Ben Trovato

Mar 10, 2023

I watch the last five minutes from the tunnel where the team comes out. I went there to pace, but I didn't need to pace. I just watched us slowly let the Penn State lead creep up to 12 before we tried to chip away but fell short. Tyler attended the press conference, I went back upstairs to gather my things, and then Tyler drove me to my hotel. Telling the guy at the front desk "yeah, so can you change my reservation so that I'm checking out tomorrow morning?" was not fun.

I walk into my room at the Marroitt Somethingorother and it's one of those where the TV is on and the message says "welcome to your room Mr. Rosenthal". There's a Marriott promotional video playing, and as I'm unzipping my suitcase on the bed, he's talking about some Marriott Hotel he designed (in Miami?) and the building that used to be on that site was named the "Ben Trovato." They thought it might be someone's name, but as they researched, they realized it was part of this Italian phrase:

Se non e vero e ben trovato

It means -- and please keep in mind I'm counting on a Marriott Hotels promotional video for the Italian translation here -- "it might not be true, but it's a story well told."

That landed with me. Maybe I'm just tired (and tired of losing), but that fit. I did some googling and I found that the expression is used when reacting to, say, an employee who gives a fantastic story of why they missed work yesterday. None of it is true, but kudos on the elaborate story. You're clearly making all of this up, but it's at least entertaining.

(I'm probably doing that thing where you assume a translation for some expression in another language is correct but you're way, way off. What I'm doing here is probably akin to someone from another country saying "there's this phrase in the United States that says "a bird you hold in your hand is worth two bushes'." It's likely that I'm butchering everything... but I'm going to continue.)

For whatever reason, "it might not be true, but it's a story well told" helped me understand my feelings towards this team. Specifically, my feelings when watching Brad Underwood talk about this team in a press conference. That's not a shot at Underwood. As I said earlier in the week, I'm fine with 20-11 (well, 20-12 now) the year after Kofi left. I'm simply saying that I like the way he talks about this team and what it might become... but it's not the reality.

The last two years I felt like I knew (and loved) the team. Think back to your feeling when Trent hit those threes in Michigan (one at Michigan State, another eight days later at Michigan). That's my GUY. Trent 4-ever. I remember going down to the court after that Michigan State game, with Kofi having come out of the locker room to see Giorgi (who had attended the game). Trent hits a dagger three, we win in Breslin, and there's Kofi and Giorgi hanging out and laughing? This is my TEAM.

This year, everyone is gone from that team besides Luke Goode, RJ Melendez, and Coleman Hawkins. We had to replace all five starters. And we did that through the transfer portal (Dain Dainja, Terrence Shannon Jr, and Matthew Mayer) and four freshmen (Skyy Clark, Jayden Epps, Ty Rodgers, and Sencire Harris). It was a complete and total roster overhaul. Which meant that as the season started, I was still trying to understand this team. I felt like I knew every single thing there was to know about Trent Frazier and Da'Monte Williams, but I knew nothing at all about Matthew Mayer and Terrence Shannon.

As the season wore on, I found that I was maybe following the story of this team more than I was following the actual team. I don't know if that makes sense, but that's how it felt. I didn't know the players so I relied on the stories throughout the season. Matt Mayer found a headband in the parking lot! The whole team messes with Coleman Hawkins when he gets mad at practice! We actually play Danger Zone in the SFC after a big Dain Dainja play! Underwood made a fart sound! Mayer drank too many Monster energy drinks!

It might not be a basketball team, but it's a story well told.

(As I'm typing this I realize that I'm using an Italian phrase and we have a player from Italy over on the bench. His name might be Niccolo Moretti, but I think I'm going to call him Ben Trovato.)

I mean, that's all part of this as well, right? We added a kid from France and a kid from Italy mid-season! And the kid from France already went back to France! This whole thing sounds like a movie pitch.

"OK, so you have this grizzled coach who brings in this whole new team. The star is coming back home to Illinois after things didn't work out in Texas. There's also a tall guy who wears a headband and has a Monster Energy Drink addiction. One guy is literally named "Danger." The freshman star quits, they add players from France and Italy halfway through, there's a super skinny kid who looks like one of those car dealership inflatables, and at the center of it all is this hard-to-figure-out character who seems like the problem at the beginning of the year but then by the end everyone realizes that he's the heart and soul of the team. What do you think?"

"I think this is my floor."

I like the idea of that team. That team makes for good stories along the way. None of it is true, and it's not going to work out in the end, but hey, great story.

