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After putting the paywall up today... we had to take it right back down because there's a glitch. So we're back to free articles until we get it figured out. If you tried to subscribe today and the system made you a "free member" (without a subscription), hang tight, we're working on it.

And now to the article about the game......

I had known that Ohio State fans were frustrated with Chris Holtmann. When they lost 14 of 15 last year at this time (to drop from 10-3 to 11-17), the fanbase was angry. Any fanbase would be angry after being ranked in December and then losing 14 of 15 in January and February.

So I knew his seat was warm coming into this season. 2-seed in 2021, 7-seed in 2022, losing record in 2023. (And now 13-8 in 2024 having now lost 6 of their last 7.) But I didn't know that Ohio State fans were in the mental space I observed this evening.

I'm not just talking about the attendance tonight. Yes, it was bad. Yes, they listed the (paid) attendance at 10,285, but there's no way there were more than 5,500 people in that building. Here's a video I took during player intros:

The entire upper deck had maybe... 1,000 fans?

But this isn't "Ohio State went 5-15 in the Big Ten last year and they're now 3-7 in the Big Ten this year so the fans are voting with their butts." I sensed something else. And it made me thankful.

I've written a lot about attendance the last 15 years. Football crowds, basketball sellouts, the gradual decline of noise in the State Farm Center during the 2010's as fans tried to cope with "what has happened to this once proud program?" I even remember a few debates with Ohio State fans where they cited their surge in the late 2000's (which aligned perfectly with our decline) as proof that they had a better basketball program.

No. It's just not true. Tonight was proof.

They have a basketball team. They have a football program. There is so much investment on the south side of Woody Hayes Drive but it's not the same on the north side. When they have a good basketball team, the fans show up, but it's not a program. There's no real long-term investment. It's "get to the top-25 and I might go." Attendance is 100% tied to wins. Fans were fully invested when they were ranked #1 during the Oden/Conley years but then they immediately go do other things when they fall out of the top-25.

We have a basketball program. It was so clear to me tonight. Not only from the Illini fans in attendance (if Ohio State was #14 and we were unranked, and if this game was in Champaign, you wouldn't have seen 1/10th the number of Ohio State fans making the trip), but also from feeling an arena with no angst. It took me a while to figure out what was missing, and then I realized it was very simple: there wasn't a palpable, desperate "how can this happen to this program??".

Across the street (well, across two streets), three losses would be enough to bring out the "how can this happen to this program??" tears. 9-3 would be considered a disaster. There's a fanbase there, willing their team to wins. When losses come, the refusal to accept them takes many forms and "this cannot happen" rules the day.

I lived through "this cannot happen" with Illinois basketball. Remember that loss to Indiana in the 2016 season where it was close in the first half and then they blew us out in the second half? Let me look up the score.... the final was 74-47. We actually led at halftime and then were outscored 47-19 in the second half. You might remember the game just from that. We scored 47 points. Indiana scored 47... in the second half.

I remember the crowd that following Sunday for the Minnesota game. Still seething from Indiana outscoring us by 28 in the second half . Absolutely refusing to believe that the Illini basketball program was actually 12-16. It wasn't so much "fire the coach" anger (although that was there, obviously) as it was desperation. "How did we get to this point? Doesn't anyone still remember what we used to be?" Complete disbelief.

There doesn't seem to be much of that in Columbus. The vibe is mostly "Whatever. Football." I'm not saying there aren't Ohio State fans who care about the team. The 100,000+ views of the tweet I linked above are a bunch of Ohio State fans quote-tweeting it and saying "can you believe this?". People care, obviously. I'm just saying that it feels more like "wish we were better than this" and not "I don't think I'm going to sleep well for months."

And I found myself thankful that Illinois basketball has an "I don't think I'm going to sleep well for months" fanbase. That we travel. That we've sold out all but one Big Ten game in the State Farm Center. Ohio State is struggling to get 10,000 people to buy tickets (and 5,000 people to show up) for a Big Ten game and we sold all 15,544 tickets for the Fairleigh-Dickinson game between the holidays.

(I should also note that for that 2016 Indiana game I referenced above, which was a Thursday night at 8:00 pm during our third consecutive tournament-less season with our record sitting at 12-15 on the season, we sold 13,000 tickets. And most all of those ticket-holders showed up.)

I'm thankful to be part of a fanbase that desperately cares about their team as much as we do. And I say that as a football guy. Yes, give me Sophie's Choice and I'd choose a Big Ten football title over a Big Ten basketball title. But even I have this "no, this program cannot EVER fall to 2016 levels again" feeling.

