Column | Beaten by Booty Ball

By Theo Gary, Staff Writer

Illinois lost to Penn State again, and that sucks. They say it’s hard to beat a good team twice, and it’s even harder to beat a good team three times. But Penn State did that, scoring a collective 234 points, running Illinois off the court twice, beating them close once and generally putting Illinois in their pocket. Penn State did it, they beat a good team three times — that is if Illinois is a good team, which I’m still not sure they are. These days, I’m not sure of a lot of things.

I know this team is still hyper-talented, their measurables are still amazing: Two starters are certain to be drafted, and another, Matthew Mayer, is just college good. But they lost again, for the third time, to Penn State, a team with none of these things.

This is the sort of thing that, frankly, takes a team from fun to flawed, exciting to frustrating. All season, this team has been in tension with itself, neither good nor bad: hitting shots, missing shots, playing defense and then not. They are what they are now, nothing will change that. A run in March won’t, there will be no magical improvement. The Illini have flaws, and they have to play through those flaws or compensate for them, but the flaws are not going away. 

Watching Penn State on offense, my head balloons into a fiery ball of gas, achieves fusion, collapses in itself, goes supernova and when Jalen Pickett parks right in RJ Melendez’s chest, my head explodes.

Brad called it “booty ball.” It is. If height is the most obvious trait in basketball, then butt size is its underrated counter. It makes rebounders out of small guys, turns a shooter into a dominant post-up presence; it’s what makes small-ball work. Jalen Brunson – national champion, New York Knick, all-star snub, massive butt. Draymond Green – undervalued, undersized, incredible playmaker, humongous butt. Dennis Rodman – greatest rebounder of all time, Kim Jong Un’s friend, big-time butt. 

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Villanova won two national championships and went to three final fours playing “booty ball,” posting up, waiting for the double, if it comes firing the ball to an open shooter, if it doesn’t, scoring in the post himself. The key is those short and wide players like Pickett, guys stronger than anyone their size and with a lower center of gravity than anyone taller than them. If you don’t have a player strong enough to handle that, then there’s really nothing you can do. It looks stupid, but in college basketball stupid works.

 If I have one gripe with how Brad has conducted this season, it’s that Illinois does not do enough of that simple, stupid, easy stuff. They do the hard, cool stuff so much that it almost tricks you into believing they have already mastered the simple things. When it comes down to it, though, at the end of games against solid teams, the Illini just can’t. To put it in football terms, they don’t execute well. For Illinois, what is easy is so often what is left undone. 

Despite what one part of the fanbase thinks, Brad is not a bad coach. However, this team has not and probably will not reach its potential. The record is fine, the seeding is fine, this team is tantalizingly fine. The vibes are bad, but that’s different. I think we all thought this team was good, but good teams don’t lose three in a row, so they aren’t and now people are disappointed. Win on Thursday and then on Saturday and everything changes, the vibes turn. The season is over, March is here and, thankfully, Illinois never has to play Penn State again. 


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