Smile Politely

Craggs & Leitch: Yes, we are discussing this six win Illini squad

From: Will Leitch

To: Tommy Craggs

So, if you’ll forgive me, after the biggest win of the Brad Underwood era (a category without much competition), I’d like to talk briefly about this:

I like to see people happy, and those are some happy people. That win was a longtime coming. Their dancing isn’t all that different, all told, than what I was doing after Illinois beat Maryland last weekend. I’ve watched every one of these stupid games, these 14 losses before February, and I needed to blow off some giddy steam myself. 

It still…  maybe looks a bit odd? Not the players going nuts, but Underwood himself, skipping around as his team makes it rain on his Matt Foley suit. We don’t see him relaxed often, so I suppose it’s reassuring to know that he is at least capable of smiling. But a hardass, usually too-hardass, coach that goofy after a win that brings his team to 6-14 can’t help but darken a little part of this cranky old man Illini fan’s soul. Is this how far we have fallen? Are we rushing the court if we beat Rutgers now? It’s possible we are? I’m kidding myself:  We really have fallen that far.

That said: That second half was more thrilling, and more inspiring, and more impressive than the Minnesota blowout. It was the first time we truly saw them, on the road, take control of a game — for the signature Underwood relentlessness at last take hold. I’m not sure it’s going to lead to any more wins in the next week or so, and that Michigan State game (which I’ll be in Champaign for) could be a gruesome watch. But that does feel like the shape this will take, when it happens, if it happens: Lead guards creating, big dudes knocking it around underneath, wings able to drain one when open or cut to the basket when they overpursue. And that overall aggressiveness that makes every opponent grumble when they see you on the schedule. I don’t know if it’s going to work. But for the first time, I see how it might work. With only six wins to cheer for, I’ll take what I can get.

From: Tommy Craggs
To: Will Leitch
Ah, leave ’em be, Reverend Moore. They’d just spent 40 minutes cosplaying as a tournament team. Might as well dance like one, too. 
I’ve been trying to put my finger on why this lost season feels so different from all the other lost seasons, and I think that Maryland game was clarifying for me. This isn’t just a team that’s better than its record. This is a really good team with an atrocious record. Take any reasonably-sized cross section from our last two victories and tell me it’s not among the best all-around ball that’s been played in the Big Ten this year — Ayo finding gaps on offense, Feliz closing them on defense, Giorgi twirling under the rim like he’s doing the Arthur Murray steps. There’s a reason all the knowing coves keep saying we’re a “dangerous” team. (It’s because they’re on TV trying to hype a midwinter Big Ten basketball game to people who have decided not to leave the house, of course. But in this case they also happen to be telling the truth.)
And yet: 6-14. Six wins and January’s almost out! Look at the teams around us. Alcorn State has six wins. Something called Incarnate Word has six wins. We’re in the portion of the full NCAA rankings typically occupied by for-profit scams, yesterday’s death-penalty cases, obscure intercardinals that never should’ve left Division II, and Maine.
Lately I’ve taken to watching Ken Pomeroy’s “luck” ranking the way fans of normal good teams watch the AP Top 25. For a while now the Illini have been bouncing around the low end of the list like a dying dribble — meaning that there are very few programs in the country for whom the gap between what is and what should be is as wide as it is for Illinois. That’s what’s so different about this season: At some point the disappointment ceased to be a basketball issue and instead became a sort of metaphysical wonder. We’re the Ontological Illini. We’ve got Aristotle coming off the bench, blowing layups in garbage time.
Illinois Men’s Basketball plays at Minnesota tonight, tip off is at 8 p.m. on Big Ten Network.

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