yet. Iowa fans saw their Tournament future (at some point you have to play D or a Marcus Carr will single-handedly beat you). Wisconsin fans... well, Wisconsin fans just expect the pixie dust to be sprinkled handing them yet another Big Ten banner.
Maybe I should put you on the spot. Right now, without thinking about it, give me your top 5 in the Big Ten at the end of the season.
This is the Back and Forth in which we trade Gonzaga NCAA Tournament stories. I lived in Phoenix for the better part of the 90s. The 1999 regional semis/final were held in Phoenix in what was then known as America West Arena. An upstart 10 seed Gonzaga upset Minnesota in the first round and then took down 2 seed Stanford to get to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. The Zags were playing Florida and the arena had turned into Spokane Southwest.
The building was stuffed full and rooting interest was 95-5 in favor of the underdog Zags. I'll fully admit I was swept up in it as well. So anyway, great game - Gonzaga wins on a tip in from Casey Calvary (I remember random NCAA Tournament names too!) with like 4 seconds left. This was the Gus Johnson "THE SLIPPER STILL FITS!!" game. Rip Hamilton and eventual National Champion Connecticut would end the Zags run two days later in the regional final, but the legend was born that afternoon in Phoenix. You see their first NCAA Tournament game in school history in 1995 and just 4 years later I'm watching them play for a spot in the Final Four. Meanwhile we hadn't been to the Sweet 16 since I left school in 1989, but whatever. OK - let's table all Gonzaga talk until we are getting ready to face them in April in Indy.
So where were we? Oh yes - Big Ten standings come March 6. I think we've established three tiers through the first quarter of league play.
Tier 3 - Conference bottom: Nebraska, Penn State, Maryland. No NCAA for you!
Tier 2 - Mid-pack. 6-10 seed NCAA Tournament teams: Purdue, Michigan State, Indiana, Northwestern, Minnesota, Ohio State
After watching us eviscerate Minnesota, I'm not quite ready to buy on them, and despite my earlier comment on MSU on being a bad loss, I'm probably being kind to them based purely on pedigree. Every time I've watched them they look like an absolute mess. Ohio State can't shoot and they don't have much presence in the middle. I like what Northwestern can do on offense - they have a "shooter's chance" most nights - but I'm not sure they can defend well enough to move up to the upper tier. Call them "Iowa Light." Purdue and Indiana are kind of the same team - plodding on offense, but good enough on defense to scuffle to around .500 in the league and still earn NCAA spots.
Tier 1 - Top of the Conference. 1-4 seed NCAA Tournament teams: Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Rutgers, Michigan.
You are right that Michigan hasn't played anyone yet, but Hunter Dickinson is already better than Jon Teske, and Mike Smith has been really good as Zavier Simpson's replacement. Wisconsin has taken "get old and stay old" to the extreme and they aren't going anywhere. Rutgers might have the best starting five in the league, and of course, we all know how good Iowa can be when they get that offensive machine rolling.
So that leaves us. We've been the most steady team in league play through five games - 2nd in offensive efficiency and 2nd in defensive efficiency (conference games only). Those numbers perfectly align with my "eye test" feel on our start in conference play. Occasionally spectacular and occasionally mundane, but mostly damn consistent. I still think we ride that consistency to at least a share of the league title.
And I just realized that you started this Back and Forth talking about "forwards and backwards", and now here I am talking about our consistency.
No, this is what I wanted. This is good stuff. This is helping me.
I think a big part of my yo-yo during games this season is that I don't remember what a great team looks like. It's just been so long. And my main memories (recent memories) are of 2005 and our "pretty sure we're going undefeated" awesomeness.
I bet if I went back and watched some games from 2001 or 1987 I'd remember that even the great teams start a game down 19-4. They just do what this team did - outscore the opponent by 35 the rest of the way. Maybe that's where I should settle my brain: every game, anticipate that our run is coming. Miller is going to be hot from three, or Curbelo is going to be compiling his highlight reel, or Ayo is going to Ayo, and I can just push my fears back down and wait for it to happen.
(But I'm still a little worried about being a rotation of only 7 players. I should be worried about that, right?)
Nick Anderson-Kenny Battle-Kendall Gill-Lowell Hamilton-Steve Bardo-Marcus Liberty-Larry Smith
Dee Brown-Deron Williams-Luther Head-Roger Powell-James Augustine-Jack Ingram-Rich McBride.
Any more questions?
No further questions. Thank you for your service.