I went almost a month without posting, mostly because I was waiting to follow up on this post with a “Here’s what we learned” after our first loss. Still waiting on that loss. We learned a lot, anyway.
I’m going to try to keep things calm by not looking forward too much, save for the fact that a 14-0 non-conference portion of the schedule is now very much on the table. Not even the craziest of orange Kool-Aid drinkers would have proposed that seriously at the beginning of the season. But barring some kind of crazy disaster, that’s what should be on the line against Missouri in St. Louis.
“Sure,” you can say, “but last year’s team had a solid non-conference start, too.” And you’d be correct. But last year’s team didn’t have a win like this Gonzaga win. In fact, no team has had one since 1986. That’s the last time Illinois won a true non-con road game against a top ten opponent. But we all know that it’s way more than even that – it’s that this team, consisting of nearly all of the same faces that were part of the nosedive to finish last year, looks like it has been let out of basketball prison. In fact, we all feel that way:
When Brandon Paul went for 43 against OSU last year, it felt like lightning in a bottle; like a team literally having only one option and that option being unconscious. It was still just barely enough to win at home. Watching him go off for a 35-4-3-3-2 felt much more dominant because it felt as if it was by design. Because it is. Because instead of handwringing about the matchup problems the opponent might create, this team creates them and takes advantage of them (see: Paul vs. any GU guard) Because this team is choosing to be aggressive where last year’s team was passive. Because in just ten games, John Groce has already shown that his preference is for what works best in given situations, as opposed to a needless stubbornness about playing a certain way (case in point – the zone that helped to negate Gonzaga’s interior advantage last night; after using it in an early game Groce remarked, casually and almost half-surprised that “it charted well, so we’ll keep using it,” – much like you would say “I had never tried asparagus, but I liked it, so I’ll keep eating it.”). In years past, any deviation from man-to-man was dangerous time spent away from the One True Path of defense.
The Big Ten is going to be brutal. Brutal. But after starting out in an 8-0 hole in Spokane and turning an 11-point deficit into a decisive, dribble-out-the-clock win, it’s hard not to give this team at least a puncher’s chance against anybody in this conference. It’s going to be a long conference season, but man, it’s going to be a fun one. And I know I’m not alone in saying that’s all we’ve wanted.