Act III February 13, 2013
We come out of the gate stronger than anyone expected. And Maui was a blur. We had a 15 point lead over USC before anyone could blink, and suddenly Raftery and Bilas are discussing how Illinois is the most impressive team they’ve seen all day (after having watched Butler and Marquette and North Carolina). Right then, I think most of us had a “wait, so we’re actually good?” moment.
And then we roll through Chaminade and follow it up with a fairly convincing victory over Butler. Just-beat-Marquette-and-UNC Butler. Butler tried to make a second half run, Tyler Griffey slammed the door with what seemed like 6 points in 15 seconds, and I’m texting my friends wondering where we’ll debut in the rankings the next week.
After a shaky jet lag game against Gardner-Webb (thanks, Tyler), we drew Georgia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. It was tense for a bit, but then IT’S YOUR WORLD, JOE and everything was fine. I’m standing and screaming and punching the air next to my television again. As it should be. But a closer-than-it-should-be game against Western Carolina led many of us to wonder if we we’re, you know, good.
And then we traveled to Spokane to play currently-getting-votes-for-#1 Gonzaga and proved that yes, we are good. Perhaps very good. Maybe even protected seed good. Illinois Basketball, losers of 12 of their last 15 to finish the 2011/12 season, was now ranked #10 in mid-December. Amazing.
We weren’t going to go undefeated, though, and a loss to Missouri followed by a way-too-close win against Auburn in Chicago set us up for the Big Ten season. Which started with a loss to a Purdue team that was 7-6 in the preseason. Man, it the Big Ten schedule is going to be tough.
Wait, no it won’t. We took #8 Ohio State to the woodshed. Man, if we can hold serve at home, we might actually have a chance in the Big Ten. I mean, we just took Ohio State to the woodshed.
Act I closed with the Minnesota game. Specifically, in the Minnesota game with about three minutes left. I want to say we cut it to eight, and had a chance to cut it even further, and then Minnesota just poured it on. Joe Coleman hit a three. I remember Andre Hollins hitting a deep three. I think it was about the time that Joe Coleman went to the free throw line with a big grin on his face (to push the lead to 17 or something like that) that I began to doubt. The Big Ten won’t go like it did last year, will it?
It will. At Wisconsin – a Wisconsin team that wasn’t ranked and had lost at home to Virginia in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge – it was 14-0 before anyone blinked. About the time it was 34-9 at the under-four timeout in the first half, we all felt it. Here we go again. Hot starts in what, four of the last five seasons? And then, once the Big Ten schedule arrive, a crumbling.
But it got worse. Northwestern, without Drew Crawford or JerShon Cobb, jumped out to a 10-3 and then 25-12 lead at Assembly Hall. Northwestern! In Champaign! Why is this happening AGAIN? A 68-54 loss at home to the Wildcats felt like a low point. But was it? Last year, the home loss to Purdue felt like the low point, especially with our coach’s meltdown in the press conference. But then we went and lost at 4-10 Nebraska 80-57. We wouldn’t… we weren’t going to lose to Nebraska again, were we?
No, we weren’t. Whew. DJ looked like the DJ we all expected his senior season, and we strolled to a comfortable victory. OK, now the gauntlet awaits. Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota. Sure, we might not beat Michigan, and at Michigan State will be impossible, but we can at least get the season back on track by beating Wisconsin at home, right? Then maybe try to steal one of the last two?
Michigan 74, Illinois 60
Michigan State 80, Illinois 75
Wisconsin 74, Illinois 68
And there it is. 2-7 in the conference, staring 2-9 right in the face. I wanted to go 9-9 in the Big Ten, and now we might get our ninth Big Ten loss in the 11th game. Almost too much to bear.
And then we actually played well in the Indiana game. The #1 Indiana game. But every time we made a run – I mean every single time – Indiana would punch back. Hulls would hit a three. Oladipo would get a steal and a layup. Zeller would get a tip-in over three of our guys. It just wasn’t meant to be. Great effort, though.
And then DJ hit a three. And another three. And a step-back 18 footer to tie. And suddenly my son and I are screaming and running around and begging my wife to come in to watch the final minute with us. If we could somehow pull this off, I mean, it could change the entire season. Then DJ gets the steal, and is driving with three seconds left, and I’m jumping up and down for no reason, and… Oladipo with a great block. 0.9 on the clock. I mean, we couldn’t, could we?
Everything is different. Everything is new. Tyler Griffey snuck out the back, and the entire season changed. Our mentality, our effort, our approach – everything has been different.
Road game at #18 where it’s 8-0 before we can blink and 26-14 with 4:30 left in the half, making us all think that another Wisconsin game was upon us? How about a 17-4 run to take the lead at halftime, with a DJ Richardson three-at-the-buzzer exclamation point. What was once folding has become resilience.
We tough out a four point win against a team we match up with horribly and now the entire season looks different. We were once staring at 2-9, and now 7-7 looks very doable. But hey, Purdue at home is looming, and these seniors have lost seven straight to Purdue, and we’ve seen us fold in this situation before…
20 point win that felt like 50. A never-in-doubt second half. Out-hustling Purdue for every rebound. 14 assists. 17 forced turnovers. TWENTY offensive rebounds. Look at the shooting stats, and the fouls, and you’d think this was a really close game. But we outhustled Purdue in every other category and walked away with a 20-point laugher.
Which really makes me believe that we’re in Act III. Act I was fun, but we weren’t sure we could sustain it. Act II was no fun at all, because we were likely headed from #10 in the country to the NIT. But then Tyler Griffey snuck out the back, and this feels like a completely different team.
Tracy is different. How about these numbers? 6 assists and no turnovers at Minnesota, followed by 7 assists and 2 turnovers against Purdue.
Tyler is different. Where did this offensive rebounding machine come from? How many times in the last two games have you caught yourself saying “that was GRIFFEY?” Eleven? He want 0-5 from three tonight and still found a way to take over the game in stretches.
DJ is aggressive. Nnanna is getting stronger on the defensive end. Myke Henry had an offensive burst tonight. Joe Bertrand: 12 rebounds.
Something changed with that Griffey lay-in, and this became a different team. This is Act III. Surprising success, then adversity because we didn’t know how to handle success, and now rejuvenation.
Yes, it was just 12-13 Purdue. But it was also #1 Indiana. For the first time in what seems like forever, we seem to be improving in February. This could be a five game winning streak soon, with an Illini team right on the edge of being ranked again, heading to Michigan with a boatload of confidence.
The tournament seems probable now, which is really a great accomplishment for this team. I would have never guessed that one week ago. This senior-laden team, on a bit of a roll, heading to the NCAA Tournament. Can’t wait to see what Act IV has in store.