Winning The Close Ones March 14, 2013
As I mentioned on Twitter during the game, I’m really sick right now. Fever still at 100. My eyes feel hot. Still in a haze. The joints in my fingers ache as I type. But in a show of perseverance unmatched since D-Day, I’m pushing through it to bring you this post. I true hero, I think.
Holy crap I almost just segued that into SPEAKING OF HEROES BRANDON PAUL SAVED THE ILLINI TODAY. I hate segues (am I even spelling that right? looks wrong, but no squiggly red line), but this fever almost made me go all “speaking of…” This post is all over the place. I’m going to hate it tomorrow. But I can blame the sickness.
OK, so the Illini are now 7-1 in games decided by 5 points or less. Kind of a crazy statistic, given the last few years. Here’s our record in games decided by 5 or less the last four seasons:
That’s… that’s awesome. I understand that this statistic can sometimes be an anomaly – fake rallies and whatnot. But .412 in close games the last three seasons and now .875? I’ll take it.
I just watched the game replay, and I noticed the body language of both teams in the final minute (very similar to our game in Minnesota). Minnesota’s players looked… scared. On the first inbounds from the baseline with 11 on the shotclock, the guy who inbounded the ball (Ingram, I think) actually looked frightened to be throwing it. Like, he let it go and then had this “ahhh – I hope he catches that” reaction. Same with Austin Hollins catching the next inbounds and then stepping out of bounds. He wanted no part of those final 15 seconds.
But Brandon Paul did. And so we sank our third shot at time expired on the season (DJ vs. Hawaii, Tyler vs. Indiana). If you count Tyler’s three against Gardner-Webb (with 3.7 seconds remaining and the Illini trailing by two), that’s four buzzer beaters in one season.
Again, sometimes that’s just a statistical anomaly. This team shoots .421 on the season, and on the four shots that mattered, we shot 1.000. So there’s a degree of luck in all of this “we win every close game” thing. On our next 20 buzzer beaters, we’re likely to make less than half of them.
But there’s also a complete mental change from the last three seasons. When DJ almost stole the ball on the first Minnesota inbounds, he and Tracy and Brandon were fighting hard to get that win. Minnesota’s guys looked like deer in headlights, and our guys were sold out to finding a way to win.
Just look at the last two minutes of this game. Tyler misses a three, Nnanna almost gets the tip-in and fights tooth and nail to get the rebound, DJ takes a three and gets it blocked (and gets his own rebound), then DJ takes another three and misses, which Nnanna somehow gets his fingers on (seriously, to watch that play – he gets the tips of his fingers on the ball to slap it away from Williams), all of which ends up back in DJ’s hands for the game tying three.
Now it’s Minnesota’s turn. They drive the lane and nearly throw it away (it would have been our ball but it glanced off Egwu’s leg). They then inbounds the ball and nearly throw it away (DJ’s deflection was just a little too hard). Then they inbound the ball again, McLaurin is right in Hollins’ grill, and he steps out of bounds. Which Brandon then takes and, without a timeout, hits the game winning shot.
One team making every single play (like we did in a close game with two minutes to go in Minneapolis). The other team scared to death and turning the ball over (like they did in the close game with two minutes to go in Minneapolis). And Illinois hitting yet another buzzer beater.
Now I want a seven seed. Most brackets have us on the 8/9 line right now, but I still feel like we’ll get a seven. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but when you compare our resume with other teams currently on the 8/9 line, I just think we’re significantly better.
Using The Bracket Matrix, here are the twelve current 7/8/9 teams, their record against the RPI top-50.
7. Colorado St. – 3-6
7. Notre Dame – 5-5
7. North Carolina – 2-7
7. Memphis – 2-3
8. Creighton – 4-3
8. NC State – 3-5
8. Missouri – 3-4
8. Minnesota – 5-8
9. San Diego St. – 5-7
9. Illinois – 6-8
9. Oregon – 3-5
9. Colorado – 3-5
Yeah, we’re totally getting a seven seed. Heck, why not a six? The committee loves hard schedules, and even if we lose tomorrow, we’ll have played FIFTEEN games against the RPI top-50. With wins over two of the one-seeds. If I’m a committee member, and I’m between Memphis and Illinois for a seven seed, and Illinois has 15 top-50 games while Memphis has five, and Illinois has six top-50 wins while Memphis has two, yeah, I’m picking Illinois. Sure, our bad losses to Northwestern and Purdue should temper our expectations a bit. But still – I can’t see us on the 8/9 line.
Now I want to peek at the current projected six seeds. UNLV (7-4), Butler (5-5), UCLA (5-3), VCU (3-6). Yeah, I think we surprise a lot of people on Sunday. 6 RPI top-50 wins, top-10 strength of schedule – we’re the type of resume the committee usually likes to reward.
And if we beat Indiana again, we can really start getting crazy. Man, this is so much fun. A team that was supposed to be nowhere close to the tournament, and now I’m making a case for a seven seed and dreaming of getting paired up with New Mexico as the two. Can’t wait for Sunday.