For the entirety of the season, fans and neutral observers alike have spoken about this year’s Illinois basketball team as if they had made some kind of illicit deal with the basketball gods. “One of these days, the threes won’t be falling,” they’d open, without really finishing that thought in detail. Why is it that only three-point shooting earns this response? If a team’s strength is interior scoring or rebounding, nobody says “Sure, they’re getting second-chance points now, but just wait until they don’t!” Three-pointers are viewed as some kind of dangerous sorcery, and any team that utilizes the three (which at the college level, you’d almost be remiss not to) is playing some kind of basketball Hunger Games, awaiting their inevitable destruction.
But with that rant over, we didn’t hit threes (8 of 32). Or a whole lot else with regularity (33.8% from the field). We got eaten alive on the glass by a frontcourt that outclassed and outmuscled our own. Our guards were spotty. Our zone was routinely gashed by Phil Pressey. Brandon Paul scored the quietest 23 points I’ve maybe ever seen. It was all of the things everyone had worried would happen, and they happened against a quality opponent on a neutral floor.
And with 1:01 remaining, we trailed 73-70.
I was watching this game in person, which provides a much more muddled view of the flow of the game, but we really never seemed to get a sustained rhythm on offense. We also never really seemed to get comfortable defensively. Yet there we were, trading punches for the majority of the second half against a good Mizzou team. If there was anybody still not sold on the difference a head coach can make, this game should remove any doubts. Very little went according to the game plan, and the team attempted to adjust on the fly and eventually said “Screw it, we’re going to have to just grind it out.” And they almost did.
Rather than the first loss exposing us, I think this game – more than any of our wins – left me thinking this team can have as good a season as it wants to. Can’t wait for the Big Ten season – and its steady stream of top-caliber foes – to get here. That’s a far cry from where I was heading into this season, when I thought this conference would chew us up and spit us out.
Note: None of this should be taken to mean I view a loss to Mizzou (the fourth in a row, no less) as anything above “groin kick” on the spectrum of pleasant experiences. God, they are loathsome.