The Food Chain February 25, 2013
I guess I look at this loss like Nebraska fans will look at their loss in Assembly Hall next Sunday. Let me explain.
Say you’re a Michigan fan. It’s not that hard to imagine their emotions right now – just picture what it was like for all of us in, say, 2001. That was our “we’re finally back” year. It had been a long journey from 1989 though Bruce Pearl and Henson’s retirement until 2001. That’s similar to Michigan under Ellerbee and Amaker. Now their finally back, and their fans can begin to trust again. Down by three at the half? Meh – we’ve got Burke and they don’t. (“Down by three at the half? Meh – we’ve got Frankie and they don’t.”) They’re very much us in 2001 right now.
So how did we feel in 2001 when a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team came to town? Confident even when we trailed at the half, right? At least I was. We just didn’t lose at home. Didn’t matter what happened in the first half – we were going to find a way to come back. I watched the Sweet 16 game against Kansas with my friend Dave that year – it’s probably the most confident I’ve ever been during a basketball game. We had a decent lead, and I want to say Kansas cut it to 7 and we called a time out, and Dave looked at me and said “you’re not worried NOW?” and I calmly said “no – Frank will find a way”. Frank found a way, and we won by 16. Man I wish I could go back to those days.
I have to think that’s how most Michigan fans feel right now. Trey Burke is (in my opinion) far and away the best player in the league. Take him away – send him to the pros last spring and put Spike Albrecht as Michigan’s starting point guard – and I think they’d have to have eight losses by now. But they have Burke, and I think that means they run the table with wins over IU and MSU and find a way to get a one-seed.
So when Nebraska comes to town next weekend, we get to play the role of Michigan and they get to be Illinois. I don’t care if it’s close at the half – we’re going to find a way to win, and we’re probably going to win going away. In the Big Ten food chain, they’re as far below us as Michigan is above us. Lions eat the antelopes, antelopes eat grass. Michigan is a lion, we’re an antelope, Nebraska is grass. The cirrrrrcle of life.
Our job is to climb back to becoming a lion. As I wrote after the Michigan game in Assembly Hall, they’re a great blueprint. Down for so long, now back, and recruiting like they’re going to stay there for a while. That’s where we want to be.
To get there, we have to find a Trey Burke (a Frankie, if you will). One great lead guard can make such a difference. We almost had him this year, too, but McDonald’s All American Demetrius Jackson chose to stay home in South Bend. On to next year, where Evansville Bosse guard JaQuan Lyle appears to be the target. But scholarships are limited, and we haven’t landed a recruit from the state of Indiana in more than 25 years, so it might be 2015 before we find our lead guard (hi there, Charles Matthews at Chicago St. Rita).
Until then, we build. In fact, late in the game, when we went with the 2014 team + DJ, I kind of liked what I saw. If Tracy keeps progressing, he can be a poor man’s Kiwane Garris for us. Myke Henry has that quick release and can fill the stretch four role. Nnanna is probably a tiny bit ahead of where I expected him to be as a sophomore. There are some pieces there for the building process. And as soon as next year, guys like Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill can begin to build us back up to the top.
Until then, though, we’re just not where Michigan is. It was a nice first half, but Trey Burke took over, we stumbled badly, and what looked like a possible upset just became a routine 13 point loss on the road at a top-10 team. I expect the same when we visit Ohio State in a few weeks. Ohio State knocked of Michigan State in that building today, and they want revenge after losing in Champaign, so that game probably isn’t going to be very pretty. But hey – Matt Sylvester’s three to beat #1 Illinois started their journey back to where they are now, and Tyler Griffey’s lay-in can do the same for us.
Michigan, Ohio State, and Indiana have all climbed back to where they once were. Now it’s our turn to do that. The next step: destroy Nebraska.
A few game thoughts:
+ Really surprising to see Brandon Paul sit for long periods in the second half. A few bad turnovers, a defensive lapse, and suddenly he’s sitting while Tracy, DJ, and Joe filled out the guard spots.
I think it makes sense to say that we’ll need November/December Brandon Paul if we want to have any shot at some tournament wins. Rejuvenated DJ Richardson is great. So is worked-through-the-slump Tyler Griffey. And Nnanna and Tracy have progressed just fine this season for sophomores. But many times, tournament wins are about your best player having his best game, and we need Brandon Paul to be our best player.
When he doesn’t take a shot in the second half, he’s not our best player.
+ I feel like I can already write the story for when we lose in the tourney. “But the bottom line is, (tourney opponent) passed the ball well and we didn’t, and that was the difference in the game.” Michigan more than doubled our assists today. Wait, I can top that: Trey Burke had more assists than our entire team.
I thought it would be rebounding, but as it turns out, the one thing this team does the worst is set up teammates for open shots. I expect that to improve each season as John Groce finds his guys and builds his systems. But for this season, passing is simply our Achilles heel.
+ One thing I KNOW will improve as Groce builds his program: fast breaks. We have had some of the ugliest fast breaks in Illini history this season, including the three-on-one resulting in a charge in this game. We’re not good at spacing it, we’re not good at timing our passes, and we’re not good at finishing. Take me back to 1989, Mr. Groce.
Overall, we bet with house money and lost it all today. So now we return home having not lost a dime but still feeling like an opportunity was missed. Next step: take it out on someone lower than us on the food chain.