That's where I've landed after this third (THIRD!) loss to Penn State. I'm entertained by this team - who doesn't love a good Sencire Harris energy burst? - but none of this eventually leads anywhere. The flaws were clear at the start and the flaws are clear at the end. The end.

Take the "employee misses work but gives an elaborate story" thing I mentioned above. That kind of fits how I've been feeling about this team. That explains why I convinced myself that things would be different this time when playing Penn State. You get so caught up in the story that you're not thinking about the realities. Even though you found it entertaining that their why-I'm-late story included a tractor trailer full of rubber ducks overturning on the interstate and then getting trapped in an elevator with three-fifths of Maroon 5, none of it was real.

The realities here? We can't shoot. Andrew Funk can shoot, and as Tyler tweeted this evening, Andrew Funk made 14 of 24 threes against us in three games, but we just can't consistently shoot the ball. The end.

During the game, Tyler and I were talking about the thing he's written all year - how it seems like any time we have a massive three, we miss. Every time we lean forward in our chairs - "three pointer to take the leeeeeeaaaad" - we miss. Over and over and over. The Luke Goode three in the first half which would have finally regained the lead was a perfect example of this. That three has dropped so many times over the years. And this year we just keep missing that momentum-shifter.

Which, obviously, is just the result of math. It feels like we miss those huge threes because we've missed more three pointers in 2023 than any other season in my lifetime (I'll look that stat up tomorrow but I know it's true). The makes should be extremely surprising at this point.

Yet I've continued to live in this fantasy land where the corner will be turned in the very next game. Riding up here on the train I had this "Penn State, then Northwestern - Indiana will be mighty fun on CBS Saturday afternoon" thought. But none of that is based in reality. Even if we did have a hot shooting night against Penn State, we were going to go ice cold the next day.

One more thought and then I'm going to bed. I just took some pills that I take before bed. When opening the bottle, remembered that I had put 5 pills in the travel bottle. You know, just in case I was going to be in Chicago Wednesday night, and Thursday night, and Friday night, and Saturday night, and Sunday night. Maybe I'll need ALL of these pills because Danger and Monster and the boys will go off at the BTT.

Fun story, but, uh, it's not true.


Illiniboat on March 10, 2023 @ 06:41 AM

Yeah, I wasn't even mad after the game. I see a lot of comments online about effort being the problem, but I don't really think that's an issue. This group plays hard. I think there's even been an improved shot selection, Mayer excluded, the last handful of games. They just can't shoot from 3, but remain deeply, deeply committed to taking a lot of them. There are stretches where you can see how it all should work, but the consistency just isn't there. One of the strangest Illinois teams I've ever seen.

mattcoldagelli on March 10, 2023 @ 07:53 AM

This one hits the nail on the head. I feel like we've been saying "if you squint, you can see it!" since December, and squinting for four months gives you nothing but a bad headache.

Robert on March 10, 2023 @ 08:03 AM

this, tbh

Leechcass on March 10, 2023 @ 09:32 AM

Leechcass on March 10, 2023 @ 09:39 AM

I thnk you encapsulated all our feelings. I too hang on the edge ofmy seat when that 3 is launched, but when I look back on things its the telegraphed pass that is intercepted that led to our demise. You take that one small mistake, and all the others that come and go, and there you go....Ya' got a checkmark in the L column. We turn the ball over too much. We rely on the three too much. I hated the switching man-to-man, but our help D sucks. I don't see things changing for The Dance. In fact I think we'll probably look like Seinfelds "Lainy" on the floor. LOL!!

skibdaddy on March 10, 2023 @ 09:54 AM

At some point you've got to admit that you are who you are. We are a collection of talented players that for whatever reasons haven't come together as a team to play a complete game yet. I have no hope that it will happen next week, but it has been an interesting roller coaster ride this season and I hope that Coach Underwood learned that plug and play transfers may not be the best way to build a contender.

thumpasaurus on March 10, 2023 @ 11:31 AM

He only brought in two transfers this year (Dainja was redshirting last year), and those guys made this an NCAA tournament team.

This year was always going to have chemistry issues just because we needed to replace so many players, but we're going to return a lot more minutes next year. I only wish there was a PG and a shooter among the returners. Also we'll need a big if Dain doesn't make big strides defensively

thumpasaurus on March 10, 2023 @ 11:32 AM

edit button not working, but I wanted to add: at the end of last year knowing how many minutes we'd have to replace, most illini fans including me just asked "please make the tournament do whatever it takes" out of this year

in that context, this is fine.

