Allow me just one more moment to relive what transpired Saturday night in Iowa City. Before this all gets too unwieldy in the next few days.
If you know me well, you know my love for the Talking Heads. The song of theirs I've known the longest is "Once In A Lifetime," which also happens to be a great tune for karaoke purposes if you're wondering. The narrator in the song, voiced immaculately by David Byrne, appears to have awakened from a dream state to find all these wonderful things about his life around him. Of course, it's more a daze caused by the grind of everyday life than an actual dream. Once the narrator observes all of these things--"you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife"--he asks in blatant disbelief:
"How did I get here?"
I had an "How did I get here?" moment late Saturday night. After one of the better victories in recent Illini basketball history at Iowa (something John Groce is stockpiling at a rapid rate in his first two years as head coach), I was out later that night with friends. Clad in vibrant orange Illini gear to celebrate the victory, I was a bubble of joy and excitement. This was not Champaign-Urbana and talk at the bar was not solely Illini basketball-related. Suddenly, a man in plainclothes and no apparent affiliation grabs my shoulders and exclaims, "EEEKKEEYY!!"
Taken aback at first but perfectly cognizant of what this unidentified man was attempting to communicate as he stumbled past me, I responded with the three-fingers-to-the-head celebration and a rambunctious "33333KKKKEEEYYY" with all the fervor I could muster. Complete gibberish to baffled onlookers, but our own comfortable pocket of Illini fandom. We were shouting the name of a 5th-year graduate student from the Missouri Valley Conference who saw limited playing time on said average-at-best Missouri Valley team and had only been part of the Illini program for approximately 10 months and whose Illini career could end within ten days from that night.
How did we get here?
Many have spoken about how fortunate Illinois is to have a guy like Rayvonte Rice come in to transition the program along in these first few years under Groce. To a lesser extent, I think the same thing with Jon Ekey. His contributions are not hidden. He hit a backbreaking 3-pointer early in the season at UNLV that was drawn up for him out of a timeout and one he chillingly executed. He hit a ballsy 3-pointer to give us a late lead against Missouri. For a decent stretch of the season, he was the only long-distance shooting threat on the team--a significant burden in the ruthless scouting of a Big Ten conference season. Groce says he grades out as one of the highest on the team on the defensive end. He was benched midway through the conference season for a player five years younger than him, and then started playing even better.
Perhaps he was a necessity for Illinois's thin roster this season, but after watching for a whole season, I don't see many teams that couldn't benefit from his contributions in some way, large or small. Is it disappointing as a program to rely on up-transfers from the Missouri Valley? Maybe. But that's the lot we cast when we brought in mixtures of talent for seven or so years that were unimpressive in their teamwork and desire. A player like Ekey provides a template for the types of player a program needs going forward. Ask John Beilein about Zack Novak, and he'll provide a description eerily similar to one made of Ekey.
And from Ekey's perspective, I doubt he's ever experienced something on the basketball court comparable to this season, its warts and all. I've always thought players from blue-blood programs receive an unremarkable adulation, almost like they're an assembly of a series of good players that fanbase has seen before. But there's nothing like being a winner at Illinois. You're family forever after that, even if you're only here for 11 months.
The essential meaningfulness of this season could end Thursday afternoon. It's sobering. You hope for some magic, but a bad shooting performance or a wunderkind explosion from a Hoosier player could end it.
I'd like to go on record today saying that I've enjoyed this season. It's been truly special and exhilarating on occasion. And despite the losing, I find it nearly impossible to not root for these guys. They scrap, hustle and play tough defense and have improved immensely over the course of the season. That's all I can ask.
And if it ends tomorrow, I'll still take a good hard look at the season and how it trends toward the future, and appreciatively wonder, "How did we get here?"