Jan 8, 2021

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That's it. That's the tweet. Wait - no...

Yep - that's it. That's definitely the tweet. But then...

OK - you get the idea.

Tonight's 81-56 win over Northwestern was as unique a game as you'll ever witness. This one will always stick in my memory. Illinois snoozes through basically the entire first half - waking only occasionally to throw some passes out of bounds or jack up a few wayward three point attempts. Down by 15. Our win probability at half per KenPom: 12.6%.

Then...CLICK. We go absolutely bonkers in the second half - opening with an 8-0 run and never letting off the accelerator - steamrolling and floor slapping our way to a 40 point turnaround by the time the final horn mercifully sounded. The second half was legit basketball porn for Illini fans.

The stats from the half reflect the extreme prejudice of the beat down:

+Illinois scored 53 points on 60% (19-32) shooting from the field - including 57% (8-14) from three

+Those shooting numbers turned into 1.64 PPP in the second half for Illinois. Northwestern checked in at a cool 0.38 PPP.

+Illinois had 13 assists on 19 made baskets, just four second half turnovers and a 25-12 advantage on the glass.

+Northwestern shot 2-24 (8%!!) in the second half with zero second chance points, zero fast break point, and zero points off turnovers.

An epic second half that was as fun to watch as it was historic. So then why am I still so irritated by that first half? The Wildcats were a cute story for a week or so, but let's get real here. An Illinois team who fancies themselves as legit Final Four caliber shouldn't have been taking a beating from Northwestern - even for a half.

There is no doubt that this Illini team can find another gear - on both offense and defense. "Spurtability" is the term Brad Underwood used a couple of times in the post game press conference tonight. Unfortunately, that spurtability seems kind of wasted on Northwestern. Or Purdue. Or Penn State.

We were Final Four good in the second half tonight, but I think it's fair to ask why this team needed to fall 15 down to a middling Northwestern squad before shifting into that next gear. The troubling thing is that these lapses are nothing new. Tonight was the fifth game out of twelve in which we've allowed a run of at least 16 points after having a lead:

Baylor: 29-13

Rutgers: 26-9

Penn State: 19-4

Purdue: 19-0

Northwestern: 24-8

Yeah, yeah, basketball is a game of runs, and yes we ended up winning three of those games, but this trend is still disconcerting. I'm baffled as to how this keeps happening to a veteran team such as this one. I don't think it comes from being temporarily outschemed or falling victim to random shooting droughts. It also doesn't seem to be a a rotation or starting five issue - as three of those runs occurred in the second half of games and all occurred with a variety of lineups on the floor.

It does appear, though, that this team suffers from a focus problem. As in we lose it far too often. I'm a guy who leans heavily on numbers and metrics when analyzing games so I try to avoid falling back on such subjective variables as "playing hard" or "matching intensity", but forget tonight's boxscore for a second. Did the energy level of the Illinois team you watched in the second half tonight resemble anything like what you saw in the first 20 minutes? Of course not. It was two completely different teams.

It's risky business slipping into these frequent stretches of indifferent play. You might be able to get by against the Penn States and Northwesterns of the world, but against better teams - like Baylor and Rutgers - well, that's how you give away games. We remain in the midst of an extremely favorable stretch of the schedule, but things take a turn come February, and it would be nice to get this issue squared away by then.

Asked after tonight's game about the propensity of this team to give up these big runs, Underwood admitted it was puzzling and was something he and his staff have been working to correct. He also acknowledged the frustration factor because of how good they look when firing on all cylinders. He finished his answer by promising "We'll get that fixed." Yes, do that please - starting Sunday.


+I love watching Trent Frazier play defense. LOVE. IT. He gave Boo Buie and Miller Kopp fits all night. Northwestern's two best offensive players finished the game a combined 2-13 from the floor for 8 points.

+Adam Miller remains not shy. He led Illinois with 12 shots from the field tonight. 11 of those shots were threes. Probably a little too shooty, but if he keeps making 4 out of every 11, those driving lanes he had available earlier in the season are going to open back up for business.

+Another 7 assists from Andre Curbelo - despite being saddled with foul trouble and only playing 20 minutes. He is a full assist per game clear of the field on the Big Ten assist per game leaderboard.

+As I mentioned above, the schedule remains favorable pretty much through January. We've won four straight - and will be strong favorites for the next four as well (home vs Maryland, @Nebraska, home vs Ohio State, home vs Penn State). Really we need to win all four to stay on track for a shot at the league title.


SactownIllini on January 8, 2021 @ 02:07 PM

Seems in the games we've lost or in the big runs we've given up in wins, we are just outhustled. I think we've probably been the superior team in all games outside of Baylor, but for some reason we just lose focus as you said, or play scared...something. One thing maybe Underwood can do is call a timeout more quickly when a run starts. I think he tries to conserve them a bit too much.

This is such a fun team to watch. Definitely the most explosive offensive team since 1989. And I've noticed we are rapidly creeping up the defensive rankings in KenPom and T-Rank which I think is the most exciting news. As good as the 2005 team was offensively, their elite defense is what won them 37 games.

Sam on January 8, 2021 @ 03:09 PM

"The extreme prejudice of the beatdown". Well said, buddy.

HNLINI on January 8, 2021 @ 06:59 PM

Chris Collins had some interesting thoughts in his post game presser viewable online re: games played the absence of fans: he suggested that it might lead to greater momentum swings than those seen in games with fans present. Anecdotally, it does seem in games this year that we have seen more "runs" than in prior years - wonder if the stats would confirm this or not.

mmyers74 on January 8, 2021 @ 11:29 PM

There is no question that a lack of fans leads to greater runs.

The refs don't "feel" it... and as much as they swear they "tune out the crowd and are unaffected...", I can show you at least 2,000 extremely exaggerated "charge calls" after 2 or 3 straight buckets in a home team comeback that would demonstrate otherwise.

Crowds also tend to quell visiting runs.... but even more so, they keep foul levels closer to "even" for the home team. If it's 10 fouls on the home team and 3 on the visitors, there will be NO WAY the officials aren't reminded and feeling that. And human nature is called nature for a reason. This year, more than ever, you're seeing inequitable foul figures in favor of ROAD teams at times. Such a weird thing to see.

That has been the single biggest difference in basketball this year. Road wins are just "easier", in ways that ar far more significant than just crowd sound/vibe.

Markschnake1 on January 9, 2021 @ 08:16 AM

Great article! I would challenge the next 4 are must wins. I’m more confident in Illinois’ ability to beat Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa than I am in their ability to beat tOSU at home. This team is just motivated by being an “underdog” and I have to think part of that is our reliance on Ayo (who LOVES being doubted).

I’ll feel the same way in the tournament. I’m most scared by the potential 2 vs 15; 3 vs 14; 4 vs 12 games (depending on where we end up)

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