One Question Mailbag - Best Performances
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Maybe this is a regular feature now. Someone asks me a question (Twitter, in the comments, wherever) and my answer is too long to respond where they asked me. So I bring it over here and make it a One Question Mailbag. The old OQM. Yeah, that acronym is a bit clunky.
Anyway, here's the question:
Writing idea from the postgame show, top Illini single game performances of all time (or your memory). ~Kevin
This is probably a good way to go about putting Ayo's performance into context. Where does it fit among great Illini performances? And what makes a great performance? Importance of the game? Strength of opponent? Epic NCAA Tournament performance? I kind of don't feel like breaking this one down - I just want to ramble for a while, picking things from my brain the last 35 years.
And before you old guys start bringing up Dave Downey, like all my lists like this, I start in 82/83. I don't remember Mark Smith's triple double because I was six at the time. This list will be from my memories, not from some book.
The first place my brain goes, obviously, is to high-scoring games. And the first one that comes to mind there is the game we refer to as "BP43" - Brandon Paul scoring 43 points at home against Ohio State. The reason that one comes to mind over, say, Malcolm Hill scoring 40 against Northern Kentucky was because Ohio State was #5 in the country at the time. And it also had a signature moment. Illinois was leading by one with less than a minute remaining and Paul hit a fadeaway three to make it a two possession game, essentially locking up the win.
As I recall, 43 was the most points scored in a Big Ten game in almost 20 years (not Illini games - any Big Ten game). And it's so strange that it happened during the 2012 season. Paul hits the fadeaway three (his eighth three of the game in only 10 attempts) and Illinois wins to move to 15-3 on the season. And because we beat #5 Ohio State, we moved into the rankings the following week at #22. And then we went 2-12 the rest of the way. A 15-3 start ends at 17-15.
There's also "great performances in huge regular season games" that should go on this list. And the first one that comes to mind for me is Dee Brown in the Wake Forest game in December 2004 (number 4 hosting number 1). Biggest game of the college basketball season at that point and Illinois is up by 32 at one point in the second half.
I've always said that if it was a close game and Dee played more than 30 minutes, he would have had a triple double. 16 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds and then he basically sat (with the rest of the starters) for the final 10 minutes. We actually came close to two teammates having triple-doubles that game. Deron had 8 points, 6 rebounds, and 11 assists in only 25 minutes on the court. If that game is close and the starters stay in, we could have had something like "Dee went for 21-11-10 and Deron had 12-10-13".
Let's move on to NCAA Tournament games. How about a great Tournament performance that gets completely forgotten? That's easy: Kiwane Garris in the first round win over USC in the 1997 NCAA Tournament. 27 points and 12 assists. That game was kind of like Saturday's game. Garris would either score or he'd feed Chris Gandy and USC had no match for the outside-inside combo.
Other great NCAA Tournament performances that come to mind: Frank Williams against Kansas in the 2001 Sweet 16 (30-5-5), Dee Brown flirting with a triple-double in the first round win over Western Kentucky in 2003 (16-8-7), Deron Williams with 31 points in the "too pretty" game against Cincinnati in the 2004 Tournament, and the duh of all duhs - Deron Williams in the Arizona Elite Eight game (22 points, 10 assists, one massive shot).
And then maybe we should look at unimportant games with huge performances. No one remembers the 1991-92 season because we were sinking under the weight of the NCAA sanctions and went 13-15. But I was a freshman at the time and obsessed with everything about that team. The best performance that season: Deon Thomas, 39 points and 16 rebounds against Illinois-Chicago. I feel like at the time it was both a top-10 scoring game and a top-20 rebounding game in Illinois history. That's my number one favorite food wrapped around my number three favorite food.
OK, I really should have organized this because I'm all over the place. There's other incredible performances I'm not even mentioning (in 1984, when we won the Big Ten, there was a game at Minnesota which we needed to clinch the title and Bruce Douglas had something like 19 points and 13 assists), and I've skipped over a bunch of "wow he scored a lot of points" games (Andy Kaufmann's 46 points against Wisconsin-Milwaukee, for example), so I'm not really reaching any conclusion here. I'm just randomly naming great individual performances.
Here's what I'll do. I'll try to put Ayo's game into context, and then I'll tell you what I think was the best single-game Illini performance of all time.
The biggest thing about this Ayo performance, to me, was not just getting to 10. He got to at least 12 in every category. 12 assists is tied for 8th all time in Illini history. I'm going to say that again. The University of Illinois has played somewhere close to 2,850 basketball games. In only seven of those 2,850 games did someone have more assists than Ayo had on Saturday. While doing that, he also grabbed 12 rebounds (a 99th percentile Illinois rebounding game) and scored 21 points. And he did this against #19 Wisconsin.
That has to be a top five Illini performance of all time. Pushes us up to #6 in the country and firmly on the 2-seed line, knocking on the one-seed door, beats a team we hadn't beaten in Champaign since 2011, third triple-double in program history. Incredible performance.
To me, though, it's not #1 of all time. #1 of all time is simple:
Nick Anderson, Elite Eight win over Syracuse in 1989, 24 points and 16 rebounds to send us to the Final Four.
Of those 16 rebounds, NINE were offensive rebounds. This game was one of the most vivid memories of my teenage years (I was 16 at the time), and we only beat Syracuse 89-86, so we needed every single one of those nine offensive rebounds to get to the Final Four. You know that feeling you get this season, where, say, Da'Monte slides in and grabs two or three massive offensive rebounds? Or maybe games of the past with crowds in attendance and they're going nuts because Roger Powell just slid in there and grabbed his third offensive rebound of the second half? Now imagine that happening NINE TIMES in one game. And that game is in the Elite Eight. And the guy doing it is 6'-5.5" tall.
Man, I'm fired up just thinking about it again. All of those Tournament bow-outs in the 80's, the Final Four seemingly just out of reach, and then 24 points and 16 rebounds from our superstar to finally get us over the hump.
You know, I wouldn't be mad if Ayo tried to top that in this year's Elite Eight....