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First off, let me just say this. You couldn't design a better game to get me out of the funk I was in. Beating #10 with Kofi and Belo out is exactly what I needed. As difficult as it was to sit there at Maryland, winning this one had the opposite effect. We had absolutely no business winning this game.
Here's the list I came up with immediately after the game:
No Kofi Cockburn.— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) January 26, 2022
No Andre Curbelo.
Illini made one single shot in the final 9:45.
Illini scored 4 total points in the final 9:45.
MSU made 14 free throws. Illini made 3.
Trent missed the front-end with 6 seconds left.
Illini foul with 0.2 left.
And I could go on. Second chance points 11-0. Fast break points 12-2. The Injured Illini had everything stacked against them - at one point, with Omar Payne at four fouls and Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk at three (plus Kofi not dressed), Brandon Lieb played the first two meaningful minutes of his career - yet they came out on top.
Afterwards, I joined the Twitter Spaces chat with the guys from our two other podcasts (The Board Room and The Field Pass). One question was about Bruce Weber, and I referenced the Purdue press conference in 2012, and that sent me down a rabbit hole which lands me here. The journey from that press conference (February 15, 2012, so nearly ten years ago) to today.
I guess it's not really a journey. This is more of a compare and contrast exercise. What we were then and what we are now.
If you don't remember that press conference, it was right at the end of the Weber era. A month before he was fired. That 2012 team had started the season 15-3 and, after beating #5 Ohio State in a game where Brandon Paul scored 43, had moved to #22 in the rankings. The light bulb had turned on for Meyers Leonard, Paul and DJ Richardson were coming into their own - that team had lots of potential. I mean, we had a guy who would be a lottery pick in a few months.
And then the bottom fell out. Lost 12 of the next 14 to finish 17-15 after a 15-3 start. And the moment everyone remembers was the press conference after the Purdue game. It's commonly referred to as the "Bruce Weber giving up" press conference in my corner of Illini land. Things were falling apart quickly but Purdue was struggling as well. Purdue was 6-6 in the Big Ten and Illinois was 5-7. Win that game in Assembly Hall (moving both teams into a tie at 6-7) and maybe there was some hope. 3-10 Nebraska was next, so you could get to 7-7, get back on the right side of the bubble, and maybe salvage this thing.
You can watch the video of that press conference here, but I'll warn you, it's wildly uncomfortable. With five games left to play, the coach starts talking as if the season (and his tenure at Illinois) is over. Even the national media picked up on the story - I remember this Jeff Eisenberg article where he called it Weber's "concession speech."
That article included this long quote from Weber (from that bizarre press conference):
"The sad thing about the whole thing, and I guess it's my fault, is instead of creating toughness and developing a team, I coached not to lose all year," Weber said.
"Instead of developing people, I'm worried about winning. Maybe sit Meyers down three weeks ago or a month ago or two months ago. And Brandon (Paul). But that's my fault. You've got to develop a culture and I think the last three years all I did was worry about winning instead of developing a culture and a toughness. And that's my fault."
After his concession speech, the bottom really fell out. The next game against Nebraska (3-10 in the Big Ten Nebraska) Illinois lost 80-57. Twitter was still fairly young, but it was alive with "this is what happens when you tell your team the season is over with five games left to play". There's ugly, and then there's late February 2012 ugly. Crazy that it was nearly 10 years ago.
Let's go back to that quote again. It's important.
"You've got to develop a culture and I think the last three years all I did was worry about winning instead of developing a culture and a toughness. And that's my fault."
It's so striking. A coach talking about what he should have done, and the fact that he didn't do it left the program in shambles. The following month he'd become the first Illinois basketball coach to be fired since 1974. Fast forward 10 years and we beat #10 Michigan State without the guy everyone had as a preseason first-team All American and the guy some people had as a preseason third-team All American. You're in foul trouble, you're having the play the 12th guy on your bench, and you find a way to beat Michigan State.
Which moves Illinois into solo first place in the Big Ten. I know the schedule was frontloaded with easier games, but still, here's the injury report:
- Kofi Cockburn missed three games with a suspension and has now missed two games with a concussion.
- Andre Curbelo missed 12 games with a concussion and now this game with an illness.
- Trent Frazier missed two games with a knee injury.
- Jacob Grandison missed one game with the flu.
- Austin Hutcherson is out for the season with a sports hernia.
- Luke Goode missed two games with back spasms.
7-2, first place in the Big Ten.
At some point, especially if Kofi is out for an extended period of time, the injuries will catch up with us in a major way. But to be 14-5 (7-2) at the moment is really impressive.
And yes, I do think it has to do with Brad Underwood developing a culture and a toughness. Shorthanded, found a way to win over #10.
Can't wait to see what the next 10 years bring.
+ I want to make note of the noise during the missed free throw with 0.2 on the clock. I tweeted about it earlier and someone responded saying it was a "different kind of rumble." That's a great way to put it.
It was loud - all 15,544 people were screaming - but there were also a lot of noisemakers. The Krush members along the sideline (on the metal risers) were stomping their feet and shaking my computer screen. Fans around the stadium were banging on the seat back in front of them. With 0.2 seconds left, if he made both we went to overtime and if he missed either one we win. He missed the first. The crowd went insane.
And I couldn't help but think of last season. When Ayo hit those dagger threes against Northwestern, there were only 20 guys in the area of the bench who cheered. When Illinois handled Wisconsin with ease, there wasn't anyone there to celebrate.
But tonight, noise mattered. "A different kind of rumble" led to a missed free throw and an Illini win. In that moment, it just felt so, so good to have fans back in the stands.
+ So great that Luke Goode got a breakout moment. Not only hitting three of four from deep (he's now shooting .429 from three on the season), but also grabbing that massive rebound in the closing seconds. Nine points, four rebounds, solid defense - I think we can already tell that there are going to be some "Goode is now 4 of 5 from three in the first half" games in the future.
If he can be this player - even without hitting the threes - then once everyone is healthy that's a huge piece to add to the rotation. An extra wing who can play solid defense would be so helpful for a tournament run.
+ Another interesting moment: As Malik Hall was setting up to shoot the second free throw (the one he'd have to miss and then pray for a tip-in), Brad Underwood had Coleman Hawkins and Da'Monte Williams switch spots in the lane. Da'Monte moved up to one of the main two spots (boxing out Julius Marble) and Coleman moved to the "third" spot on the other side of the lane (where it was BBV, then MSU's Bingham, then Hawkins).
If you want to know if Brad Underwood trusts Da'Monte Williams, on this play he needs to make sure the other team doesn't get a miracle tip-in so he swaps out his 6'-10" sophomore for his 6'-3" senior, assigning him to box out the 6'-9", 245 lb. Julius Marble. There's trust, and then there's trusting your 6'-3" guy over your 6'-10" guy as one of the main two box-out guys.
+ Next up, Northwestern. We'll need Kofi for this one (we need Kofi for every one) so here's hoping his concussion symptoms clear. And here's hoping Andre Curbelo's sickness clears. And here's hoping the entire team is at 100% soon.
And here's hoping Kofi has 33 and 16 at Michigan State in three weeks.