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It's now two hours after that mess ended, and I still have no idea how to process what I just watched so I'm just going to start typing and see if I can find my way.
On one hand, I'm not sure this game has any meaning in the big picture. Yeah, yeah, every game matters and NCAA seeding and all that, but this is also the third game of the season and one we probably win by 15 with Kofi Cockburn on the floor.
But on the other hand, I can practically hear the teeth gnashing from here. How can you lose a game in that fashion - an earth shattering implosion of historic proportions - and not question everything?
"Why was Andre Curbelo still in the game!!??"
"Why did Trent Frazier only manage one shot in the final five minutes of the game!!??"
"Why didn't Brad Underwood call time out on the final possession!!??"
Can we have it both ways? Can we all agree that we witnessed one of the most embarrassingly disappointing performances in recent memory and also agree that a game in November with a short handed roster doesn't necessarily portend eventual doom come March? I'm guessing I'll have to leave each of you to draw your own conclusions.
This was one of those dreaded "flip the win probability chart on its head" games.
At 10:14: 94.6% Illinois win probability after a Coleman Hawkins three.
At 5:36: 89.9% Illinois win probability after a Hawkins putback slam.
At this point the game was akin to starting an overtime period with an 8 point lead. You wouldn't normally lose many games in that scenario, but here we were only scoring one point over that final 5:36.
Yet even after five minutes of basketball that required a chemical wash for your eyes, we somehow (Marquette missed free throws mainly) found our way into "make your free throws - win the damn game" status. Up 1 with :32 seconds left. Marquette has to foul. Put the ball in Trent Frazier's hands and let the super senior drag his team to the ugliest win in recent memory with some coffin nail free throws.
Even Frazier - who was otherwise magnificent - blinked. He turned his back to the defense with no safety behind him. He was picked (kicked?) clean at half court and Marquette was suddenly headed the other way en route to a layup that gave them a one point lead with 25 seconds left.
And yet still - one more chance at redemption. Down a single point with one final possession to win the game and salvage whatever dignity was still within reach.
Of course, our last possession was a predictable dumpster fire with Curbelo trying to crash through four Marquette defenders and instead giving up his seventh turnover of the night. Ball game.
To perversely quote Jack Buck - "I don't believe what I just saw."
For us to lose that game - an unfortunate series of unlikely events had to take place. Of course, that's exactly what happened because that sometimes happens in sports, but the most painful thing was that virtually all of those events were self-inflicted.
Whither Andre Curbelo? By any metric that was one of the worst games you'll ever see a point guard have: 4-18 from the floor with seven turnovers and an absolute disregard for anything resembling team basketball down the stretch.
But I'm just not sure how to assess his game tonight. I really see only two options here. Either you believe tonight was just one of those nightmarish games that every athlete experiences at some point in a career, or you think maybe that's just what Curbelo is in a Kofi-less world.
While I don't want to lean on the "Kofi" crutch too much, it's impossible to view Curbelo's performance without looking through that lens.
Curbelo is a pick and roll wizard without his roll. After Marquette figured out they shouldn't leave Trent Frazier alone, there just weren't many options. They weren't cheating to help from the three point line, and their post defenders could leave Payne and BBV alone to step into Curbelo's driving lanes without fear of being punished. Did you see BBV shoot a layup over the top of the backboard?
Should Curbelo have been on the bench in that final stretch? Again, I'll not deny anyone their own opinions, but I say no. I feel like in November, you have to let him try to play his way out of the hole he dug for himself. That said, I reserve the right to a different opinion come February. Even at the end, I think he was still our best option at the point. With the exception of those final six minutes, he had our second half offense humming.
He actually finished the game as one of only three Illini with a positive +/- for the game. By contrast, Alfonso Plummer was -7 in 13 minutes. Had Underwood benched Curbelo, then we would have been left with the entire Marquette defense - including the former Big Ten Defensive POY - keyed right on our main offensive threat in Trent Frazier.
Curbelo is an amazing pick and roll point guard. What he is not yet is a "create his own offense" point guard. Remember the "This Won't End Well For Illinois" game against MSU? Cassius Winston had 9 turnovers in that loss. Was Tom Izzo going to bench him? Of course not. As a sophomore, Winston had a Curbelo-ish TO rate of 23%. One year later he was the Big Ten POY. Great players have terrible games sometimes, and really, that's OK.
Not every game has to be a referendum on a player's entire career. He tried to put the team on his shoulders and he collapsed under the weight. Weird stuff happens when guys step out of their comfort zone, and Curbelo's comfort zone - at this point of his career - has Kofi Cockburn right in the middle of it. This season will be a journey for Curbelo.
Plus we all signed up for this. Admit it - every one of you reading this knew deep down that Curbelo had a game like this in him. I'm just glad it happened in game 3 - because I don't expect him to have a similar effort in the future. Oh sure he's going to have some five and six turnover games - but they aren't likely to come on top of 14 missed shots from the field.
This game was also not a referendum on the rest of the season. If the last two seasons have taught us anything, it's that this thing is a marathon. We are exactly 9.6% of the way through the season. Even had Trent made two free throws instead of turning the ball over and we stumbled to an ugly win, we would still be having the same conversations right now. Look I get it - the Loyola game cut every single one of us to the core and I think scar tissue remains. There is a a residual lack of trust. But neither that game nor this one really informs us all that much about what this team will become in January, February, and March. There are too many variables in the equation.
This game (or least the final 5 minutes of this game) was an embarrassing disappointment and this team can still end up being great. Both things can be true.
Andre Curbelo was as bad as bad gets tonight and he can still end up leading this team to a Final Four. Both things can be true.
The worst thing though? Waiting a full week to see what happens next.
+There will be those who question Brad Underwood's decision to forego a time out on the final possession, but he was having none of it. In the post game press conference he said "I hate doing that." I'm not going to pass judgment one way or another on that strategy as different coaches play that situation differently with varying degrees of success, but it's definitely worth holding on to that quote for future reference as the season progresses.
+Alfonso Plummer concerns me. For a guy who put up 11 shots per game at Utah last season, he was disappointingly hesitant to shoot the ball tonight. Even with Kofi back, this offense needs to have willing and able three point shooters on the perimeter.
+One huge positive - the rebounding. We have simply dominated the glass through three games and with Kofi returning next week, that figures to be a huge advantage for this team moving forward.
+So how about that depth? Underwood basically ran with 8 guys tonight.
+Welcome back Kofi. We missed you.