That Team Over There
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What's that thing I always say? "There's a 19% chance I'll have said what I wanted to say when I finish writing this post." I know what I'm setting out to say, but you have no idea how difficult it is to find my way there. If I ever do some career day for a future grandson and the actually-paying-attention girl in the front row asks "what's the most difficult thing about writing opinions on the internet?", my answer will be "reaching the end of an article with the confidence that you've said what you were trying to say."
But I always give it a go. So here goes.
As we approach the NCAA Tournament, the Twitter algorithm has doubled its efforts to send me Illini content. I don't follow other Illini reporters on Twitter (only the three people I work with at WCIA), and I have other blogs unfollowed and muted (just don't want to ever mix up their opinions with my own), so I don't see the same stream of news and information that you see. As I've written two dozen times, if something happens in Illini land, there's a 95% chance you know about it before I do. I need to do one of those screen recordings some day where I show you in video form how my mentions will blow up with "huge get!" and then I have to search "Illini commit" on Twitter to find out who committed.
I do follow all Illini topics on Twitter. I forget how you "follow" those. I think it suggested some content labeled "Fighting Illini" and I clicked on the dots and selected "show me more of this" or whatever. I rather enjoy "following" things that way. If there's some viral fan tweet related to Illinois, or some national article that has blown up with Illini fans, it finds its way to me through that. It's just an algorithm, but I've found it to be a decent way to follow everything from a distance.
It picks about one out of every 50 things, but I feel like that gives me a good sample. When I used to follow every single Illini everything on Twitter (before my Great Unfollowing in 2015 or so) it felt like a hailstorm of Illini information. This is more like a light shower. Don't really even need an umbrella.
The algorithm is quite brilliant, I think. When some Illini fan has put something on Twitter that has sparked some debate (or whatever), it usually finds its way to me that way. The activity around the individual tweet moves it up the chain.
Having followed things like this for several years - and mine is probably very unique experience given that I research Illini things all day, spend my time talking to other people about the Illini, and then curate my Twitter feed to give me only 1/20th of all available Illini #content - I can tell you that this basketball season has been very different from the last four or five seasons. This year, from November through March, when the light shower hits and I see what Illini Twitter is talking about, it almost always feels like everyone is talking about some other team.
Here's the part where I'm going to struggle to explain myself. I'm not going to use specific examples. This isn't some big call-out post where I link articles from media and tweets from fans to prove that they're all wrong or something. This isn't even about being right or wrong. I'm relating my experience. And my experience, this season, has been "wait, which team are we talking about?".
Part of it, I'm sure, is the see-saw of fan emotions, especially this last month. I was on the see-saw, as you know, so I felt it going up and down. We lose at Rutgers so we blew it. We win at Michigan State so we're back. We lose to Ohio State so it's over. We win at Michigan so there's a chance. It's been an adventure the last 3-4 weeks.
But when the narratives reach me - both the media narratives and the consensus fan narratives - my reaction, nearly the entire season, from the Marquette loss to the Indiana loss, has been that I must be following a different team. If feels like everyone else is describing That Team Over There, but I'm following this team over here. My team. The one I cheer for. The one I follow around the country like a Phish fan.
I'm glad that Phish just popped into my head there because that reminds me of a story that might help me make my point. I'm at a concert at Red Rocks once. Nothing closely related to Phish. But there's a couple "I go to at least 100 concerts a year" guys in front of me and they're discussing Phish tours they've followed. You can tell one guy lives it and the other guy wants people to think he lives it.
As they discussed everything, I could tell that the True Fan guy is getting frustrated. The other guy would be all "the Madison Square Garden show on New Years Eve in 2009 was so incredible - I was there and it's one of the best experiences of my life" and then the other guy was trying to be nice, offering "not to call you out or anything but the New Years Eve show in 2009 was in Miami" and the first guy was all "whatever, the year doesn't matter" and you could tell the second guy was dying inside trying to suppress yelling "YES IT DOES."
That's been my experience this season. The articles I write, the discussion (and sometimes arguments) I get in on Slack or in the comments under the post, the @'s I get on Twitter during and after games - all of that feels fairly typical. It's probably a bit of a bubble that I'm in - it's the same people sharing the same opinions in the same places - but it hasn't felt much different from previous seasons. But when that algorithm sends me something, I often wonder if it's from weeks in the past (or some time in the future). I check the timestamps and no, that's what Illini fans are discussing on Twitter today. Or, if it's an article or blog post sent my way, yes, that's what's being written today. I'm being told that something doesn't matter and inside I'm screaming "YES IT DOES."
