Selection Sunday is always one of those days that brings the rare combination of hope, dread, nostalgia, and confusion. As my colleagues have pointed out, this team has been predictably unpredictable all season.
Roller coaster isn’t a strong enough term. Ebbs and flows poorly define the level of tennis match on speed rubbernecking performed by Illini fans in following and comprehending the 2023 Men’s Fighting Illini hoops squad.
“Your background, it ain’t squeaky clean
Sometimes we all have to swim upstream.”
- Jill Scott, A Long Walk
No, this Illini team doesn’t come into the tournament with a clean sheet. In fact, one could argue this Illinois basketball team’s sheet is about as clean as a simulcast of The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street.
But this Illini team may or may not be able to sell you that pen. It’s entirely based on a set of variables that ostensibly amount to a game of three-card-monte with a dyslexic meth addict.
“Sometimes the clothes do not make the man”
- George Michael, Freedom ‘90
In wrestling, there is an old adage: the title doesn’t make the man, the man makes the title. In other words, draping a schmuck in gold doesn’t make him a champion. It makes him a schmuck carrying a large belt.
I am not sure if it’s the blue and orange jersey that creates chaos or if Illinois just recruits agents of said chaos to wreak havoc on a fanbase that is already crushed under the weight of palpable neurosis.
Yes, there have been some roster construction issues. Specifically, some transfers out and one large professional departure could have changed the trajectory of this roster.
Brandin Podziemski and Jacob Grandison could certainly have helped this team’s three-point shooting malaise.
Adam Miller, if healthy, could be another impact two-way player who, when unleashed with Shannon, Mayer, Rodgers and Hawkins, could be part of a lethal lineup.
Another year of Kofi Cockburn might have enabled the Illini to play 4-around-1 and have more open looks.
But those are all unprovable hypotheticals. Yes, I got a case of the “ifs.”
And you know what they say about ifs?
In my neighborhood, cats used to say “If your if was a fifth, we’d all be drunk.”
On LL Cool J.’s classic Who Shot Ya, Keith Murray opined that “if your if was a spliff we’d be all [expletive deleted] up.”
And the great, wise educator Jim Connelly once said “If ifs and buts were fruits and nuts we’d all have a Merry Christmas”
So because of the great unknown, I can’t blame their departures.
But all of the players mentioned above have a common thread among them:
They were recruited to Illinois by Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman.
But wait, the Illini didn’t make it to the second weekend of the tournament with those two on the sideline either.
So I suppose I can’t blame them either.
“Am I part of the cure
Or am I part of the disease?”
- Coldplay, Clocks
So as a program, who are the Illini?
They’re the 9-seed who drew the short straw to face a team with three burger boys coming off back-to-back Elite Eight berths.
And make no mistake about it. As my colleague Brandt Dolce skillfully articulated, their head ball coach Eric Musselman is a beast of a coach. And Arkansas has a deep, talented roster full of high end recruits and big-time transfers.
It’s an awkward spot for an Illini team that struggles with long scoring droughts and poor perimeter shooting. Can the Illini defend and execute their way to victory? Yes, I believe they can.
Terrence Shannon is just as capable of a March superstar turn as any of Arkansas’ skywalking mutant freaks.
Matthew Mayer can get on a heater from behind the arc.
Illinois could…stop shooting so many threes and…take the kinds of shots they hit at a high percentage.
Think about it. Let’s say I was still a student at U of I. And I was out at C Os.
(For those of you who are too young to remember, C Os was an amazing campus bar on the same block as KAMs and its perennial smell of vomit and floor stickier than Brett Favre’s financial habits.)
Anyway, let’s say I was out at C Os. And I tried to flirt with five Chi Omegas. And they all shot me down.
What if my reaction was, instead of changing my tactics, leaving the bar and walking to the Chi O house to try my same flirting techniques. And louder.
Would that succeed?
That’s what happens when Illinois insists on shooting dozens of three-point field goals.
But this is the house we live in now. The specter of another early exit is a persistent bastard, especially for the returning players. And it’s taken up residence in a prominent part of this house.
All that remains is the game itself. And that malignant spirit that needs to be exorcized in the name of Loyola and Houston.