Column | Nobody can matchup with Illinois man-to-man


J. Sidney Malone / The Daily Ill

Fifth-year forward Matthew Mayer attempts to block a layup against Michigan State on Friday. Mayer’s performance contributed to a 75-66 Illini victory.

By Theo Gary, Staff Writer

Wise men say

Only fools rush in

But I can’t help falling in love with you

  • Can’t Help Falling in Love, Elvis 

It started with those fouls. Illinois was down; Michigan State’s grinding guards were doing what they do which is to be irritating, and Izzo looked every bit of the maniac genius resembling the coach he has always been. But then it flipped. 

The game was played at home of course, in the upturned paper plate that is State Farm Center. And so when Brad got on the refs, they actually started calling the game different. Out of fear? Maybe. But that’s just fine. It’s good coaching.

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The theme of this little mini run, the win over good Wisconsin, garbage Nebraska and feisty Michigan State, is a coming together of talent. Because this team is so talented and doesn’t show it sometimes, but there are only four or five teams in the country that can match them man-for-man. Terrence Shannon Jr. is a genuine star, the kind of player you find in NBA 2k more than real life. Coleman Hawkins is terrifying because he’s so big and his shot is so pure. Dain Danja and Matthew Mayer are big and strong and quick, and on most other teams would be the first option. Both can take over, as they did against Michigan State, and you wouldn’t even notice. The rest play their role; they play such beautiful offense at times. My goodness I’ve fallen in love with watching this team.

Maybe it was their defenestration of Fred Hoiberg, who in four years has not even improved an embarrassingly bad Nebraska program a little bit, and who I still have not forgiven for his treatment of Derrick Rose and the city of Chicago generally. Maybe that was what got me on-board. But maybe not. 

I think it was the Northwestern game. Those talented fools struggled so mightily, committed so many mistakes and took so many bad shots that I couldn’t help but root for them. They were mind-bendingly frustrating, a testament to talented dysfunction. But I liked them, because they made me actually angry. They had me in the basement huffing, puffing and yelling at the TV like Brad does at the refs. 

That’s the thing people misunderstand about anger. It can be rational. I was angry, and I suspect by Brad’s body language that night he was too, because the Illini players have all this talent and skill, but they just couldn’t turn it into points. There’s the frustration, and now that they’re winning it’s all so much sweeter. Overcoming obstacles and all that. 

It would be deluded to believe now, after three good games, that the Illini are a championship team. What they’ve changed, schematically, is very simple — they started playing inside-out instead of outside-in. Their athleticism, especially against lumbering Big Ten teams, lets them do that. Will that work in March? Can Dain Danja establish himself in the post against more technically skilled bigs. Can Illinois outplay an equally tall and long team? Will the injuries gas them? Only time will tell. 

The Spring semester isn’t even here yet. The bars are still mostly empty. They won’t even let you back in the dorm. But I know this — Illinois is winning a title. 


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