Back in early November, when I began considering topics for the winter editions of this column, I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t have enough column inches to devote to both the Illini men’s basketball team and the Bulls. That is to say, that both teams would be providing me with plenty of material. Of course, I had hoped to be chronicling a transitional Illini team capable of making the NCAA tournament, not a team whose fall from the Big Ten’s upper echelon has been monumentally embarrassing. And I had expected to be covering a Bulls team fighting for a No. 1 seed in the weak NBA East. Instead, the Bulls are fighting for the No. 1 overall draft pick.
Needless to say, some weeks it’s difficult enough to find a reason to watch either team’s games, let alone write about them. (I actually won a pair of free tickets to Sunday’s Northwestern game, and it almost feels like a punishment.) It’s quite the challenge to avoid sounding like a broken record. So for the next couple weeks, I’ll be changing the subject. Next week I’ll focus on the Illini women’s basketball team; this week, I’m focusing on the women — rather, woman — in my life.
I’ve been a fantasy sports participant for over a decade, going back to the NBA fantasy league I started in my college dorm. This was before the era of online leagues. We were old school: I headed down to the computer lab each night, read the box scores online and tallied the points for each of the league’s twelve teams. It was a time suck, but I loved every tedious minute of it. I went so far as to publish a league newsletter — more made-up gossip and trash talking than useful analysis.
Fast forward eleven years and I’m back at it again, forgoing the rigorous online leagues to try my hand at old school, offline tabulation. This time the league centers on college basketball, the Big Ten to be specific. (Why I decided to choose the Big Ten when I can’t get its network is beyond me.) My new league features two teams — mine and the one managed by my significant other, who for the sake of simplicity we’ll call M.
M watches Illini games with me and generally roots for Pitt and West Virginia when either is on the tube, as southwestern Pennsylvania is her old stomping grounds. So she’s a bracket-filling-out, two-or-three-games-a-week fan; but this is her first fantasy endeavor, regardless of sport. I’d like to think I enticed her to join up by making her jealous of my own past fantasy triumphs; she probably wishes I enticed her by offering to do the dishes and clean the bathroom with regularity. The truth is neither: I broached the subject, and her competitive spirit took over from there.
The last week in October I went over the rules of the league: head-to-head scoring in nine easy-to-digest statistical categories (points; field-goal, free-throw and three-point field-goal percentage; rebounds; assists; steals; blocks; and turnovers). The nice thing about using the Big Ten for our pool of players is that the league’s eleven teams provides us with a pool of 55 starters to choose from — a perfect size for a two-team fantasy league with rosters of 13 active players. That allots each team five guards and forwards plus three centers, with room on the injured reserve for two. To keep things interesting, we capped free agent pickups during the season at ten per team. And I instituted a no trade clause, in part to limit the number of random emails M would receive from me in any given day. (“Hey, I like D.J. White from your team. What do you think about swapping him for Kurt Looby?”)
The following week we held our live draft, which took all of about 13 minutes. I had supplied M with just a college basketball preseason magazine and the first pick in the draft (okay, she won the coin flip). She came out guns a-blazin’ with a smart strategy: draft the Indiana superstars that I curse in my sleep. If we were to judge the results of the draft on just the first two rounds, then she kicked my butt. She took D.J. White first, a great choice, then left me with every Illini fans worst nightmare — the dilemma of drafting Eric Gordon. Sweating profusely and chomping on my nails, I debated the second pick in the draft for all of three seconds. I took Drew Neitzel. Even though I new Neitzel’s scoring would be down this season and Gordon was the wiser pick, I just couldn’t bring myself to draft Gordon. (Ha! How’s that for retribution for snubbing the Illini, Eric!) M, not being quite the irrational lunatic I am made the intelligent fantasy decision and drafted Gordon with her second pick. With my second pick, I took Shaun Pruitt, who has been largely a bust for a No. 2 pick.
Luckily, my draft was saved by making some wise choices in later rounds, including snagging Dan Coleman in round five, Kosta Koufos in round seven and Raymar Morgan in round nine. M made a couple additional picks of note, too, including taking Geary Claxton a bit earlier than expected in round five and taking his teammate, Jamelle Cornley, in round eleven. The Claxton pick had been a near-backbreaker for me as he was piling up double-doubles until his recent season-ending injury.
Since the draft, M has displayed some fantasy naiveté (or possibly disinterest) by not dropping unproductive players soon enough. (I’m looking at you Seth Gorney.) And I’ve made some great in-season pickups — not too difficult to do when you’re in a two-person league — like stealing Manny Harris in late November and acquiring Kevin Coble and Michael Thompson in December.
The standings to date are overwhelmingly in my favor. M has only defeated me in one of our weekly match-ups, and several of our games have been lopsided in my favor. But we’ve got a best-of-three playoff tournament on the horizon, so she can still earn household bragging rights. But I think she’s realizing that she enjoys watching the game of basketball more than playing imaginary head coach. I wonder if a newsletter would change that?