The best way I can describe it is to say that it's That Team Over There. The Twitter algorithm wants me to know that The Freshmen Are Ready To Take On Big Roles In March. (Are they? Like, these freshmen? Seems like everything is going to have to come from the sophomores, juniors and especially the seniors.) I'm informed that This One Ohio State Fan Is Trying To Tell Me Their Class Is Better Than Rodgers-Epps-Harris. (It is better. And that doesn't mean we have a bad class or something. Holtmann simply grabbed four 4-stars.) I specifically looked for Indiana pregame stuff last Thursday and I was shocked to learn that I was apparently the only Illini fan on the planet concerned about the Indiana game. I went looking for predictions, too, and I think I was the only person on the record thinking we'd lose to Indiana.
But it's not just "everyone is positive and Robert is hesitant about this team" (or something). It works the other way, too. The reason I went on the record predicting a deep Tournament run for this team last Thursday was because the Twitter algorithm (and my mentions) were so incredibly "I'm out on this Illini team." (What? This team? Trent & Da'Monte? You're "out"? Are we talking about the same team? I'm referencing this Illini team, the one that somehow grabbed a share of the Big Ten title and won 7 of 10 on the road in the B1G. One of the ten-best teams in college basketball over the last three seasons and we lose to Indiana in the state of Indiana during a game they had to win in order to get into the Tournament so you're "out"? What team are you talking about?)
Again, you might just think "that's social media for ya", but this was not my experience the last 3-4 years. Yes, after a win the fanbase is at a 9 when they should be at a 7 and after a loss the fanbase is at a 3 when they should be at a 6. That kind of stuff happens every year. This year, it just feels like people are still discussing a theoretical Illini team, not an actual Illini team. It's how people discuss teams in the offseason - "add a transfer point guard and then this team has everything it needs" - but with an actual team playing games. I don't want to talk about That Team Over There. I want to discuss the team right in front of us. The one with flaws but also great potential.
I don't understand articles telling me the team is Ready. They might not be. That's what makes this Tournament so great - the stakes. I don't need fans hedging their Tournament pain with "this team will fail early in the Tournament AGAIN" tweets that they can dig up if we lose and keep buried if we win. We have a superstar who might lead us to glory but we also have a senior with a bum shoulder which might be the one final injury we've been fearing. We have a sophomore point guard who might take a 18 foot turnaround jumper when we all want the ball to go into Kofi and he also might put up 11 assists to beat Arizona.
Perhaps this is as simple as me not liking reassurances with my sports. It's why I get so frustrated with the way that college sports are always viewed through the recruiting lens. It's one constant "don't worry, fans". That juco offensive lineman will fix everything. That freshman guard is special and will be ready immediately. That coach won there so he'll win here. I don't like hedging either, so yeah, it makes sense that all of this "lost to Indiana so we're gonna totally Loyola again" stuff would get under my skin as well.
You know, I'm probably venturing way too close to "just enjoy the ride" here, and that's not my point either. My point is that we begin our NCAA Tournament journey in three days. And following the Fighting Illini "topic" means that Twitter keeps bringing me reassurances and fan-hedges. I just want to discuss This Team Right Here.
The Grandison injury is massive. If we can get him back it would be a huge boost, but seeing him not even raise his arm to clap on Sunday when the bracket was announced makes me think that there's no way he's gonna play on Friday. I just know he has one more @Michigan State or @Iowa game in him, so I'm really hoping he gets to use it in the next three weeks.
Jake's injury means that so much depends on Coleman Hawkins. He'd tell you he faded under the bright lights in January and was out of the picture by February. But then he found something. Is it enough to fully replace Grandison's leadership? I hope so, but the tourney provides the brightest lights of all. It's so hard not to find yourself pressing.
The freshmen probably won't give us much, and Payne will probably only provide 5 minutes and some fouls when Kofi needs a breather (although if he could Nebraska that would be amazing), so the rest comes down to three things:
- Can Andre Curbelo find it and hold onto it? If he has a Purdue game (or four), we're going very far.
- Can Trent, Da'Monte, and Alfonso all play their parts? Every Tournament run requires seniors who have played 100+ college games.
- Can Kofi dominate? Right or wrong, good or bad, our Tournament result in 2022 will forever be tied to how far Kofi carried us.
That's this team in front of me. Stop talking about That Team Over There, Mr. Twitter Algorithm computer. The things you're feeding people under the Fighting Illini topic all seem to be focused on some theoretical team (waves hands) over there somewhere. It's Tournament time, and after last year, these next two games are incredibly massive, so I have no time for Can You Believe This Michigan Fan Actually Thinks tweets. I don't care who is Ready To Shine Under The Bright Lights because they might not be. I only want to focus on this team right here. If we don't have Jake, this weekend is pretty much this:
Right here, right now, that's the team.
Let's do this, gentlemen. Let's get to a Sweet 16 matchup with Arizona.
I am Ready to live in that moment.