A teensy portion of Braggin' Rights media coverage will not begin with the words “Tracy Abrams.” This is one of them.
Yep, Tracy was the Player of the Game. But you can read a lot of sources on that topic. I'll focus on the PoGs who may have slipped your notice.
PLAYER OF THE GAME – AL MARTINDALE
After 30 years as an Illini athletic trainer, Al Martindale hasn't remained as active with the program as was (is) his predecessor on the men's basketball bench, Rod Cardinal. But Al was courtside on Saturday, with his family. I was sitting in front of him. The end of the Illini bench was 18-inches to our right.
Just prior to tip-off, Al was visiting with longtime colleague Ted Valentine. They shared a few laughs before Al referred Ted to Al's successor on the Illini bench, head athletic trainer Paul Schmidt. Paul supplied Ted with a bottle of eye drops. Ted dosed himself, returned the bottle, thanked Paul, said goodbye to Al, and took the court.
A few moments later, when referee Tim Clougherty whistled the game's first foul, a block against Jon Ekey; John Groce called out “all right, Tim, but you're going to have to call it that way all game.”
Something about the Illini bench gave the impression that they never felt fully equal in the eyes of the refs. The final stats show 16 personal fouls on the Illini, and 17 against the Tigers. It's the latest example proving that final stats do not tell the story of a game.
Here's what really happened.
As the second half began, Missouri erased Illinois' four-point lead, and took one of their own. In that time, the officiating crew (Mike Kitts being the third) assessed seven fouls against the Illini. They assessed none against the Tigers.
When the disparity reached 5-0, Al Martindale called out to his old friend Ted. “That's five to nothing now Ted.”
Things changed. Illinois closed with an 11-3 advantage in called fouls. Was it Al Martindale? Do the refs hear comments from the benches, and the sidelines?
PLAYER OF THE GAME – THE SELFIE
The Illini assist-to-turnover ratio looks bad on paper. Joe Bertrand led the team with two assists. He was also credited with five turnovers (one was unfair, because he was trying to save the ball after a teammate's bad pass). Tracy Abrams, Maverick Morgan, Jaylon Tate, Kendrick Nunn and Rayvonte Rice each contributed a single assist. And that's it. Seven total.
Is that terrible?
Maybe. But it's also a reflection of a new Illini offensive attack which emphasizes ball screens, and dribble penetration. Illini are encouraged to step into a shot, and launch from three.
PLAYER OF THE GAME – NNANNA EGWU
Nnanna's two made field goals came from three-point range. That threat creates defensive match-up problems for opponents. It created space for Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams to drive.
Nnanna got his hands on a lot of balls Saturday. Officially, four rebounds and two blocks don't tell the story of the deflections, and the nuisance Nnanna imposed on Missouri.
PLAYER OF THE GAME – THE BENCH
Austin Colbert's mom made the trip from north Jersey. She watched a lot of Illini play, but not her son.
Is Austin in the doghouse? Is Maverick Morgan ahead of him?
If you've been watching the minutes played stats from the first 12 games, you'll notice that Austin plays in some games, and not in others. Sometimes he gets more minutes than Maverick. On the year, Austin averages 7.4 minutes per game, compared to 7.6 for Mav.
Maybe Mav is passing Austin. But I need more data. I'm watching for match-up situations. I want to see whether John Groce uses Austin versus particular types of opponents (e.g. tall, with great foot-speed) before I start drawing conclusions.
Missouri played seven guys, total. Illinois played nine, but only six for double-digit minutes. In short, this was a March game. This was a championship.
PLAYER OF THE GAME – ASSISTANT COACHING
Friday night, I texted Jamall Walker at about 8:30. Because of my travel schedule, I had not yet recorded a scout for radio.
“You got two minutes?”
Jamall texted back immediately “we're watching film.”
I texted back an “understood,” and didn't bother them again.
The staff worked hard to get this game, and you could tell it meant something to them. Jamall is also the lead recruiter for two recruits who attended the game. Jayson Tatum is the more rated, and his teammate Will Gladson is the Kevin Turner in the deal. They both play for St. Louis prep powerhouse Chaminade.
Paris Parham turned 42 on Saturday. John Groce and I are both 42. It's the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.
To honor Paris, the coaches' wives wore pocket squares. Paris is a reasonably good basketball coach, but no one in the game is more au courant. When the stylish (gorgeous and intelligent) wives of wealthy, successful men are following a man's fashion choices, you know he's in the vanguard.
Dustin Ford did not scout Mizzou, and he didn't turn 42 on Saturday. But just listen to his barbaric yawp at 3:05 of this video. That was Dustin. Definitely PoG material.
PLAYER OF THE GAME – GEORGE H.W. BUSH
In 1980, the moderate Republican presidential candidate dominated Iowa. Dominating Iowa is always considered good 'round these parts.
After the win, Bush told reporters he had “big mo” (momentum) on his side. He was wrong. Fellow moderate Ronald Reagan had already recognized the value of misleading the Bible people, so he — not Bush — won the nomination that year.
Maybe this basketball win is misleading as well. Maybe Illinois is still NIT bound. But in closing the deal versus Missouri, the Illini — and very specifically Tracy Abrams— answered all my questions. Ray Rice was human this time (missing free-throws, for example) and someone else stepped forward, and took charge. It feels better, and more important, and more significant, than any Illini win in years.
I'm still exceedingly angry about the stupid endgame play at Georgia Tech and Oregon. But John Groce doesn't fixate on perfection like I do. He's concerned with getting better, and teaching. He still talks about toughness, and togetherness. He's more realistic than I am—about basketball anyway.
If we're seeing a pattern, it's that Groce teams improve during the season. If you're a Believer, that's a great gift, just in time for “the holidays.”
I haven't been home in 8 days, but I'll enjoy some Yuletide cheer when I get back. Happy solstice to all, and to all a The Days Will Get Longer.