So exactly one month ago, I was even-keeled, refusing to lose focus on the one – and only one – goal this team has this season: get to the tournament. On balance, things were going great. Then we lost to Northwestern and I completely lost it. (I’m gonna go ahead and stand by that – in fact, I will promise you that I will always be irrational if we lose at home to Northwestern. You can count on me.) By the time Wisconsin handled us in Champaign, things were bleak. It was the last two seasons, all over again, following the same script. Good start, tailspin, crash. There was no real reason to think things would go differently.
But they did anyway.
We’ve covered the IU game, but to me, the Minnesota and Purdue games are so much more significant. Indiana was lightning in a bottle. Minnesota and Purdue were an entirely new look for this team, even different from what they showed early on against Butler or Gonzaga. This team – and namely, the seniors – decided they weren’t gonna do 2012 all over again. They went up to The Barn and became just the second team to win there all season, after falling behind 26-14 early. They exorcised eight straight losses to Purdue (me, typing those words) by working the Boilermakers like a speed bag. Usually vulnerable on the inside, they held Trevor Mbakwe and A.J. Hammons to a combined 23 points. They outrebounded Purdue 40-29 (Purdue! The Jedi Masters of Scrap and Hustle!).
I don’t want to jump the gun, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen an Illinois team actually hit its stride in February and March. In fact, I would argue it hasn’t really happened since 2003-2004. It’d be a sight for sore eyes.