Gravy Game February 23, 2013
This is our first Gravy Game in a long time. Maybe a really, really long time, depending on how you look at it. What’s a Gravy Game? It’s a combination of two things:
1) A game you’re not supposed to win, because your opponent is really awesome.
2) A game you really don’t have to win.
There’s also two additional stipulations: you have to have the tourney bid locked up, and you have to have been eliminated from conference title contention. More or less, a Gravy Game boils down to a game against a really tough opponent on the road where a win, while nice, really isn’t necessary. We’re placing a bet, but it’s all house money.
Which is how I see this game against Michigan. We’re going on the road to play #7 in a game they absolutely have to win if they want any shot at a Big Ten title. We’ve played several of these games the last few years – great opponent on the road late in the season – but in all of them, we really, really needed the win to boost our fading tourney hopes. They were all must-win games, not “a win would be nice, but we don’t need it.”
When was our last Gravy Game? Good question. Let’s go back and see.
We missed the tournament in 11/12, 09/10, and 07/08, so those are obviously out. (We missed the tournament three out of six years? And two of the three years we made it we had to scratch and claw our way in late? We’ve only had one comfortable Selection Sunday in six years?)
OK, this needs its own paragraph. We’ll get back to gravy in a second. 2006/07, 2007/08, 2008/09, 2009/10, 2010/11, and 2011/12 – only ONCE did we rest comfortably on Selection Sunday. How is that possible for a team that entered that first season (2006/07) with the second most NCAA basketball wins in the 2000′s? How was Bruce Weber not fired after two seasons of that, let alone SIX? Sometimes, it takes getting a year away from something to be able to look back and see how ridiculous any arguments were for keeping him as coach.
And now John Groce will likely have us resting comfortably on Selection Sunday in his first season. Sorry to get so far off track here, but it just hit me like a ton of bricks. In late 2008, I could be heard squawking about the upcoming recruiting classes and challenging anyone who wanted Weber fired. “He’s turned the recruiting around – recruiting was the problem.” Recruiting wasn’t the problem. Man I was so ridiculously wrong.
Alright, where were we? Yes – looking for the last Gravy Game. ’12, ’10, and ’08 are out. ’07 we were maybe the last team in, so we didn’t get any gravy. ’11 was better, but after losing to Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten tournament to only finish 19-13, all of us were fairly uncomfortable on Sunday.
So that should point to 2008/09, right? We were a five seed, so there had to be a Gravy Game in there somewhere, right? A late season game where we were supposed to lose? Looking at the schedule, not really. After we basically locked up a tournament bid with a win over a ranked Purdue team at home in mid-February, we only played one more ranked team – #9 Michigan State, in Champaign, on Senior Day. And I don’t remember that as a game we were supposed to lose. I remember wanting that game so we could improve our BTT seed (and improve our NCAA seed). And besides, Gravy Games don’t really happen at home – you should always expect to win at home.
That means we have to dig further back. Let’s look at 2005/06 (maybe it’s just me, but I define that entire season by the Penn State loss and the Rich McBride three that was 0.1 seconds too late. It’s amazing that Illinois basketball slid from that very moment all the way to Maui this year when we started the path back). The 2005/06 tourney bid was wrapped up early, so did we have any gravy games? Not really. Late season at Michigan State? No – we were still trying to win the Big Ten at that point. And Michigan State wasn’t very good that year.
OK, further back we go. 2004/05? No way. No gravy that year. We were favored in every game after Wake Forest (well, maybe not the title game – can’t remember which team was favored then). So 2004/05 is out.
2003/04? No – we made that run through the second half of the Big Ten to win the conference title. Wait – we wrapped up the title with the Luther game at Purdue, right? We still had Ohio State left to play. Was that a Gravy Game? No. We still had to beat Ohio State to win the title because Wisconsin and Michigan State were only one loss back.
We need to speed this up – it could take forever. 2002/03 we finished one game back of Wisconsin in the standings. 2001/02 and 2000/01 we tied for the conference title. So there definitely haven’t been any Gravy Games in those seasons – we needed every win to get the conference title.
OK – 1999/00. This has to be it. And… YES. Found a Gravy Game. Late in the conference season, Michigan State was close to wrapping up the conference title, and Ohio State was on their heels, and we were two games back in the loss column (with two games left) and technically out of the race. Michigan State (who went on to win it all) would have had to lose to both lowly Minnesota and lowly Michigan for us to have a chance of even tying for the conference title (and MSU won those games by 36 and 51 points – yes, really).
So with us out of the conference title race, and with us playing #6 Ohio State on the road, all we could really do was play the role of the spoiler (try to keep Ohio State from tying Michigan State for the conference title). It was, in fact, a Gravy Game. Road game at #6. If we win, great – improves our BTT seed. If we lose, it’s not going to affect our tourney chances nor will it change our seed all that much.
We’re finally there. We’ve found our last Gravy Game. Tomorrow’s game against Michigan is our first “if we win, AWESOME; if we lose, no big deal” game since February 27th, 2000 – a month after Bill Clinton left office.
If we find some way to win tomorrow, seriously, that’s amazing. A six game winning streak is outstanding, and we really will have the best wins of any team in the tournament. Even if we only beat Nebraska and lose at Iowa and Ohio State, we’re still talking about a solid seed.
If we lose? Meh. A loss to a probable 2-seed, AT the probable 2-seed’s house, isn’t really going to affect our seed. It’s about as far from a bad loss as you can get.
So tomorrow should be fun. If we lose, it’s the least-bad loss in 13 years. A win would be outstanding, but it’s probably just not going to happen. And that’s OK.
I might even sit on the couch.