I Get It

Feb 26, 2023

I'm starting this article right on the tip. Like, the tip just happened 2 seconds ago. I've had to condense some things this weekend (including driving in this morning and driving back after the game), so condensing the writing of this article will hopefully help me save two more hours.

More on that in a minute. Matthew Mayer just hit a three which caused Krush behind me in the upper deck to peel off their shirts to reveal orange. So glad they do get an actual road trip this season. This place is DEAD dead - both ends of the upper deck look mostly empty - so Krush will have a lot of space to make some noise. At the first timeout I'll take a photo of the non-Krush end to show you how easy it was for them to get a big block of seats on this end.

The game so far? About a dozen missed opportunities. That's an exaggeration but that layup missed by Hawkins plus a few rushed threes from others mean this game can so far be defined as "frustrating start." Hopefully it's not defined as "frustrating day" but I fear that it will be. If I was doing the pregame prediction this year I would have had this one as a 16 point loss. Ohio State has been close in so many games - they're due to put it all together.

As for me running on fumes and condensing my schedule, yesterday was a funeral in St. Louis. My wife and I got home at 10:24, I went straight to bed, alarm went off at 5:15, and I hit the road for Columbus. Gonna do the drive back after the game as well.

Day-after-a-funeral also means I deep into "sports don't matter" mode. There was a visitation at 11:00, a funeral at 2:00, and then a reception with the family. Which meant that I had my phone on Do Not Disturb for about ten hours. I looked at it briefly when we made a pit stop before getting on the highway, but I didn't read through the 100+ texts until laying in bed at 10:45.

  • Reading through texts about Big Ten basketball any other day: intrigued by all the storylines.
  • Reading through texts about Big Ten basketball after spending the day with a grieving family: hard to understand why I care about this stuff so much.

That won't hold, of course. By next week I'll get all wrapped up in our Big Ten Tournament seed again. I'll go from "sports are meaningless" to "sports are a great distraction from the lows of life" and then I'll very quickly make the transition back to "if we don't win this Tournament game I'll be unhappy for a month." But for today, I have none of my normal emotions. Too raw from yesterday.

I considered maybe not coming today because of it. I was pretty sure this was a loss given that we cannot win on the road (I mean, from the play on the court in front of me, we're well on our way). And when my alarm went off, I considered just bailing. But pride in a streak made me get out of bed. Because I covered three games during the 2020-21 season that no other outlets covered (Rutgers, Penn State, and Nebraska), and because Tyler and I have covered every game in person since (home and away), in 2039 I still want to be able to say "IlliniBoard has attended more games than any other outlet since 2020". Or maybe put it on a bumper sticker.

We're losing 41-29 at halftime at this point. I know that might seem like a quick half with only eight paragraphs between tipoff and halftime, but I've been doing other stuff like tweeting about the Krush roadtrip and the crowd's reaction. It's rather hilarious. Let me expand on those tweets here.

Krush didn't do the "rip shirts off to reveal orange underneath" thing until our first points a few minutes into the game. And the Ohio State crowd was still asleep at that point. But once Krush started making noise - especially when they cheered after a few made baskets - the Ohio State crowd became hyper-focused on them. Making "hey, SHUT UP" crowd noise. Illini would score and they'd grit their teeth as Krush made a lot of noise up above. Ohio State would score and so many fans would turn to the upper deck to clap and cheer. "Take THAT" kind of cheering.

The Ohio State student section, however, that's what I really want to talk about. The second half has started so I'll find a good time to take some video of them and then insert it here later. Taking video of game action from press row is strictly prohibited (broadcast rights and whatnot), but I'll just shoot away from the court and get the Ohio State version of Krush (the "Buckeye Nuthouse") in action.

Here it is.

I get that they've lost 14 of their last 15 and the fans are beaten-down. So maybe I'm cheating a bit here by using Ohio State as an example of post-pandemic student sections. But they make NO NOISE. Ohio State went up by 14 when Sensabaugh scored there, and it looks like they're finally going to win a game, and all the student section can do is:

  • Clap and say "yeah" one time when they make a basket.
  • Clap when Illinois misses a shot and Ohio State gets the rebound.

It's not like this everywhere. Rutgers is not like this. Purdue is absolutely not like this. Even Nebraska is not like this. I've simply noticed this phenomenon during my travels over the last few years. Once the fans came back, at some schools, there's this zombie thing where the college environment is just completely gone.

I get that people will dismiss this with "that's just because they suck this year." But I'm telling you it's something more than that. I've been in plenty of Big Ten arenas with opponents who have a losing record, and the quietest have all been post-pandemic. What happened to the "hey, we're finally winning a game, we get to make noise" Big Ten arena?

Speaking of, we've cut into this lead a fair bit here. The lead is down to six. So I might need to maybe watch to see if this is a legitimate rally. Talk to you in a bit.

OK time to type more words. There's 5:15 left as I type this and Ohio State leads by seven. Illinois had cut it to 1 but this is a 6-0 run I believe. And the crowd finally came alive because of a dunk. Bryce Sensabaugh put Matthew Mayer on a poster. If the Ohio State crowd has made 600 gigawatts of crowd noise today, 183 of the 600 came on that play alone. No other single play made more than 30 gigawatts of noise. (If only there were a unit of measurement for noise.)

As I'm typing this the place is still buzzing. They showed the replay twice. There are men my age in the crowd doing the "tap the head" thing (I think it means "dunked on your head"?). I'm completely and fully 100% coming to a realization as I'm typing this.

The single play has replaced the game. It's so, so, so weird to me. People now pay money to attend the game not for the game itself but for the moments. They want to cheer someone dunking on someone's head, or a big and-one (as Bruce Thornton just accomplished as I was typing this here, putting the game out of reach for Illinois with 3:57 left).

