Smile Politely

Craggs & Leitch return to talk Illinois hoops ahead of tonight’s game vs. Maryland

From: Will Leitch

To: Tommy Craggs

So, the streak is over. That seven game win streak was the longest Big Ten streak since those 2004-05 teams, and that one even lasted over two years. But, as someone who remembers essentially every one of those games and their context, it is remarkable how different this streak felt. That streak felt like the natural order of matters: We just glided up and over people. We were Michigan State back then. This streak was clawed at and scratched up and desperate and messy. We probably should have lost… two of those games? Three? At least? Everyone was stepping up late, and that’s exciting and everything, but it’s also a sign that everything has sort of fallen Illinois’ way for three weeks now. So we should not be surprised that in Iowa City, in that stupid backwoods outdoor shitter of an arena, it finally went against them. They didn’t get the calls late, they didn’t hit the shots late, Iowa had Robo Shrek killing us and we finally lost. Better teams than us would have lost to that team.

But who gives a shit about some streak? Illinois is in first place, still, they’re comfortably in the tournament (I’m guessing… two more Big Ten wins lock it up? Three?), and they’re winning and staying in games with an offense that still doesn’t seem to work very well. That’s what I might feel the best about: There’s still a lot that needs fixed in this offense. Giorgi and Kofi STILL haven’t really figured out their spacing — Kofi has been all thumbs a week-and-a-half — they are lousy about setting up threes for the few shooters they have and Ayo hasn’t shaken that tendency to disappear until he decides to take over late. They’re winning because they have elbows everywhere and Feliz has a gloriously misplaced self-confidence than manifests itself in aggression and the Frankenstein defense that Underwood cobbled together for this year is actually working.

Are they going to win the Big Ten? I don’t think so. It wouldn’t surprise me if Iowa won it, which is annoying because Fran McCaffrey is a lunatic spitball. But I don’t care. I didn’t go into this season wanting a Big Ten title. I went in wanting a tournament team. And we are definitely that. We might just be quite a bit more. My life is actively happier having Illinois basketball back. Isn’t yours?

From: Tommy Craggs

To: Will Leitch

That sure was some white stuff out there at the end, wasn’t it? I think we all had the Iowa game penciled in as a loss, but I’m not sure that takes the sting out of getting beaten by the trombone section of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra. Luka Garza sure can play, but, chrissakes, the coach’s kid hit the three to put things out of reach. Losing to Iowa always sucks. Year after year, the team is just varying degrees of Jess Settles.

So we still have a lot of ugly in us. That much is clear. The thing about the winning streak, nice as it was, is that it let us pretend there wasn’t a lot of unlovely basketball being played along the way. Ayo Dosunmu might have finally come alive, but he also seems to be getting more and more of his buckets out of isolations. You can see him starting to chase his Big Moments, forcing up contested hero stuff from 16 feet. The offense in general can still feel like 30 seconds of throat-clearing. They’ll flatline for minutes on end — the Iowa game was lost in those two scoreless stretches in the second half. Really, it’s the most Illini thing about this team, in what is otherwise a not very Illini season. The four-minute scoring drought is something of our institutional trademark, like the Syracuse zone. We’ve talked about this, right? They should erect monuments around campus to scoreless Illini basketball — abstract sculptures with lots of negative space. Time may march on, the faces and uniforms may change, but Illinois’ capacity for going totally dead for vast portions of basketball games is immutable.

Tonight is Maryland, Tuesday is Michigan State. I feel a hard return to Earth is imminent, but I’ve been feeling that ever since the first Purdue game, and maybe it’s time to start expecting otherwise. What you wrote about Feliz applies to the Illini as a whole — they really do go around carrying themselves like a group that deserves to be atop the Big Ten right now. I loved how snarly they got at the end of the Iowa game. It’s been a long time since we had a team that acted as if it belonged.

Fighting Illini Men’s Basketball faces off against Maryland tonight at State Farm Center. Tip off is at 7 p.m. on FS1.

Top Image: Black rectangle graphic, middle center features a red rectangle with black/white photos of Tommy Craggs (left) and Will Leitch (right). Below their photos reads “CRAGGS & LEITCH” in white text.

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