2021 BTT VI: Up Through The Atmosphere
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I never know exactly what you can and cannot see. Sometimes I'll write about something and the response will be "we know, Robert - the camera was focused on him the whole time". Other times, people watching on TV had no idea. Tonight, with fans in attendance, some of you don't need me to fill in the "here's what it was like in there" color.
OK, I'm going to detour already. Sorry, this is a miserable way to start a post. But I wrote "I never know exactly what you can and cannot see" as a legitimate sentence and then my brain said "hey, that sounds like a poem". So now I have to write a poem before my brain will let me continue.
I never know exactly what you can and cannot see
Because of this I feel like I must narrate in 3-D
I don't know how you'd feel if I just wrote about the game
Perhaps, deep down, I'm worried that you'd seen things just the same
Whoa, brain, that got deep.
Tonight, I spent the majority of the first half wondering how much you could see and hear. I've spent so much time this season trying to talk about the atmosphere that I'm constantly thinking "OK, they probably weren't able to see that, so I need to tell them about this..." and so forth. But in the second half, I kind of just forgot about reporting and just let the game happen.
And when we got to this moment...
...I just soaked it all in. This is what I tweeted at the time:
I haven't been at a game with fans since the IU game last season. So to be leading 83-59 and then DaMonte throws a sick pass over Ayo's opposite shoulder which allows him to keep running, grab it, and flip it to Adam Miller for a dunk while the Illini fans go nuts, I have chills.— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) March 13, 2021
And I mean that. Almost took a photo of my goosebumps. I had no idea how much I missed the roar of a crowd.
It's funny - for most people in the building tonight, the game was very quiet. For me, having attended 19 Illini games this season, it was so incredibly loud. I'm used to the benches and managers making the only noise. To have maybe 4,000 Illini fans screaming for a breakaway dunk? It's the loudest sound I've heard in a year.
So this game was an absolute treat for me. Even walking in I could feel all the feelings. I-L-L chants? Orange everywhere? At one point I honestly got a tear in my eye. It's just been so long.
Having attended all eight games the last two days, let me tell you, the Illinois crowd was the loudest. Indiana brought a lot of fans, but they were mostly booing. This was a crowd pumped up from the very start. A 9-0 run and the game felt over already (because it was).
Tomorrow will be different. Iowa probably brought the third-most fans (behind Illinois and Indiana and slightly ahead of Purdue), so tomorrow will be more like a Braggin' Rights game with a loud crowd on both sides.
I cannot wait.
+ One thing you probably didn't notice on TV: the Rutgers walkons and bench players. I can honestly say I've never seen a set of players work the referees more than that. I've seen head coaches work referees (like, every game) and I've even seen assistant coaches get warnings for riding the referees too hard (usually it's a quick "I'll have the discussion with you, coach, but not your entire staff"). I can't say I can recall bench players and walkons being this demonstrative.
I'll give you an example. Ayo drove to the basket early in the second half and drew a foul. The Rutgers bench thought it was a clean block. Three of the walkons ran around the top two rows of the risers like they had just seen the greatest injustice in the world, one of them screaming "oh my GOD, dude". An Illini fan seated behind me got so fed up he yelled "stop running around - it was a foul".
Then, on the Rutgers end, Ron Harper Jr. would drive, and if he would miss the walkons would scream FOULLLL and if he would score they'd yell AANNND ONNNNE. When Paul Mulcahy picked up that technical, it felt like it was a culmination of the ref's frustrations with the Rutgers bench. I tweeted that at the time.
The moment I tweet that (during the under-8:00 timeout) I see Kelly Pfeifer talking to one of the Rutgers assistants. Then he says something to Steve Pikiell. And Pikiell and his assistant say something to their bench guys.
From that moment forward, for the rest of the game, not a peep. Seriously - they went from 9.5 to 0.2. Not one more AND ONNNNE, not a single "oh my GOD, dude". I have no idea what kind of warning Pfeifer issued, but it worked.
And good for him. There's one guy whose job it is to work the officials, not 10.
+ Rutgers seemed to try go to the Michigan State route and it backfired. They wanted to be very physical from the outset and Kofi felt the brunt of it. That worked for Michigan State; for Rutgers tonight, even though Kofi was missing his free throws, they quickly started to run out of bigs.
Once Myles Johnson and Cliff Omoruyi both got two fouls, Rutgers had to turn to Mamadou Doucoure. He had played 15 total minutes in 2021. It was basically a "Kofi has two quick fouls, Giorgi has two quick fouls, Jermaine Hamlin has to come in and finish out the half" situation for them. Except this guy was way more raw.
Illinois soon pushed the lead to 19 and Rutgers was never close again. So this was probably a good "hack-a-Kofi teams, beware" kind of game.
+ Next up: a rematch with Iowa. On CBS, with Jim Nantz on the call, in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament on Saturday.
Where we belong.