Column | What they notice in March

Illinois+mens+basketball+team+huddles.

Jacob Slabosz

The mens basketball team huddles during a final timeout in their game against Michigan on March 2.

By Theo Gary, Staff Writer

What they notice in March is how tall you are. It’s the first, most obvious thing. Height wins. Tall people are hard to miss. Anybody who’s ever played basketball understands the central, unquestionable importance of height. It makes all other things happen on the court. And if you add shooting? If you add detail, defense, passing, dribbling and a bunch of other things, then you’ve maybe got somebody who’s beyond good and is great. An NBA player, a star.

Except for the NBA part, this is Zach Edey from Purdue. He is humongous, so big, wide and strong like a live oak. He lumbers his way into the post, sets up somewhere on the block, stretches out his arm and slowly drops the ball into the net. If you double him, he flings it out into the crowd of shooters that Matt Painter picked up at the heady players factory. They do other things, but this is basically Purdue, and the people will notice. In March, win or lose (probably lose because, y’know, it’s Purdue), people are going to see Edey and they’re going to say something. I can hear my dad saying it now: “Wow. He’s big.”

They used to say the same thing about Kofi Cockburn. The first time I watched Illinois basketball, back in 2021, during the tournament when the mustachioed Cameron Krutwig took Cockburn’s life force, that’s what I said. I said it last year too, and I was saying it all the way up until I got here. Now he’s my idol, a savant; not “just big.” But that’s still the overwhelming consensus out in the national media and among the Twitter people (same thing). They make their jokes and that’s fine. Their perception is based on a couple of games in March. If you want to make fun of somebody for being “just big,” go after Hunter Dickinson, who is. 

By now, I think we all know what this Illini team is about. They are good and talented, beautiful and flawed, this and that … blah blah blah. They are playing mostly well. They had a decent season. They’ll probably end up as a 7 seed or something. That’s what “the people,” when they do their bracketology, will see, that little number next to the block. It will convince them that Illinois is mediocre, nothing special, fodder for the first weekend. Most will not investigate the season, explore the highs and lows, know our strengths or weaknesses. They will only see that number, that ominous little number, the one bracketologists obsess over and bubble teams worry about endlessly, but they will not know what this team is about.

What is this team about? I don’t know. Nobody knows. They don’t know, and that’s fine. 

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On paper, they’re 20-11 overall, 11-9 in conference. It was good. I enjoyed all 20 of those wins and endured all 11 of those losses. I was never out on this team and they never, never ever, quit fighting. 

Now the tournament is a week away, and I suppose none of it matters anymore. The slate is blank, the season is over and the postseason has begun. 

Wiped from my mind is Terrence Shannon against Texas, the Coleman Hawkins triple-double, losing to Northwestern and beating them. Brad farting, Clark leaving, Melendez hitting that three and State Farm Center exploding. That was the past, this is the present. Forget it all, turn on the TV, soak up every second you have left with this team because before long they’ll lose and March will be over and I’ll have to get my basketball fix from the NBA, a place where Hunter Dickinson will never play, because he’s “just big.”

 

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