The ups and downs of college hoops

College basketball is insane.

If college basketball were a person, it’d be Norman Bates. If college basketball lived somewhere, it would be at Arkham Asylum. If college basketball had a face, it would, depending on the light, look like the Elephant Man or Helen of Troy. If college basketball had a body, it would, depending on the angle, look like Brooklyn Decker or Kirstie Alley.

This time last week, our Illini were on the top of the world. They’d knocked off No. 5 Michigan State at home on the biggest stage of the year and followed that with a win at then-No. 11 Wisconsin, making Illinois the only unranked Big Ten team to win there in nine years.

ESPN (yes, the Worldwide Leader) was actually paying attention again. Jay Bilas was talkin’ up the Orange Krush and the atmosphere at the Assembly Hall like we were paying him by the word. Bracketologist Joe Lunardi, who as recently as two weeks ago estimated the Illini as the very last team in the NCAA Tournament, was projecting them anywhere from a seven to nine seed in the Big Dance.

Demetri McCamey was receiving Big Ten Player of the Year buzz. In addition, some fans were wondering not IF the surging point guard would jump to the NBA after this season, but WHEN in the first round would he be selected.

Message boards whirred about the scenarios that would have to (and undoubtedly would) unfold for the Illini to win the Big Ten. Their projections for the contest against No. 13 Ohio State, at home, centered on not IF but HOW MUCH Illinois would win by.

Illini nation was floating somewhere in orbit. And after one beatdown at the hands of the Buckeyes, everyone has returned to Earth.

This is an all too common process for fan bases across the country.

Ask the fans of North Carolina. They’re coming off of a national championship season and were ranked in the preseason top 10. Turns out, that ranking was based solely on their name. Now? It would take nothing short of Michael Jordan hopping in Doc Brown’s DeLorean, crankin’ that puppy up to 88 miles per hour and hoping Dean Smith is sitting shotgun.

Ask the fans of UConn. A perennial Final Four contender, these Huskies might be the most insane team of the millennium. I can just picture coach Jim Calhoun dressing up as his mother and speaking in her tone.

They began the season ranked No. 12 and at one point stood at 9-2, rising as high as No. 10. Over the next three weeks, they went 2-4 to drop to 11-6 and out of the top 25, basically written off nationally.

Yet back-to-back wins, including a 14-point mauling of then-No. 1 Texas, had the Huskies thinking up. How’d they follow this mini-streak? They lost five of their next six, including two blowouts to less-talented teams (Providence and Cincinnati) and a last-minute loss to then-No. 3 Syracuse on the road to further confuse their fans. That left the Huskies at 14-11 overall and 4-8 in conference play.

UConn has played one game since then. I could say basically anything and you’d probably believe me, right? Well, in that case, they played the Monstars and won on a last-second, extendo-arm dunk from half court. Just kidding. That, of course, was the Tune Squad.

Their real game was a nine-point victory on the road against the best team in the Big East and No. 3 in the country, Villanova.

Insanity.

A college basketball season is a lot like a round of golf. Walking up to the course, you remember only the good things about your last trip — a 200-yard 3-wood to get to the green in two, a chip within inches of the hole, a 30-foot birdie putt. You don’t remember the bad — six shots to get out of a sand trap, 2-for-18 in greens in regulation, more balls lost in the woods than pars scored.

Both are a long and arduous process and test your physical not nearly as much as your mental strength. One great shot can make you feel like you want to drop everything and dedicate yourself to the sport. Coincidentally enough, this shot is usually followed by a plethora of shots that make you wonder why you’re even allowed to hold a golf club.

Yet when it’s all said and done, you have conflicting feelings of embarrassment, pride, shame and joy. And you can’t wait to get back out there again.

I guess we all go a little crazy sometimes.

Eye on the Illini

Last you saw the Illini on the hardwood they were flat, unprepared and out-coached. Ohio State came out of the gates with guns ablazin’ and never let the Assembly Hall crowd truly get into the game.

How’d they control the game so effectively? Well, Thad Matta tossed a 1-3-1 zone at Illinois to start the game — the Illini reacted as if they’d never seen a zone, much less played against one, and scored an anemic 20 points in the first half. Illinois had no offensive answer.

As the game progressed, Matta ran multiple screens for one-dimensional Jon Diebler, who went 6-for-11 from 3s and yes, you guessed it, didn’t even attempt a single 2-pointer. Two or three of those triples were tough shots, but the rest were open, resulting from transition or double screens. Illinois had no defensive answer.

Perhaps the Illini got complacent after two phenomenal wins. Perhaps they didn’t prepare for the Buckeyes as well as they should have, as Bruce Weber admitted afterward. Perhaps they began to believe their own hype.

Well, the season isn’t over. The Illini know that now.