Not Our Night

Feb 24, 2021

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It's 3:56 am. That's not a joke - that's really the time. I just wrote for nearly six hours, saved it, and am not sure if I'll ever publish it. It had nothing to do with Illini basketball and everything to do with Covid protocols in Big Ten basketball arenas. I need to sleep on it. Right now, probably only a 20% chance I ever publish it.

I felt like I needed to get it out of my brain, but here we are six hours later and it's all I'm thinking about. The gist: there was a guy in my press seat when I got to Breslin, and usually that's "whatever" but he was a fan, not media (at least I didn't see a credential, and he was clapping/cheering for MSU). I found a vacant seat but wasn't sure if I should be sitting there (the rules are usually very strict given the pandemic). Brought it up to the MSU staff but they didn't seem concerned. And that made me realize that when you attend 15 basketball games with over-the-top safety protocols, attending the one with the fewest protocols makes you feel oddly unsafe, even though I have no idea what is "safe" or "unsafe" during this pandemic.

Perhaps this is just something that all of us will be going through over the months and years ahead. The virus will be gone (whenever it's gone) and we'll be on a crowded dance floor at a wedding feeling like "are we SURE it's safe for grandma to be out here?". It will be completely safe, but we just spent so much time at "better safe than sorry" that just normal behavior feels unsafe.

It was basically that, only 3,000 words.

Anyway, if you're wondering why I barely tweeted in the second half (and I don't think I've tweeted anything since about the 10:00 mark), that's why. I ended up leaving right at the final buzzer. It was the ultimate "better safe than sorry" move, but after collecting the media info from the guy's desk (the media info left there for me), I had this realization that I probably shouldn't be taking handoffs from this dude. I know the media around us went through the screening process, but did he? It's like 99.7% safe but something about the 0.3% made me get up and leave.

It's so weird to find myself there. Sitting there, trying to watch the game, thoughts of "you know, this is the first game I've attended where there was no temperature screening at the door..." building in my head. I've never been a "better safe than sorry" person my entire life. But tonight, the moment the game ended, it felt like the wisest thing to do was to skip the Zoom press conferences and get back to my hotel room. Maybe this is the same reason that woman got off the plane on Sunday.

The game? I performed terribly. Just call me Ratio City Music Hall. I called the first half the worst half of the season (which I still kinda believe at this moment even though I appear to be on an island). The most common reply was that the Northwestern first half was worse. The way I remember the Northwestern first half, it was fairly even and then in the last five minutes Northwestern went on a 12-0 run or something and it was 15 at the half.

Let me go look that up. Against Northwestern, Illinois was 8-23 in the first half. Tonight, Illinois was 7-29 (24%) with 8 turnovers. Hmmm... maybe I wasn't too far off. Maybe the ratio was bad.

Still wasn't my best effort. I kept getting texts about the officiating, but I was at a 9 out of 100 on the Stupid Ref scale. I just saw us getting out-muscled and out-hustled. Until I saw the tweets (and some texts from friends), I had no feeling of "man, the refs are jobbing us" in this one. But I'm far away and you're watching up close, with four replays, in HD, so you have a much better seat.

What I saw from my seat was an Illinois team getting muscled. Here's what I tweeted about 10 minutes into the game:

That's pretty much how I felt the whole game. Fouls were called - final tally was 24-19 Michigan State - but Michigan State didn't care. They knocked us off our game (literally) and we didn't have much of a response.

I mean, we could have taken advantage of all those fouls. We got to the line 34 times (at Michigan State!). But we only made 19 of those - Ayo 4-8, Kofi 3-11 - and that was that.

Just a really bad loss in all aspects. Michigan State has the name "Michigan State", but their five conference wins before tonight: Nebraska twice, Penn State, Rutgers, and Indiana. In their last home game they lost to Iowa by 30. Usually "we lost at Breslin" is understandable, but this year it really stings.

Still, this is a D+ performance for me. I let a press row fan's clapping get to my head. Didn't keep my composure. Crumbled when asked to rank the first half against all other halves. Failed to see certain fouls without access to replay. And then I left right at the horn because, for whatever reason, I felt a little safer in my hotel room.

Overall this one feels like the "How To Beat Illinois" seminar is set up and ready to go now. Baylor did it. Michigan State did it. Get physical with us and we're going to get frustrated. Stay right up in our face and we struggle to find a counterpunch. Our focus now must be "how do we win that kind of game?". We've shown we can win slower pace games and we've shown we can get out and run. Can we win a boxing match? Specifically, can we win a boxing match without letting our opponent get under our skin? That's the piece this team must prove before the Tournament.

Ha - I just looked out the window and the very first hints of the sun coming up are now showing. I need to drive back to Champaign tomorrow (today) so I should probably go to bed. How did the last leg of this trip go? For both Illini basketball and Robert the Covid-fearing blogger?