Everything I do as a fan - EVERYTHING - relates to the trajectory. Need to win this because it would mean X. If we lose, it means Y. Gotta get these two freshmen going in March. But I just now realized - 1:52 pm EST on Sunday, February 26th - that those days are fading away. I should probably blame social media, but… actually, I think that's exactly it.

Life is now consumed in moments. Tidbits. Video fragments. To me, a highlight play means nothing if you lose. But the world is changing, and now there's no shame in ignoring the big picture and just focusing on a single moment. You don't have to wait to see if the shot goes in to cheer some broken ankles anymore.

So much is making sense in my mind right now. Remember the Missouri game and all the social media outrage when we were down 33 and the official basketball account was tweeting things like "and AND-ONE for Coleman Hawkins!!" (that's not the exact tweet but you probably remember what I'm talking about). Getting destroyed by a rival we're supposed to beat and the social media people are just powering through with individual highlights and "check this out, fans!" content.

They got yelled at a lot that night, angry fans beaten down by a Braggin' Rights game already out of reach, but now I get it. That's just becoming the norm. The moments matter, not the game or the season.

I need to show you what I'm talking about. Let me take another video here.

Ohio State is UP BY 10 with a minute and a half to go. They're about to win their first game since January 21st. And no one is having fun. It's just completely dead. I do not, nor will I ever, understand.

You might say "well Robert they're looking at the big picture and it's hard to get excited when the team is 12-17" but that's not this. I've been to maybe two dozen "team with a losing record is beating a tourney-bound team" games and every damn time the crowd is buzzing with a double digit lead and 1:15 on the clock. Look at that video. Nobody seems to care.

It will take 5+ years before I get used to this. College basketball, to me, is built around the buzzing arena. I've attended, like Missouri Valley Conference games just because it's fun to watch a crowd support their team. I love the ebb AND the flow. And this game was two big crowd noises and then, just a few moments ago, a celebration after we refused to foul and they dribbled it out.

And please know that this is not just "wow, what's wrong with Ohio State's crowd?" (the game is over and they won - not by 16, but by 12). I'm talking about a shift across the games I attend. There's this really, really weird thing happening in what used to be buzzing, "isn't college basketball amazing?" arenas. What used to feel collective now feels individual. And that's not on the players. That's on the fans.

I won't be there next Sunday at Purdue (I have another memorial service in St. Louis so Tyler is covering that one), but if you can, I'd urge you to go. That place is 100% unaffected by this. Yes, Purdue being top-10 (until the new poll tomorrow) is part of that, but... just go. You'll see how far beyond that it is.

I paused here to mess with the videos and the coding. The game is over and the big screen is showing the postgame press conference with two Ohio State players. The two questions back to back right now:

  • "Talk about Bryce's dunk." (both players laughed and I think it was Justice Seuing who said "bodied!").
  • "Bruce not long after that you had the and-one. The entire bench cleared out - talk about that moment." (That's a total paraphrase - I have no way to watch it back right now.)

Postgame questions, desperate to talk about moments.

So much is making sense to me right now. Like press conference questions that annoy me - questions dispatched to retrieve a single quote about a single moment upon which a narrative can be built. OF COURSE that's what's happening right now. We no longer allow college basketball to just be college basketball - we package it as individual moments.

Those things I've written about how Krush seems focused on one-liners now, not collective noise? I finally get it! The Michigan crowd going completely dead last year in a game where we still needed a dagger three from Trent to pull it out? Makes sense.

Well, it doesn't make "sense" I guess because I still believe in college basketball the way I've always watched college basketball. But I think I now understand why it's happening. In a post-pandemic, social media world, the individual play is elevated above everything. It's the way things are going and I'm the old guy suggesting underhand free throws. Either I adapt to the new reality or I become the old guy yelling at clouds.

In one of the answers during the press conference on the big screen, one of the players (I think it was Bruce Thornton) said that he "can't wait to go watch the Sensabaugh dunk" on his phone.

I get it now.


ktcesw on February 26, 2023 @ 04:30 PM

Your comments remind me of playing ball in NYC about 45 years ago. It wasn't about hitting a basket or dominating a pick-up game. It was always about how spectacular the shot was (even though it was missed) or the spectacular move before a turnover. Maybe that is why I never was a big A.C. fan while he was here.

jfinsocal on February 26, 2023 @ 08:46 PM

You would have had more fun if you headed west for about 90 miles on I-74 and attended the Bradley vs. Drake game. No lack of enthusiasm there today. Should be a good weekend of hoops in STL next weekend.

2023IlliniGrad on February 26, 2023 @ 11:59 PM

Hey Robert, wanted to say it's very commendable that you still decided to make the trip despite how emotionally and mentally taxing a funeral can be and was for you. It's a strong testament to your dedication to IlliniBoard and your work in general. The way not only college sports, but culture in general has been trending in recent years frustrates and upsets me too, and that's coming from someone who's 21 and an active college student; you don't have to feel so old for having those opinions

jpbrown on February 27, 2023 @ 09:06 AM

I second every word of this

mattcoldagelli on February 27, 2023 @ 02:04 PM

You're obviously going to more games than me these days, but I think part of this is specific to OSU - that's an extremely sterile arena with a student body that, even in good years, just can't max out the energy around basketball.

Robert on February 27, 2023 @ 02:59 PM

I've been there with great, raucous crowds. Even the 2020 game (just before the pandemic) had a very involved student section (and an uninvolved "olds" section).

I agree that the arena is sterile, but this was something more. Maybe it doesn't come out in the videos, but I've been to movies where the crowd was more involved in the action.

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