Iowa was trending downward. They’d lost 4-of-5 heading into the regular season finale, beating only B1G doormat Purdue (and just barely, it was a two-point game with :42 remaining in Iowa City).

When Illinois ran a 44 Flat Fade with just over three minutes left in Saturday’s game, Jon Ekey hit a three from the left wing. His defender, Aaron White, was almost not in the picture.

That shot extended Illinois’ lead to four points.

Three minutes later, having allowed the windless Hawkeyes back in the game, Illinois ran a 44 Flat Fade.

Tracy Abrams found Ekey on the left wing. This time, Aaron White recovered just in time to get in the picture. The picture will be seen for years to come. Someone might even blow it up, and convert it into a poster.

Revisiting the Breslin Crap Question yet again, I wonder how Iowa fans perceived their team's 5th loss in six games. Did the Illini play great? No, not really. Did Iowa simply fall apart?  Yes, they really did.


Neither of those statements represents the full forty minutes of basketball played Saturday night. The Hawkeyes were crap for two stretches, and that was enough. The Illini took advantage of the first Hawkeye brain fart — the first five minutes of the game, when Iowa forgot to deny the post-entry pass, and watched Nnanna Egwu roll off a quick nine points; and made some gains in the second — a seven minute stretch beginning at 11:17 of the second period, during which Iowa's sloppy ball handling and poor shooting limited them to a single field goal.

Illinois did just enough right to win. But their defense failed them in the closing minute. Their offense couldn't get the ball past the halfcourt. They got bailed out by a foul call with 13.8 seconds to go in the game, and the shot clock near expiry.

Was it a good call? I don’t know. I couldn’t see from my spot on the baseline. Lamont Simpson  called it. Mike Kitts awarded the timeout that saved the possession for Illinois, about 9.9 seconds into a Ten Second violation. Considering Kitts was the guy who changed the course of the game in Iowa’s favor*, it was timely.

That hand-check call probably cost Iowa the game.


WHO WE ARE
Thanks to the games at Wisconsin and versus Michigan, we know what this Illini team looks like when an opponent executes a dominant offensive game.

Thanks to the losses at Oregon and Georgia Tech, and versus Purdue; we know what Illini basketball looks like while laying an egg.

Thanks to the loss at Northwestern, we know what Illinois looks like when it plays well, but the shots don’t fall.

Combine all these examples, and we know what an Illini team looks like when it’s about to miss the NCAA Tournament.

Or...

We know what Illinois must do, and what it must avoid doing, to beat Indiana and Michigan later this week in Indianapolis.

The good news is that it can be done. Three teams are trending upward in the B1G as of this moment, and Illinois is one of them. Everyone else is shell-shocked, or reeling from a failure to achieve expectations.

RECOMMENDATION: READ THE OTHER TEAM’S PRESS
Most fans are myopic. They see little beyond their own team. This lack of perspective is aggravated by the current media relations model, which requires a team's media pool to choose which team's coaches/players to interview. You can either hear what John Groce has to say about a game, or you can interview the Iowa players. You can interview the Illini players, or you can find out what Tom Izzo has to say. Or Tim Miles.

Most of the time, Izzo’s comments are going to reveal more than any player’s analysis. but if the Illini media don’t interview Illini players, who will? What if Tracy Abrams has one of his talkative moments, and no one is there to hear it?

Unless the media outlet has extra hands on deck, its audience gets only one side of the story. (The News-Gazette, for example, sends its basketball beat writer to the opposing football team's press conference.)

I’d still like to know what MSU’s coach and players said about the Illini victory at Breslin. I’d like to have seen their body language, to know what statements and actions didn’t make it into published reports.

Smile Politely was fortunate to have four hands in Iowa City. Moreover, Fran McCaffrey took the podium before John Groce.

Thus, we were able to gather twice the reaction that’s available in  typical road game coverage, when the visiting coach typically delivers the first presser.

NOW, BACK TO NAVEL GAZING
Nnanna Egwu & Kendrick Nunn played great. Ray Rice and Jon Ekey were good, although Ray missed all his long shots.

Joe Bertrand rates as “satisfactory”. Tracy Abrams’s defense was more good than bad, and his offense was more bad than good (2 of 9 shooting, 3-to-4 assist to turnovers, too much clusterfuck)... Malcolm Hill played poorly.

Two quizzical strategies should not be overlooked by those hoping to understand this team:

  1.  John Groce removed the game’s most dominant player, allowing Iowa to get back in the game
  2.  Ray Rice pulled up on a sure fastbreak basket, with 2:43 remaining and Illinois clinging to a four point lead.

Standard operating procedure among college coaches is to sit any player for the remainder of the first half on the occasion of his second personal foul.

