Never Hurts To Ask

Never Hurts To Ask

I had to go to the dentist today. Knocked a prong off a molar in Omaha and had to get it fixed (thankfully, it could be accomplished with just a filling). When I got home from the dentist and parked in the driveway, I grabbed my phone to read a text and then I did that thing where I suddenly realized that I had been sitting in the driveway for nine minutes flipping through my phone.

The left side of my face was still numb at that point. So while I had been considering driving over to Indianapolis for the WBIT championship game, I was 50/50 sitting there in the driveway. You know the feeling. You really do want to go, but then your brain starts whispering "but that's two hours driving there and two hours back... and you can't feel your face right now... and you could get a lot done if you just stayed home..."

Thankfully, at that moment, I came upon this tweet from Courtney at WCIA:

When Makira asks nicely, you oblige. And so I obliged. I decided that if she's going to make a plea for Illini fans to show up, then I'm going to show up.

And besides, it would be good for me. No credential hanging around my neck. No "I'll wear this blue polo with the orange stripe which says 'Illini fan' but also can pass for 'just some reporter with a credential around his neck there's no fan here'." Just me in an orange Illini shirt cheering and clapping. I miss it.

I'm so glad I went. First off, if you didn't hear, Illinois beat Villanova for to win the inaugural WBIT. As I tweeted during the game, three weeks ago I hadn't ever heard the term Women's Basketball Invitational Tournament and now I was desperate to see the Illini bring home the trophy. (And the reason I hadn't heard of it is because this was the first one.)

If you're confused and saying things like "well then what's the WNIT?", here's everything I learned in the last three weeks (mostly all from Illini WBB superfan DR):

  • This is the "real" one. Just like the NIT is the "real" other postseason tournament on the men's side. The NCAA runs it. The Committee seeds the teams. The first four out in the NCAA Tournament are the four 1-seeds in the WBIT.
  • There has been (and continues to be) a Women's NIT, but that's like the other men's tournaments (like the CBI) where the NCAA isn't involved and schools pay their own way. The WBIT, like the NIT, is sponsored by (and paid for) by the NCAA.
  • This is the first year the NCAA decided to run concurrent "other" final fours for both the men and the women. The WBIT semis and finals are Monday and Wednesday in Hinkle Fieldhouse. The NIT semis and finals are Tuesday and Thursday in Hinkle Fieldhouse (Indiana State vs. Seton Hall tomorrow night).
  • Someone told me (but I didn't research this one) that the name isn't "women's NIT" because that CBI-like tournament already stole the name. So when the NCAA went to set up the women's tournament like the NIT, they couldn't use the term WNIT because it was taken. They went with WBIT.

All you really need to know is that this was the real "we're #65!" win. And I'm not making fun of it in any way. I'm never ashamed of an NIT bid for the men's team. I want as much Illini basketball as I can get. I don't care that it's only a claim to "best team that didn't make the Tournament." Postseason trophies are still a big deal. Seton Hall/Indiana State is a really big deal for both schools tomorrow.

If you disagree with that, I understand, but that's what I'm here to talk about tonight. Watching Shauna Green's team crush Villanova tonight made me realize, once again, why I'm a college sports guy and not a professional sports guy. The rest of this article will be me trying to explain what I mean.

You've probably seen me respond to people on Twitter saying "maybe college sports aren't for you - try professional sports instead." I usually direct it at a Herm Edwards fan in my mentions who views all sports as "there's one champion and then there's a bunch of teams that all failed." It does not matter that the NBA has 32 teams fighting for one trophy and the NCAA has 362. You play. To win. The game. Conference title? Conference tournament title? NOBODY CARES. Win when it matters. In the playoffs.

But my argument to that person isn't just that meaningful conference titles make college sports more enjoyable. It's far beyond that. And tonight's game is a great example.

For the professional sports fan, the idea that there's a confetti cannon for the winner of a tournament of 32 teams that didn't make the NCAA Tournament is preposterous. An NBA fan will maybe allow for celebrations after winning the Eastern and Western conferences, but that's it. They'd see tonight like the Lakers cutting down nets if they won the 8-9 play-in game. "What are you even celebrating?"

