The Illinois Fighting Illini fell in heartbreaking fashion at home to the Miami Hurricanes last night in a classic example of something John Groce pioneered, but Brad Underwood has perfected: the fake rally. The Champaign Room has been using this term for years, and last night had #FakeRally written all over it from the start of the second half.
The Fake Rally is thus far Brad Underwood’s signature move. It’s his Stone Cold Stunner. It’s his Kamehameha wave. It’s his Falcon Punch. In the (hopefully unlikely) event that he never leads Illinois back to prominence, it’s what he’ll be remembered for most of all. Here’s hoping that’s not what his legacy will end up being, but if he left today that’s what it would be.
Yet hope springs eternal, and with each new game dawns the possibility of things clicking permanently to such an extent that we never have to ride this particular roller coaster again. So let’s symbolically close the book on the Brad Underwood Fake Rally by looking back on the top 10 Fake Rallies in the two seasons and change of his tenure.
10. New Mexico State Aggies, Dec. 17, 2017
This game between two Lou Henson schools was held at the United Center and christened the Dynegy Shootout for some reason. This game quickly got out of hand, and the Aggies’ win probability reached 89.5% with a 32-17 lead just under 4 minutes before halftime. The Illini went into the locker room down 38-26, but would tie the game at 39 five minutes into the second half when Michael Finke set up an Aaron Jordan three. From that point on, it was back and forth, swinging to a 6-point NMSU advantage before the Illini eventually got a rebound with under a minute to play in a 69-point tie. They’d come up empty and the Aggies would ice the game.
This one gets on here for a big comeback, but loses some points for how early the comeback is erased. A definitive Fake Rally still looks pretty hopeless at the under-12 in the second half.
9. Wake Forest Demon Deacons, Nov. 29, 2017
The first loss of the Brad Underwood era came in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge against an opponent that evokes fond memories of a bygone era at the State Farm Center. Illinois controlled the first half of this one, but stalled out after the under-16 in the second half as Brandon Childress and Bryant Crawford went on a 10-0 scoring run. The Illini closed a 10 point lead to 2...then it grew to 7. Then it shrank to 1! Then it swelled to 9. Finally, Mark Smith hooked up Jordan and Da’Monte Williams for a couple threes that cut it to three with a minute to go, but a foul on the other end put a stop to the comeback.
This one gets the No. 9 spot for all the different peaks and valleys where Illinois came tantalizingly close to leading the game. I remember the crowd desperate to erupt as the Illini closed in on the lead, with so many opportunities to finally take it back. But alas. The Fake Rally was on.
8. Wisconsin Badgers, Feb. 9, 2018
Illinois hasn’t beaten Wisconsin in basketball since 2011, losing the last sixteen contests to the Badgers. Most of them haven’t been particularly close. This one looked like it might! But then, tied at 52 with under 12 minutes to play, the Illini stopped scoring. Wisconsin went on a slow-motion scoring run to open up a 10-point lead with under 5 to go. The Illini fought back and dropped their win expectancy from 93.6% to 72.3% when they got a defensive board down four points with a minute and a half left, but an empty offensive possession sealed the deal.
The weight of the losing streak to Wisconsin and the feeling that Illinois was finally competing with the Badgers vaults this one to No. 8.
7. Indiana Hoosiers, Jan. 3, 2019
Illinois held steady with Romeo Langford’s Hoosiers and went into the half tied at 32. This one follows a more classic Fake Rally storyline, with a scoring drought starting exactly at halftime building a big deficit that the Illini gradually chopped down. The Hoosiers led by 15 with eight left to play on a Juwan Morgan layup, giving them a 98.4% win expectancy. With four minutes to go, it was an 11-point lead and a 98.1% win expectancy. A furious rally in the next minute and a half got the Illini within four, dropping the win percentage to 80.1, but some more empty possessions on offense would doom the Illini.
This one never got closer than four points, but earns high marks for how big a deficit it was late in the game and how quickly it was closed.
6. Nebraska Cornhuskers, Jan. 16, 2018
This was really more a back-and-forth battle than most on this list, with Nebraska’s biggest second-half lead being an 8-point margin with 11 minutes to go. Still, the Illini trailed for almost the entirety of the last 14 minutes of the game. Almost.
Leron Black did some work closing the gap, but Michael Finke’s three-pointer with eight seconds to go gave the Illini a one-point lead, which he extended with a made free throw after being fouled on the subsequent possession. The Illini had lost their first five Big Ten games and were finally in position to win. Then James Palmer, Jr. stormed down the court and hit a buzzer-beating three.
I generally like my Fake Rallies to be bigger than a mere 8-point deficit, but the ending gets this one a lot of points. I mean, just look at this win probability graph:
5. Florida Atlantic Owls, Dec. 29, 2018
This was a really tough call as to where to put this one. The Illini came into this game as 14-point favorites, but mostly played FAU to a draw in the first half, leading for most of it but never by more than six. Then, an Owls scoring run happened that Illinois couldn’t respond to even as FAU failed to follow it up. FAU’s win probability was 88.2% with 3:32 to play as they led 55-48. Andres Feliz and Trent Frazier knocked that margin down, with Frazier sending it to overtime at the buzzer with a three.
Now we’re in overtime. Back to square one. Time to make this right! The Owls tied it up at 70 with under two to play, and Da’Monte Williams was fouled with 1:23 left. He made the first, but missed the second. Illinois played suffocating defense after that, not even allowing the Owls to get a shot up before finally Trent Frazier was fouled with 30 seconds to go.