Not our night.


ditkanate on February 24, 2021 @ 07:24 AM

Wouldn't go so far as to say we were jobbed by the refs, but off the top of my head there were multiple bad / blown calls: The out of bounds off MSU's leg that hit the ref. Kofi clobbered in head, called "incidental" no flagrant. Phantom Trent foul on 3 point attempt.
MSU pushes Belo down then skids across the floor travel.. foul on Belo.
I know there were more, but that's enough I think. B1G refs are... not good. Anyway, even after saying all that, I think your overall sentiment is correct. MSU's game plan was to clobber us all night knowing the refs won't / can't call everything. They called a lot, but not everything, and we simply didn't handle it well. And even with all of that, we actually could have made a game of it if we hit a few FT's. Alas.

thegoah on February 24, 2021 @ 01:10 PM

Plus there’s the “Intentionally punching Ayo in the face is not a common foul”. That might have stood had Ayo not been laid out on the floor for two minutes. No idea how you get from “not a foul” to “flagrant 2” on that play. The officiating was absolute trash. Maybe the worst officiated game I’ve ever seen.

Which is too bad for Sparty, because they absolutely outplayed us and probably deserved to win but the refs made sure we’ll never get to know.

Giovantischixstripz on February 24, 2021 @ 05:48 PM

The Trent one was definitely a foul, he entered the shooters natural landing area. The Belo one I thought was a good no call as well, their legs got tangled, Watts didn't extend his arm. The other ones I agree were bad, but we lost this game and the Spartans won it, there is nothing else to say about this.

skibdaddy on February 24, 2021 @ 07:56 AM

It's still the mental game for our guys. We get too focused on how we were "wronged" by the physicality of the other team or by the officials that we lose our focus. I hoped that overcoming bad officiating against Indiana was the "lightbulb" moment for us, but alas, last night proved it was a one-time deal. We still have time to get it together and do some damage, but it looks like the conference title is out of reach at this point.

ATOillini on February 24, 2021 @ 08:03 AM

Spot on summary. Would seem any opposing coaching staff worth its salt will employ similar game plan going forward. Collapse 3 players on Kofi and force him to make free throws if necessary, since it does not appear the ball is coming back out to what should be an open shooter somewhere. Also, just be physical in general against Illini and you’ll get in their head.

On a positive note, we never gave up. Still had a chance to claw back in with a few minutes left. If Curbelo ever develops a reliable 3 point shot, he is going to be a nightmare for our opponents.

IlliniJoe81 on February 24, 2021 @ 08:21 AM

It’s like we’re a sports car offended that it has to drive through the mud. Half our losses are to inferior teams that just muddied up the game and got in our heads. Ayo and Kofi are both susceptible to this. Giorgi gets it the worst.

PapaDels4me on February 24, 2021 @ 08:41 PM

Since I really like clever analogies, I really like this summary. Spot on.

Dr. Chim Richalds on February 24, 2021 @ 09:19 AM

My fear all season has been teams selling out to stop Ayo and forcing us to beat them in other ways. Felt like MSU was the first team to do that since Baylor, and we don't have much of an answer unless Kofi is dominating. They were helping from everywhere any time Ayo was inside the 3-point line. I know Robert talked about who the 3rd option is on the podcast this week, and I think that's the biggest question mark, because great coaches are going to force our other guards and wings to create, and right now Curbelo is the only one that does.

Also - I thought Underwood was past the auto-sit for guys with 2 fouls in the first half. The data are super clear on this being a sub-optimal strategy. We got crushed in the last 7 minutes of the half when we sat Kofi, and he finished the game with only 3. That said, Underwood has done a fantastic job all season, so it's a small gripe.

bigmcq16 on February 24, 2021 @ 12:24 PM

Agreed on the sitting of Kofi. His second foul was totally avoidable and he immediately asked to stay in the game, which to me signalled that he understood it was a dumb foul and he won't do it again now that he has two. I think you gotta trust him there, especially given the data that you referenced, but alas..

Giovantischixstripz on February 24, 2021 @ 05:50 PM

He also got lucky he didn't get called on a few more. He whacked Sissoko out of frustration and the ref didn't see it, and got away with an elbow later. I think he was frustrated with the 2nd foul, he needed to sit down and cool off at least for a little bit. Probably could have come back for a few minutes, but that just isn't Brad's philosophy, especially with Kofi

Oskeegirl on February 24, 2021 @ 12:22 PM

So weird on the protocols. My daughter is a student there, and mostly parents are up in arms that the precautions are much too strict. She’s not even supposed to spend time with the girl she shares a bathroom with.

Illini_1105 on February 24, 2021 @ 02:52 PM

Go easy on yourself robert. Covid is scary. I'd be shook too; and frankly when I go places where I see lax protocol I get anxious too. Don't sweat it - we appreciate you no matter what.

Eagle on February 24, 2021 @ 10:19 PM

As long as Kofi isn’t taught to pass the ball out occasionally, teams will continue to triple team him. There’s no reason not to if they know they won’t get burned on the perimeter. That has to change but we’ve seen a trend toward this for a while and hasn’t been corrected yet.

iluvrt on February 26, 2021 @ 06:18 PM

Izzo is a scum cheating bastard. And rape coverer. That was not a basketball play on Ayo, it was premeditated mayhem

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