ScubaFarms on March 10, 2023 @ 10:43 AM

Excellent take. I was losing faith in your objectivity until this. Underwood's belief in his players is admirable, but I don't care that whoever is a great kid. The beat writers are wholly intimidated by Underwood. Maybe Shakespeare had a good take as well....and no, I'm not calling anyone an idiot. "This life, which had been the tomb of his virtue and of his honour, is but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

gman on March 10, 2023 @ 10:55 AM

No dominant center.

Poor team shooting majority of time.

thumpasaurus on March 10, 2023 @ 11:21 AM

Penn State has been bottled up by teams that defend the lane really effectively. As good as we can be on the perimeter sometimes, it can be astonishingly easy to find layups against us. I asked fans of teams that beat Penn State how it's even possible to do so, and apparently defending the lane with a real big boy is how you do it.

Of course, "force penn state to shoot threes" isn't a viable strategy when they're incapable of missing against our team.

It's fitting that you say you don't "know" this team personally because this team seems difficult to understand in all aspects (yes I know you were mostly talking about not having as much exposure to these guys personally as our veterans, but bear with me) and they are full of what seem like contradictions (bad at shooting threes but do it all the time, underwood screams at these guys but then sticks with melendez through an extended struggle).

AND YET, from a pure results standpoint, they're very easy to understand. They're middle of the pack in a Big Ten that has a deep middle, they lose to top-50ish teams on the road but rarely lose at home, they don't win the big road game but they won't drop a particularly embarrassing game. They've absolutely dominated their wheelhouse and rarely succeeded outside of it.

They're REMARKABLY consistent, but they take very interesting routes to achieve those results.

Dix on March 10, 2023 @ 03:29 PM

Save this post for this time next year--because it's going to be more of the same. Save for signing a generational talent who sticks around a year or two or three (Kofi, Ayo, Edey, Garza), I don't see any way out of the "middle of the pack . . . that has a deep middle" ---for us or any Big 10 team.

We "won" the off-season by most commentators' accounts and this is what we ended up with. Brad/NIL will convince a seemingly underrated stud from another program to come here, but I see the same trajectory. Start the year with hype; then come questions of leaderships (is this Epps's team? [unnamed super senior]'s team? Goode?); questions of the transfers buying into being everyday guys; rumors of locker strife; and inconsistent, headscratching play. Oh, and watch someone (maybe RJ?) transfer and become all-conference somewhere else.

Luckily this is likely the fait of most teams (see Michigan, MSU, etc. this year), but at the end of the day I think we are going to pine for the days when we used to "know" our teams.

IlliNYC on March 10, 2023 @ 01:39 PM

For this game: I thought we played hard and had an OK game plan. Held Picket to a below average game. Got the ball inside. We missed too many layups, missed too many free throws (including those 3 front ends in the last 5 minutes or so) and they hit their big shots.

For this season: I guess this is what it feel like to ‘focus on the NCAA’? I mean they’ve told us all along that’s what they wanted and cared about. It doesn’t seem like the right strategy to me, but it is what they communicated to us as their goal. Their story will be entirely contained in how they do next week. We’ll see.

illinois81 on March 11, 2023 @ 07:56 AM

Couldn't sleep last night, so started reviewing the games in my head and the charges that the team lacked effort. IMO, can't blame all the losses on that.

The team played hard through 40 minutes against Virginia, Iowa, at Indiana, Maryland, and B1G tourny vs. Penn State--all losses in nip-and-tuck games. Just when the clock ran out we were tucking when we should have been nipping.

They dug themselves into deep holes and couldn't recover against Purdue, at Columbus, home and away vs. Penn State, home vs. Indiana, and at Northwestern.

Didn't show up at all against Mizzou.

Yes, they were inconsistent as charged, but maybe not as hopeless as some feel. Probably in part because of the huge turnover. That said, I don't know what we will get next season with BU concerned about possible 6 transfers, losing Mayer and Shannon.

jdl on March 11, 2023 @ 01:25 PM

Nail Edit

Jason_M on March 12, 2023 @ 01:31 AM

Here is where I have kind of landed with this team. For the first time since he has been here the team has been run by “Characters over character”. A collection of talented individuals that could never quite figure it out. Neither Shannon, Mayer, or Hawkins have Brads temperament or mindset and struggle to run offensive sets. I’m sure Brad will hit the portal again but I would be willing to bet it won’t be for centerpieces of his team. Culture is just too important of a part of winning unless you have elite talent. It was an interesting experiment for sure.

on July 3, 2023 @ 03:59 PM


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