For the college sports fan (like me), this trophy means a lot. The confetti means a lot. It's similar to soccer fans in Europe - a trophy game is a trophy game.

The Illini women's program had been wandering in the wilderness for a long time. And then, last year, an NCAA berth. This year, despite a disappointing season, the switch was flipped in March and Shauna Green's team rolled through the WBIT field. We were a 4-seed in the WBIT (not the first four out nor the next four out nor the next four out but the NEXT four out), yet in the WBIT Final Four we beat 1-seed Washington State 81-58 and then 1-seed Villanova 71-57. The best team to not make the NCAA field? CLEARLY Illinois.

And that stuff matters. Trajectory matters. Seeing a team that struggled all season put it together and win a trophy is a fantastic fan feeling. Getting to wear orange and cheer and start I-L-L chants in Hinkle Fieldhouse really, really matters to me.

You might see it as silly. You might call it cute and then immediately return to your "the Bruins must win the Stanley Cup or the coach must be fired" debates. That's fine. I'm not even saying that your approach to your teams is wrong.

I'm saying that college sports, to me, are the best because of the countless opportunities to feel pride in your team/school. There's just no feeling like an I-L-L chant when there's confetti falling from the ceiling. You might be over there screaming "but this doesn't mean anything!" and that's fine. In a "rings or nothing" world, you're right.

For me, having a bunch of teams in a bunch of sports all getting the opportunity to win various levels of conference (and national) hardware is the sweet spot. And tonight, with the chance to win the first-ever WBIT trophy, Shauna's team came through.

So glad Makira Cook asked me to be there.

-> Early in the game, after seeing how many shots Villanova's Lucy Olsen put up, I tweeted this:

Her final total: exactly 25 shots. But after going 6-11 in the first half, she was only 2-14 in the second half. The reason? Adalia McKenzie. Lucy Olsen is the third-leading scorer in NCAA women's basketball (behind Caitlin Clark and USC's Juju Watkins) but McKenzie put the clamps on Olsen in the second half. She was visibly frustrated.

Makira Cook, Genesis Bryant, and Kendall Bostic made the All-Tournament Team. But tonight, for me, Adalia McKenzie's defense gets the MVP trophy.

-> It's fairly amazing what Shauna Green has been able to do in her first two years. Here's a good summation:

Have to think Josh Whitman is getting a contract extension ready. Because a lot of programs will be trying to hire her away.

-> The Illini had such a great inside-outside punch with Makira Cook and Kendall Bostic tonight. Cook scored 27. Bostic had 15 points and 15 rebounds.

Let's start with Bostic. It's amazing how she's lived up to the rebounding reputation she built in her very first game as an Illini in 2021. Here's something I tweeted that day:

That game was under Nancy Fahey. Shauna Green has been able to develop Bostic's game even further and here she is, in the final game of the 2024 season, putting up 15 and 15 against a solid Villanova team.

As for Makira Cook, she was the one who changed this game. An 11-0 Villanova run late in the second quarter gave Nova the halftime lead. But in the third quarter, Cook took over. A 16-0 Illini run with 11 of the 16 coming from Cook. As the BoardRoom guys tweet all the time...


-> The mixture is there for another NCAA Tournament appearance next year. I talked to DR about this and he said that Makira Cook has already announced that she will use her Covid year and return for one more, Kendall Bostic will do the same, and so all eyes are on Genesis Bryant to see if she will do so as well. If all three return, you're then just replacing 5th-year center Camille Hobby from the team on the floor tonight. And Shauna Green has a McDonald's All American (Berry Wallace) arriving next fall.

So while this year taught us that you can't just say "add another year for everyone and we'll be back in the Tournament again next year", it certainly does set up well for 2025. This team found another gear at the end of this season and could find themselves ranked in the preseason again next November.

Which is so much fun, right? Now let's get volleyball back on track next fall, and let's maybe continue this hot start to Big Ten play for the baseball team, and maybe the men's gymnastics team can win a national title in a few weeks........

College sports, man. Why would anyone prefer the pros?