I held off on posting something about the Purdue game. Not because it wasn’t a bad loss (it was – that is the most talentless Purdue team of my lifetime). Not because it wasn’t concerning (it was – Illinois looked disinterested on defense and on the glass). It was more because we’d really learn more about the Purdue game when you coupled it with the ensuing Ohio State game. How would this coaching staff utilize a bad loss to prepare for what would be easily the most important game of the season?
I kid. Sort of. I would not have wanted to attend the Thursday and Friday practices.
Now, bad losses happen. Good coaches realize this and make the most of it. Rahm Emanuel would be proud of the way they don’t waste a crisis. And often, the way the team responds is a good barometer of how much the players trust a coach and thus, how healthy a program is.
I won’t pretend Bruce Weber never used a loss effectively. Obviously, in his first year, the Illini opened the conference season 1-2 with ugly losses to Purdue at home and at Northwestern. They followed that Northwestern loss by beating Iowa in Champaign in a shove-y, chippy game (is that redundant when we’re talking about Iowa?) and then lost exactly one regular season game the rest of the way. Even recently, I remember him benching Demetri McCamey following a gross loss at Northwestern, resulting in a win on the road against a ranked Minnesota team. But I’m struggling to remember a time when the symptoms of the bad loss were so completely inverted as this one.
I had assumed we would lose the rebounding battle, I was just hoping it wouldn’t be so bad as to kill us as it did at Purdue. We won it. By double digits (!). I thought we would really struggle defensively against tOSU, a team that takes good care of the basketball and can shoot over us. We forced 16 turnovers and held them to just 30 percent from the field. We struggled from three (8-27) and won by 19.
You can say that this Ohio State team is a little bit softer than you’d usually expect from a Thad Matta team. I’d agree. Their resume looks a little light right now. But they’re also in the top ten and were competitive the entire way with both Duke and Kansas. You can point out that this is simply what you’re supposed to do in the Big Ten – hold serve at home. I’d be inclined to agree with that, too, although it’s been a long time since we made life on the road as tough for the rest of the conference as they made it for us.
But either way, it’s hard to not be impressed by the turnaround from Wednesday to Saturday, which indicates the team and the staff identified the problems from West Lafayette and worked intensely to correct them by the time the Buckeyes came to Champaign. You wonder how the coaches are able to get that kind of commitment from the players, but then you skip to the 2:00 mark of the video below, and you stop wondering.