Trent missed both free throws, then fouled Anthony Adger defending a made layup. FAU won 73-71.
A fake rally doesn’t necessarily have to involve a blown lead, but this one was spectacular because it involved a dramatic buzzer-beating moment to send the rally to overtime, only for the very same player to falter late in the game. The Fake Rally is a hell of a ride.
4. Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Nov. 27, 2018
Sometimes, you can clearly see a tornado by its distinctive “hook echo” radar signature. I can often look at the waveform of a raw recording file for the Off Tackle Empire Podcast I host and see the graphical signature of a pause with an “um” in the middle of it. Similarly, a classic Fake Rally has a distinctive signature on the Game Flow graph:
That shape there? That skewed parallelogram in the upper right? That’s the good stuff.
Wait. Not good. The opposite.
Fresh off a brutal 0-3 Maui campaign against what could be the strongest field that tournament has ever had, the Illini looked to make some noise in the ACC/Big Ten challenge against a Notre Dame squad full of question marks. For 26 minutes, they matched each other blow for blow. However, there had not yet been an extended Illini scoring drought, and unfortunately it came while the game was tied. Illinois was stuck on 47 for nearly six minutes, allowing an 11-point lead to build for the Irish. Then you get to the part where both lines are parallel as both teams score at the same rate. Illinois only cut the lead to ten over the next four minutes and change, but made a Fake Rally in the last four. This dropped Notre Dame from a peak of 95.2% WP to 70.4% with 1:32 remaining. Down two, Trent Frazier put up a game-winning three as the buzzer sounded, only to watch it bounce forwards and backwards over the rim three times before falling out.
This is where we’re getting to the primo stuff.
3. Gonzaga Bulldogs, Dec. 20, 2018
These were such tough decisions. It’s really hard to know whether this belongs here or at No. 2. After a disappointing upset loss to the Georgetown Hoyas, the Illini headed to the aforementioned stacked Maui tournament to take on the No. 1 team in the country. They put up a valiant fight, but the Bulldogs pulled away in the beginning of the second half.
It seemed well and over when the Zags built a 57-44 lead, and their WP peaked at 97.4%. The Illini fought back, with Trent Frazier shooting lights out from behind the arc, and they knocked that number down to 64.2% on their second time getting the ball with a mere 2-point deficit. This happened with four minutes to play, but unfortunately Zach Norvell and Corey Kispert started a scoring run that saw the Zags pull away to a 9-point lead with under two minutes left. After a defensive board, their WP rose to 97.6%.
Then Alan Griffin and Frazier hit threes, with Frazier getting fouled on his. Mark Few called a timeout with a 2-point lead and 32 seconds to play, but they turned it over and Trent Frazier put up a three with 17 seconds to go that would have given the Illini the lead!
Alas, it didn’t go.
This one competed hard for the No. 2 spot because it was against the No. 1 team, and there were two separate comebacks as part of the larger Fake Rally. This win would have been incredibly meaningful, especially given the opponent.
2. Miami Hurricanes, Dec. 2, 2019
This article was inspired by my thought that last night’s game may not have even been a top-3 Fake Rally of Underwood’s tenure, but in evaluating it, I suppose I undersold it a bit. Remember that graphical signature I mentioned earlier?
My goodness, what a beauty. It’s that classic envelope, stretched out over the whole game. I don’t have to tell you the details. Surely you remember how even as the Fake Rally was getting within striking distance, Chris Lykes just kept draining shots that would make you throw your controller through the TV if the AI made them in NBA 2K. Against what doesn’t look like a tournament team, the Illini went down 45-18. Miami’s win expectancy peaked at 98.3%, yet it was reduced to 62.4% when Illinois had the ball and a 1-point margin to overcome. You know how the story ended.
Okay, so maybe it was among the best Fake Rallies of the last few years, but you can see given all the competition why I was barely even fazed by it. This is normal for Illinois.
1. Maryland Terrapins, Dec. 3rd, 2017
This was only the second Fake Rally of the Underwood era, but it set a gold standard that still holds to this day. Two years ago today, the Fighting Illini got trucked by Maryland for not just the whole first half but a decent portion of the second. Kevin Huerter gave the Terps a 52-30 lead and a 99.1% chance to win the game early in the second half.
Thanks largely to Leron Black and Mark Alstork, the Illini managed to battle back against all odds and tie the game at 69 with four minutes to play. That’s a 22-point deficit made up over the course of under 13 minutes. It’s partially for this reason that this Fake Rally eclipses last night’s.
Unlike the Gonzaga and Wake Forest games, however, this wouldn’t lead to another Maryland run. In fact, the Illini took a 2-point lead! Maryland battled back, but lost the ball out of bounds with four seconds to go.
Da’Monte Williams then inbounded the ball past everyone, and it went out of bounds on the other side of the court. Maryland tied it up and we headed to a ridiculously high-scoring overtime period that nevertheless saw the game tied at 91 by an Alstork layup...before being decided by an Alstork foul on Anthony Cowan with one second to go.
Do you want to see what that looks like graphically?
Look at that roller coaster! Illinois went from a 0.9% chance to win to a 92.8% chance to win to a loss!
I sincerely hope that by posting this, I’m closing the book on the era of the Illinois Basketball Fake Rally, or at least I hope I never have to update this list.