And Ohio State fans do not have that. They put ten times the energy into the other program in that stadium over there. And it works for them.

Tonight I realized that it works for us, too. #14 in the polls. Up to #9 in KenPom after this win. Top-5 offense nationally. And headed to our fourth consecutive (would be our fifth if not for Covid) NCAA Tournament.

Josh Whitman got in front of a mic in March of 2017 and talked about our "the champ is here" intro from the 2005 season, saying that if we don't do something immediately, we won't get back to that. I think that quote hit us all in the same "how has this happened to this program?" place. And now, seven years later, we continue to have the best conference record of any Big Ten program this decade.

Thankful. I'm just... thankful.

-> I want to talk about that "top-5 offense" thing I noted above. Underwood even mentioned it in the postgame press conference, noting how we were #7 (before the game) in "adjusted O on KenPom." By the time he said it postgame, we had already moved up to #5.

That rating is "Adjusted Offensive Efficiency". Points scored per 100 possessions, adjusted for the strength of your opponents. And here's the current top-5 nationally as of this moment:

  1. Alabama 125.3
  2. Purdue 124.9
  3. UConn 124.0
  4. Wisconsin 121.7
  5. Illinois 121.6

Here's hoping the Badgers shoot it poorly at Nebraska on Thursday and we move up to 4th.

Let's talk about where that ranks when compared to previous offenses. Here's the national ranking for our KenPom AdjO since 2010:

2010: 73
2011: 34
2012: 145
2013: 46
2014: 146
2015: 91
2016: 142
2017: 123
2018: 86
2019: 83
2020: 38
2021: 8
2022: 30
2023: 68
2024: 5

(Anyone else feeling thankful at the moment?)

I know this is sacrilege, but I have to do it. Top-4 "points per 100 possessions, adjusted for strength of opponent" Illini seasons since KenPom started tracking in 1999:

1) 2005 - 122.3
2) 2024 - 121.6
3) 2021 - 118.0
4) 2004 - 117.8

I'll stop. I can sense your discomfort. You don't have to worry that I'm going to say anything you're afraid I'll say. To calm you down I could just note that the defensive numbers aren't at all similar to 2004, 2005, or 2021. A bad Ohio State team just put up 1.15 points per possession on us, dropping our defensive rating on KenPom from 30th to 36th. We have a lot to clean up on the defensive end.

But offensively, out of nowhere, we're starting to enter the stratosphere.

-> As I tweeted when the game ended, I was really happy for Dain Dainja tonight. Once Coleman Hawkins got his third foul (plus a fourth personal for a technical) early in the second half, Dainja was going to have to play. His stat line:

11 minutes, 7 points, 5 rebounds

Please watch this video and feel all the feels.

-> Underwood also noted in the press conference that the players will get their first day off in weeks tomorrow. I wrote about this last week but if you missed it, this long run (from the Michigan game until tonight) was...

(two days)
(two days)
(two days)
(two days)
Ohio State

Now it's four days until Nebraska on Sunday and then six days off before Michigan State on that following Saturday. Ten games down, ten games to go, and a little breather here with only two games in the next 11 days.

-> Halfway through the Big Ten schedule (we're now 7-3) is probably a good time to check on some shooting percentages. Top six in each category:

Three point %
Goode .406
Harmon .392
Hawkins .370
Shannon .359
Guerrier .329
Domask .241

Free Throw %
Domask .886
Harmon .840
Hawkins .792
Shannon .791
Rodgers .658
Goode .650

Raise your hand if you had Ty Rodgers (.378 from the line last year) ahead of Luke Goode in free throw percentage this season.

Why is no one raising their hand?

-> Final thought before heading to bed:

Even though this might not be a Quad 1 win when we wake up tomorrow (Ohio State was #68 in the NET rankings today, and if they drop below #75, this will only be a Quad 2 win), it was still a very necessary win. A symbolic win?

The feeling after the loss here last year (we were lucky enough to help them break their nine-game losing streak) was that we all just accepted that we couldn't win on the road. We had gone through a stretch where we just couldn't win away from the SFC (at Iowa, at Penn State, at Indiana), but we all felt like we could get right at Ohio State. We didn't.

This year, especially after the overtime loss at Northwestern and the clunker against Indiana, we came here needing to get right again. And we accomplished that. It wasn't pretty on the defensive end at times, but we got the job done. Ty Rodgers was electric, Domask and Shannon both scored 23, and Dain got some quality minutes. Even with an off-night (mostly a foul trouble night) for Coleman and a so-so game from Gary A, we found a way to get it done.

I'm thankful. Just... thankful.