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We used to be a machine. 21 NCAA Tournaments in 25 years, a couple Final Fours, nearly a title. This won't be a post where I lament that we're not there anymore; it's a post where I discuss how impressive it is to see an actual machine in operation.
I caught part of a Virginia game recently. A machine. They don't even have all that impressive of athletes on their roster, but they know what they're supposed to do and they know how to execute it. Purdue, as much as I hate to say it, is a bit machine-y right now. They plug in players and keep going. And Michigan State - this program (and team) is just a machine. They have insane athletes - Bridges and Jackson have to be two of the more impressive players to play in the State Farm Center in the last 10 years - and they know exactly what they're supposed to be doing. Such a machine.
I remember our machines. In the 80's, 2-seed, 3-seed, 4-seed, 3-seed, 3-seed, 1-seed, 5-seed from 1984 to 1990. In the early 2000's, 4-seed, 1-seed, 4-seed, 4-seed, 5-seed, 1-seed, 4-seed from 2000 to 2006. Players would come and go, we'd have great athletes and get a 1-seed and then we'd drop down a peg athletically and "drop" down to a 4-seed. Safely in the tournament every year, freshmen being brought along slowly and then unleashed, the players change every year but the basketball doesn't - a machine.
I don't really need to go over how we got away from that. Weber broke the machine, Groce slapped it back together real quick but it was never truly repaired and eventually fell apart. Now we're trying to put it together piece by piece.
And honestly? I felt OK about the repairs tonight. Probably the #1 fan complaint I received during the Groce era was "toughness and togetherness? where is the toughness that Groce talks about all the time?". Well, tonight, for whatever it's worth, I think there was toughness. There was fight. There was effort. They were completely and totally outclassed, but they fought and fought. I'm a body language guy, and the body language was great tonight. I mean, Miles Bridges was elevating above their heads and dunking all over them, but they fought and fought and fought.
Which, to me, is a step towards building another machine in Champaign. We'll have to get better athletes - good Lord were we overmatched tonight - and we'll have to do something about this layup-line defense (it eventually comes around, right?), but the mental stuff that seemed to be lacking recently is coming around. I was exhausted watching this game, which isn't something I said a lot the last few years.
(As I'm typing this, Ayo Dosunmu just walked out to the basket at the north end and reached up to touch the net. Yes, help is on the way. And we need a lot more just like that.)
I know that many might suggest we walk before we run. Here I am talking about building a top-4-seed-every-year machine again, and many might respond "let's just make the Tournament again" or perhaps "let's win a conference game first". I get that. 0-8 is 0-8. But I don't want to become an Iowa who just wants to maybe make the Tournament here and there. I want to get back to being Illinois Basketball. I want a machine again.
And, honestly, signing Ayo was a great first step towards that. Starting with a consensus five-star is not going the Iowa way - it's attempting to build something huge. Josh Whitman gave that "the champ is here" speech when he fired Groce and I still believe him. This isn't an attempt to get back to good - we need to reclaim our spot at the top.
Which is going to take a lot of work. We're, uh, we're the worst team in the Big Ten right now. We lost at home to Iowa. We're officially eliminated from the NCAA Tournament and it's January 22nd. We're in a crater.
But Body Language Man felt pretty good about what he saw tonight. Like, we beat Michigan State here last year and I might feel better about this game? This Michigan State team, with all the sophomore leaps + Jackson, would beat last year's Illini team by 25. Not sure why I feel like that, but I feel like that.
There are still issues. People much smarter than me can't stop talking about the defense, and when I see Michigan State shoot 68% for the game, I have to acknowledge that it must be a mess. (I promise to learn how basketball defense works soon so I stop using this crutch.) This (likely Final Four) team just took the Illini defense apart. Pretty sure they had 26 dunks.
And we must acknowledge that a last-place finish in the Big Ten is a serious momentum-slower for a first-year coach. He's going to head out this summer looking for the most important recruiting class at Illinois in a decade and he might have a 2-16 conference record to sell. Construction of the machine might hit several roadblocks soon.
Still, after Friday's debacle, I'm a bit more upbeat tonight. "Fight-wise", I feel like that was one of our better performances in the last few years. Even the late 9-0 run to cut it to 7, led by Kipper's crazy offensive burst, showed that they just wouldn't quit. We were fairly relentless against our best opponent this season.
And that's something we can build from. First step: no Big Ten basement. Next step - is it too much to ask for a little run in the Big Ten Tournament? Third step - land a top 10 class.
The 39th step? A rebuilt Illini basketball machine.