At least Groce and his staff debated the utility of this strategy, here at 5:20

Egwu played 8 minutes in the first half, and 28 minutes for the game.

Ray Rice’s decision against the fastbreak is more puzzling.

Ray is an animal. But this play — perhaps more than any other — demonstrates that he’s also coachable. Surely Ray's first instinct after a steal, and with an open path to the basket, is not to slow it down.

It’s my assumption that Ray resisted the natural urge to fly down the court and slam the ball through the hoop because of something John Groce instilled in him.

The Illini ran clock, and Rice misfired on a long two-pointer, with :03 on the shot clock and Josh Oglesby closing in.

Iowa tied the game moments later.

I say you take the points, whenever and wherever they present themselves. For all the years people remember Jon Ekey’s shot, I’ll retain the perplexing image of Ray Rice not throwing down a fastbreak dunk.

When Illinois beat Minnesota in last year’s Big Ten Tournament, the Gophers scored 49 points. When the Illini beat colorado to open the NCAAs, the Buffaloes scored 49 points. For four consecutive games this year, Illinois held its opponent under 50.

I’m beginning to question whether John Groce really wants to run.

Rice was the target of the Hawks Nest, Iowa’s student section, which stands aside the stanchion of the visiting team’s basket. The Nest ridiculed Rice about his (dark blue) socks throughout the game. 

It didn’t make very much sense, but if they’d said something about his mother, Rhonda Rice probably would have run over from her spot behind the Illini bench, and kicked each of their asses in succession.

After throwing down a couple off monster jams, and connecting on a reverse lay-up, Ray told them he’d stuff their own socks up their fucking asses, or something like that. I asked team manager Adam Metzger to write it down for me, in case I forgot the precise wording. “You bet,” he told me, “I’ll get it verbatim.”

FRAN McCAFFREY CAN'T HELP HIMSELF
I feel a bit sorry for Fran McCaffrey. I'm pretty sure he's getting the worst calls in the Big Ten. His suspension and $10,000 fine for menacing referees was not lost on referees.

As Illinois ran out to a 20-6 lead, McCaffrey and the Hawkeye bench shrieked for a variety of (legitimate) whistles, while Lamont Simpson looked the other way.

Many of these overlooked calls concerned Nnanna Egwu (three seconds, hooking, moving screens, etc.) *Mike Kitts eventually felt bad about it, and whistled Egwu for a phantom foul. (It's the second consecutive game that Kitts assessed Egwu's second foul as a make-up call.)

Getting Egwu out of the game achieved a major strategic goal for the Hawkeyes, but I'd still argue that McCaffrey isn't getting any calls. Kitts might just as easily whistled Rayvonte Rice for carrying. I’m not saying Rayvonte Rice carries, but Egwu certainly did not commit a foul on his second foul.

HOOSIER DEATH SPIRAL
So, it’s back to Indiana to face Indiana. It’s a great opportunity for the Illini, especially because the Hoosier fanbase has such little confidence in its team and their coach.  What a wonderful time we live in, when Indiana college basketball sucks, across the board.

Purdue sucks. Notre Dame sucks. Butler sucks. Indiana sucks.

Evansville sucks. IUPUI is abysmal. IPFW is pretty good, but Illinois beat them this year. Indiana State was pretty good. They’ll lose their top two scorers at the end of the year.

Illini fans can do their program a world of good by joining Hoosier and Boilermaker-oriented message boards, posing as long-time fans, and reminding everyone to be patient with Tom Crean and Matt Painter. It’s an easy ruse. If you know the formula, you can fly under the radar for years, and board moderators will never suspect you’re a troll.

  1.  Never criticize the coach.
  2.  Talk up middling recruits, as soon as they enter the discussion.
  3.  Heap praise on mediocre players, and three-star recruits. Employ the word “upside.”
  4. Attack, relentlessly, anyone who questions an in-game strategy.
  5. Do not defend anyone under the age of 40. When your fellow members attack the student-athletes, sit idly by.
  6. Post a wildly optimistic entry about each individual player and recruit, at some point during the season. Plan these posts long in advance, and never tie them to specific performances. Ponder an early entry to "the league."
  7. Read professional prognostications of your chosen Fake Fan team’s forthcoming season, then alter their predicted conference record by adding five wins. Post this prediction online, with at least one of the statements from #6.
  8. Presume in writing that all top rated recruits are “locks” for your Fake Fan program. Invent a relationship talking-point where possible (recruit's aunt is "married to Crean’s pastor” can be used multiple times, as can “related to the cheerleader Painter was banging”).
  9. For ISP-masking purposes, claim to live among the enemy but don’t be too specific about your location.

Get to work Illini fans.