Wanna get away? I did. So my wonderful wife planned a get-away weekend to my favorite place on earth: Champaign, Illinois. We walked the quad in the snow, ate a Russell at Farren's, and, perhaps most importantly, watched the Illini win. I needed that. All of it.
I've mentioned this before but the quad walk was always my thing when I was a student. The first snow usually happened right around finals, and I'd be stressed to no end, wondering if I was going to pull it off and somehow remain a UIUC student. Back in those days, kids, you got your grades in the MAIL. So you didn't sweat out your grades while on campus - you went home and checked the mail every day. OK, yes, most of you were smart enough to avoid the thing called "academic probation". Others of us were not blessed with said smarts. So we went home and stalked the mailman.
Around the time of the first snow, I'd always need to remind myself why I was doing this. How my goal for as long as I could remember was to get a degree from the University of Illinois. So it would snow and I'd go walk a few loops around the quad. By the time I got back to my dorm/fraternity house/apartment, resolve would be restored. That B- in Rhet 105 would be mine.
It wasn't supposed to snow yesterday, but snow it did. So my wife and I hurried off to the quad for another reminder walk. I needed that so very badly. These trips to Champaign have gotten so long. 0-fer in the Big Ten in football and then, before today, I had seen one Big Ten win in basketball (Tyler covered the Rutgers game). That's a lot of drives for a lot of losses, sometimes (well, four times) getting home at 2:30 in the morning wondering why I do this.
So a win over Nebraska? I needed that. We all did. They're not Michigan State, but they were 11-4 in the Big Ten coming into this and needed the win to get into the Tournament. I think they're out now without some Big Ten Tournament help - the committee looks for good wins and they don't have any. And now they have another bad loss. Illini Basketball 2017-18 - out here ruining Missouri and Nebraska with bad losses.
This season was thrown away long ago, and when you reach that point, wins like this can be fun. When Nebraska made their run to start the half (I think they started the second half on a 16-4 run), if you follow me on Twitter, you know that I immediately gave up. Here we go again. When you're at that point with your team ("here we go again - from a 7 point halftime lead to a 15 point loss"), you can't see anything good. So when Mark Smith and Trent Frazier hit those threes midway through the half, I had this "wait, what?" moment where my soul slowly starts to believe again. Each time Nebraska would score I'd go to my "here we go again" place, but then WE'D make a play and I'd be forced to climb out of that place. It's not much, but I'll take it.
The last one was Mark Smith's airball with 1:20 to go. We're up three, had just forced a turnover, have the ball with a three point lead and less than 90 seconds to go... and we shoot an airball from 25 feet with 15 seconds left on the shot clock. Actually, that's not true. My final "here we go again" moment was moments later. Off the airball, Glynn Watson comes down and shoots a three to tie and misses. Te'Jon gets the rebound and is going to the line, up 3, with 1:08 on the clock... and misses the front end of the one-and-one. Here we go again.
But we didn't go again. In fact, the things that haven't happened all year suddenly started happening. Nebraska misses a shot, gets the rebound, and misses the put-back. The rebound goes off two hands at once, there's a review and... Illinois ball! Then we miss a three, the ball goes out, there's another review, and... Illinois ball!. Trent makes three of four free throws and we walk away with the win.
It means nothing other than we'll have a chance to stay out of the Big Ten basement with a win at Rutgers. This year was always about next year, and this win doesn't really drag me back into "I think we can get into the Tournament next year" territory, but I'll take it. Needed that.
+ Can Leron win Big Ten Player of the Week? 20 and 7 against Indiana on Wednesday, 28 and 7 today. 24 ppg and 7 rpg for the week? That has to be close, right?
It's amazing how much we depend on him. When he got that second (dumb) foul in the first half, I was beside myself. I rarely have fan reactions on press row anymore (I'm able to stifle pretty well now), but I almost screamed when it got that second foul. Without him, we're so lost.
Which leads my thoughts to next year and Ayo. We have a post player we can absolutely count on (as long as he's not, you know, in foul trouble). We have a streaky freshman point guard we can count on in Trent. If we can add some pieces around that - a 5-star freshman guard, a sophomore leap from Mark Smith, consistency from Kipper, a senior breakout from Finke - then we might have something.
But it all revolves around Leron. If we can get to the Tournament next year, it will be because of Leron.
+ Airball aside, I feel like this was probably Mark Smith's best Big Ten game? 18 minutes, hit a big three, scored on a big and-one in the lane, muscled his way to that late rebound, was fouled, and hit both free throws... yeah, this was his best game in a while.
The decision to shoot that 25-foot three with plenty of time on the shot clock and us leading by three... I don't really hate it hate it. I want him to get all of those bad decisions out of the way as a freshman and then take a big step forward next year. The key to learning how to be aggressive is learning when a bad shot is a really bad shot. Well, hopefully, he's learning.
And if you watch him in the pregame, man, sometimes it feels like the kid never misses. If we're looking for that shooter in the future, it has to be him.
+ When Trent missed both late free throws at home against Indiana (we still won, but barely), Underwood pulled him aside and told him that he wouldn't miss those again. And he was kind of right (so far). This game was put away because Trent hit three of four late.
It's strange how much I view Trent as a go-to guy when he's only started 12 games this year. Te'Jon has started 16 games and Trent 12. Crazy, right? I would probably have bet $10,000 that Trent has started more games.
+ We'll lose on Tuesday at #2 Michigan State (hide your eyes) and then we'll lose again at home on Thursday against #6 Purdue. So the question now is whether we finish 4-14 with a win at Rutgers or 3-15 with a loss at Rutgers. We haven't gone winless on the road in a season since 1906 (yes, 1906), so, uh, let's win that one.
Better yet, let's win Tuesday night at Michigan State and ruin their solo Big Ten title hopes.