I attended nearly every game during the Covid season (home and away). People told me "oh man, you quit your job to cover the Illini and then all sports are canceled three weeks later - how awful" that year, but I always pointed to the ability to be in the building once sports returned. Somehow, I got to be there (for a season where we climbed all the way to #2 in the polls). Covid sucked, but I did get a very unique opportunity.
I'll still never forget how bizarre the empty arenas sounded, though. What it was like to see a big dunk and then hear about fourteen people on one of the benches cheering (inside massive arenas). The crowd is so much a part of college basketball.
Last season and this season, as fans returned (last year in masks, this year unmasked), post-Covid crowds have gone through an adjustment period. It's like when you have a cast on your broken hand for two months and then, once the cast comes off, you need to remember how to use all of your fingers. I'm sure you've read articles about how post-Covid fans are different in a lot of ways. I mean, I just wrote one Sunday about the Ohio State crowd.
I've also written about how the students have remained noisy around the court but the upper levels of the State Farm Center can get awfully quiet when things aren't going well. The "come on guys, stop this run" cheering of the past has dissipated. During the Rutgers game, after the crowd didn't come alive when the Rutgers lead was cut to three, Brad Underwood himself made sure the crowd came alive once the lead was cut to one.
It's against that backdrop that I'm evaluating tonight's game. Which was just like a game from 2002 or 1987. A buzzing energy in the building from start to finish. And with two overtimes added on, this one went to 11.
It was just so, so good for my soul to see a post-Covid crowd come alive like it was 2004 again. If 2021 was "it's just such a shame no fans can be here" and 2022 was "man, we're all so out of practice" and 2023 has been "this place can get very quiet when we're losing", tonight was "all of this sound bouncing off the concrete ceiling can make this arena SO intimidating."
I remember looking around in overtime when Michigan pushed out to the seven point lead and many had taken their seats again, thinking "wow, there's still a buzz in here". It hadn't gone completely silent. The crowd was certainly stunned (at that point it was an 18-4 Michigan run when you include the end of regulation and overtime), but there was still a lot of noise. An energy to the building. Noise immediately returned with the first Terrence Shannon and-one.
And throughout that 7-0 run (which was what, a 12-0 run when you combine it with the start of the second overtime?) it just kept getting louder and louder. The loudest moment (to my ears): the and-one from Shannon at the end of the first overtime which tied the game (leading to a free throw where we had a chance to take the lead). Just so incredibly deafening.
I found myself just enjoying the crowd for the rest of the game. If you saw my face in the background during the Underwood-Howard handshake, I'm looking around and smiling. Not just because my team won, but because everyone in that building got to experience a game like that. It was this full-circle moment for me - a full three-year journey from Kofi blocking Luka at the end of the Iowa game in 2020 (the last moment of Illinois basketball that year) to Michigan airballing a three to tie at the end of the second overtime. So, so good to have that atmosphere back.
Also, so good to beat Michigan for the 6th consecutive time. Maybe I should talk about that as well.
+ There are so many little moments in a double overtime game that matter. One missed free throw here, one rebound there. Without all of those things, you lose in regulation, or in the first overtime, or in the second overtime. This was a game that didn't have an intentional foul (to send the other team to the line) until 10 seconds left in the second overtime, so every single moment mattered.
And I thought this moment was great. Brandon Lieb played two whole minutes. And during those two minutes, despite being shoved in the back by Hunter Dickinson, he got a hand on this rebound to tip it back to RJ Melendez and keep this possession alive:
Two minutes played and not a single stat recorded (he doesn't get credit for that rebound). But one hand on one ball prevents McDaniel from grabbing the rebound and it deflects out to Melendez. Melendez gets it to Shannon, Shannon drives the lane and is fouled, and Shannon makes both free throws. One possession saved, two extra points. In a game that went to overtime.
So many of these moments matter. Since I've got the old gif maker out, how about one more?
What a massive play in this game. Melendez had a very important three and a huge dunk, but that right there was probably his best play. Rebound and an assist all with one tap.
Love this late season surge from RJ.
+ Speaking of Ty Rodgers, here's his minutes played in the last dozen games (starting with the Indiana game in January):
This is a freshman who played only 2 minutes at Northwestern in January. In the four big early-season games (UCLA, Virginia, Maryland, and Texas), he played 7, 8, 9, and 7 minutes. And now, in the last three games, he's averaging 30.3 minutes per game.
Tonight, 14 points and 7 rebounds. Massive.
+ Speaking of both RJ and Ty, the lineup for the end of regulation and both overtimes was, in a sense, guard-less. I know that Terrence Shannon is a "guard", but he's more wing than guard (in my mind). The heights for that Shannon-Rodgers-Melendez-Mayer-Hawkins lineup: 6'-6", 6-'6", 6-'7", 6-'9", 6-'10".
I'm gonna call it zero-out, five-in.
+ I'm now 100% focused on getting that 7-seed in the NCAA Tournament and staying out of the 8/9 game. There are about seven Big Ten teams hovering around the 8-9 lines, but only four can be placed in those eight slots (no Big Ten teams can be matched up in the first round). Which means that you'll see a few of those teams moved up a line to 7 (or moved down a line to 10). I guess I wouldn't mind getting dropped down to a 10, but I really want that 7.
Ideally we could beat Purdue and win a few BTT games and I might consider whether we could get to a 6. A 6 would be perfect, I think. Here's the four teams currently holding down the 3-seeds in the Bracket Matrix:
I'd feel pretty good about any of those second-round matchups. Especially Tennessee since they just lost their star guard for the season. An 8/9 game would mean we would get Kansas, Houston, or Alabama in the 2nd round (couldn't face Purdue), and I don't want any part of any of that.
OK, as I was typing that I realized that if Purdue is a one-seed, there's really only three Big Ten teams that could be added to 8/9 lines. The others would have to be moved up to 7 or down to 10. So there's even more hope we can avoid 8/9.
Plenty of time to worry about that over the next 10 days. For now, it feels good to be solidly in without a worry about a play-in game. A big chance to boost our resume at Purdue on Sunday (while they have nothing to play for) and then more chances with the BTT in our home state.
After tonight's blood-pumping win, I think I'm now ready for all of it.