Column | Illinois men‘s basketball is a beautiful catastrophe


Sidney Malone

Players line up at the center of the court following a technical foul by junior forward Coleman Hawkins for hanging on the rim during the game against Rutgers on Saturday.

By Theo Gary, Staff Writer

Like Phil Collins, I can feel it coming. We’ve got three more weekends of college basketball left, three more weeks of bracketology and wondering what’s coming. We’re in the stretch-run. The Super Bowl is on; football is over; college basketball has begun.

Northwestern upset Purdue Sunday morning. In Evanston, in that high school gym they call an arena, the unstoppable Zach Edey was finally slowed, a crack in the armor was discovered. Chris Collins’ massive wizard brain came up with a doubling scheme that was actually capable of slowing him.

For this, I am relieved. Since conference play started, I’ve been waiting for Illinois to play a high-profile game against a highly-ranked team on a network without a number or conference in its name (FS1, Big Ten Network). I’ve been waiting for a game with real stakes and real national attention. Finally, with Northwestern, we have one. 

Since Edey was neutralized and Northwestern got its season-affirming win, I’ve locked in Northwestern basketball. Illinois has to beat them. They absolutely must. There is no other option, losing that game is a catastrophe. Boo Buie, Chase Audige and the rest of the scrappy, gritty, no-fun gang cannot under any circumstances beat the hyper-talented, beautiful mess that is Illinois men’s basketball. From now until Feb. 23, I am focused, as I expect Brad is too, on “the Cats.”

Between now and then, though, there are games to play. Penn State and Ohio State look tough but winnable. Indiana is in the assumed loss category, but that may change. Illinois is playing good basketball now, is not sinking into the ground as I thought it might and looks genuinely resilient in a way that it did not a month ago. 

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Discovering the Illini down on Saturday, waking up late, making breakfast and coffee, turning back to the TV and it’s Rutgers by 6, still… that was a bad sign. I really thought the ship was sinking, that it was time to readjust my expectations and cancel my Final Four tickets, but then they did it. They went on that run – 7-0, then 11-0, then 15-0, then Rutgers missed those gimmies and it was 19-0. A permanent backbreaker, the kind of run that sinks a season and made Steve Pikiell’s head balloon into a permanently red tomato, one which I will slice up, season and fry until it tastes better than how good Coleman Hawkins is at basketball (green tomatoes would be better for this, but I’ll take what I can get).

That man has unlimited talent. It’s unbelievable how he can affect a game sometimes. Other times he disappears, but that’s happening less and less this year as he does things like “grab a rebound over a Rutgers player like a dad playing against his kid,” or “throw a perfect skip pass from one corner to another” or “miss a dunk then try to put it back while still hanging on the rim.” These are all perfect things, things I love about him and the way he plays. Frustrating, sure, but lovely also, a mess of great talent and spectacular failure. Like us and unlike the all-time greats, his play is so human, so understandable (this is unlike André Curbelo, whose play was never understandable). If he made the right pass every time, took every shot he was supposed to take and passed up every shot he wasn’t supposed to, then I wouldn’t write this or care very much at all. Leave perfect players to the NBA. I’ll take my flawed talent, thank you very much.

So please do not be frustrated with him and do not be frustrated with this team, because sometimes they grind, sometimes they struggle, but sometimes they play basketball that is utterly, blissfully beautiful. Illinois is a beautiful mess, a lover that takes you to the moon and leaves you crying in the bathroom. But at least that’s better than Northwestern, who is not beautiful, just a mess. 


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