Here's the good news: That was probably the best basketball team Illinois will play this decade. On any given night, the 2013 Golden Gophers are one of the best basketball teams anyone will play this year. Wednesday night, the Gophers were the team of the decade.
As I waited to speak with Trevor Mbakwe outside the Gophers locker room, I asked UM SID Matt Slieter, "what the fuck happened to your team?" Matt is one of my favorite SIDs in the B1G, and he was frank as usual: "I don't know. We can't explain it."
Tubby Smith's teams have been goodish, to somewhat good. He's never approached the dominance he enjoyed in 1998 (with Rick Pitino's recruits). Always a dangerous draw, Tubby's Gophers were never a threat on your team's good nights.
Illinois was really, really good at the start of this game.
Tracy Abrams wrapped himself around Andre Hollins like a glove. Tyler Griffey boxed his man and grabbed a rebound. Nnanna Egwu grabbed five. Minnesota's strengths were neutralized. They managed three points in the first six minutes.
The Illini held themselves to four first-half turnovers.
The lurking stat (3-of-16 shooting from distance) hid itself among happier numbers. Illinois was 11-of-12 from the charity stripe. The Gophers had only one more trey than the Illini (on seven attempts) and five fewer makes from free (6-of-11).
Who, except perhaps every Illini fan, could have predicted Illinois would go 0-for-8 from the arc after that? The national pundits kept referring to us as a three-point shooting team, but Illinois has not hit the broad side of anybody's barn since 2012.
The team shoots 35 percent from the arc on the season, and that number will decrease in the face of persistent B1G defenses. Wednesday's 12.5 percent was not bad luck. Minnesota was inside Illinois' jockstrap on those shots.
THE CHAIN OF EVENTS
It's rarely so easy to encapsulate an outcome in one series of possessions. Wednesday's decisive series struck me as remarkable. It's perhaps the most dramatic series of events I've ever seen in a basketball game.
First, Tracy Abrams airballed a short floater. He was credited with an assist when Sam McLaurin picked the ball from the air and laid it in. (McLaurin was credited with a "jumper" in the official stats.)
Unbowed, Abrams charged to the hole on the next three possessions. And goddamn it, he made all three of those shots.
That's when Tracy got careless.
On the next possession, Abrams was picked on a lazy no look pass to DJ Richardson. Joe Coleman converted the TO for one of his many two-handed jams.
DJ was credited with the turnover. (Who the fuck are these statisticians?) On the very next possession Tracy made another bad pass for a pick six.
"Pick six" is John Groce's expression, and he sometimes qualifies it as "or a pick two." In this case, it was ultimately a pick five: Joe Bertrand fouled Andre Hollins immediately, to prevent an easy bucket. Terry Wymer woke up just in time to charge Joe with an intentional foul. Hollins made both free-throws, and capped the possession with a three.
My view was blocked-ish, but I can't believe this call will go unobserved in the B1G's weekly round-up of horseshit officiating.
Anyway, that was the game. An eight point Minnesota lead was cut to two, and then expanded to nine.
BRANDON PAUL'S BROKEN FACE
If you didn't watch the game, or checked some other (wholly incomplete) news source, you might not have known that Brandon Paul left the game for a long time in the first half. He got a bloody nose, and had to leave the arena completely.
When he came back, he was wearing jersey #12. In the meantime, Mike LaTulip got another minute of tick.
In the second half, Brandon was wearing a blood-free #3 jersey once more.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Wednesday was another of those Sam McLaurin games that John Groce continually trumpets in his postgame press conferences. I agree with Groce. Sam does things, so many little things, that never show up in the stat line. His help defense was outstanding. His steal of an inbound pass provoked (perhaps) the loudest ovation of the night. He cleared space in the lane.
I would tell you more, but the Ministry of Sports Information has decided a free press is best when directed by the state. So no more player interviews except those three questions in the media room, probably to the guy who scored a lot. And not so much for the guy who made a difference. But hey, it worked for TASS. Who am I to argue?
John Groce has never been more angry about officiating. Lamont Simpson got an earful for making a call from the perimeter when Terry Wymer, right on top of the play, saw nothing.
"Terry, that's your call!" Groce yelled to Wymer. And he's right.
But you have to keep in mind that Wymer prefers to blow his whistle at timed intervals, rather than tying himself down artistically by responding only to events on the court.
Sometimes it helps.
Wymer called a double-foul on Nnanna Egwu and Trevor Mbakwe for holding hands, in pseudo-70s love-in fashion. Groce exploded in anger. He threw off his jacket. He slammed his fist to the scorer's table. Dustin Ford had to wrestle him down.
Luckily, Wymer was on another of his intervals. Thus, there was no technical foul.
Mbakwe sat after this amicable grappling. I was sure it'd been his third foul. A lump named Maurice Walker took Mbakwe's place for three minutes, and Illinois came charging back. Much later, and quite mysteriously, Mike Cation announced Mbakwe's third foul.
Steve McJunkins evaded Groce's ire. I'll bet a lot of people feel sorry for him.
LOOK AT THE BRIGHT SIDE
Jordan Hulls will probably not survive this weekend's onslaught. We still haven't figured out what a Hoosier is, but in the food chain, it ranks as prey for Gophers. If your children are fond of hobbits, keep them away from the television. It won't be pretty.
Fifty-two years later, Mannie Jackson got his just deserts.