Despite Minnesota’s football triumph over Iowa for the Floyd or Rosedale trophy (a statue of a pig for those of you living outside the Midwest), I had long abandoned my emotional investment in the 2-9 Gopher football team. Don’t get me wrong -- I was happy to see Minnesota win. I might even look for the pig in the team trophy case when I visit my home state. But because of the football team's struggles this season, I could not put my full emotional energy into the rivalry game. The win was not deeply satisfying, more like mildly amusing.
On the flip side, I have readily embraced a streaking Gopher basketball team and its Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament title. And with the Gophers leading a terrible Virginia basketball team by 13 at home, my rooting energies were firmly behind the Gophers on Monday. This made the 26 point collapse (from a 13 point lead to a 13 point deficit) all the more painful. I was emotionally invested in a punch to the gut.
In the process, Minnesota became our first "double surprise" team of the season. They surprised us by being better than we thought, and now surprised us by reminding us that maybe they are not so great. Many teams have not even given us one surprise yet; Minnesota has already provided two. But the heartbreak is still tolerable. It is early in the season, and it is hard to be crushed by any loss.
But I cannot say I feel the same way about Tuesday's Illinois vs North Carolina basketball matchup. It has nothing to do with the ACC - Big Ten challenge. I could care less about the challenge title. The ACC has unquestionably been the deeper league for most of the last decade. The ACC has produced more recent NCAA titles, more NBA players, and had more high profile recruits. Probably the only area where the Big Ten has had more success is in hiring high profile coaches. Those coaches have helped the Big Ten win a decent number of NCAA tournament games and make the Final Four on numerous occassions. But by almost every metric, including challenge wins, the ACC has been the better basketball league. So my desire to see Illinois beat North Carolina has nothing to do with the challenge. The equation is much simpler:
1) Illinois fans do not like North Carolina. It is no longer about North Carolina stealing Roy Williams from Kansas which led to Kansas stealing Bill Self from Illinois. Bruce Weber is the coach for better or worse. The formula is simpler than that. North Carolina beat Illinois in the national championship game in 2005 and until Illinois gets back to the Final Four, that game is always going to resonate.
2) This is supposed to be the Illini’s year. Since 2005, Bruce Weber’s teams have been hard-working squads that have performed admirably, but lacked the talent to win consistently against good teams. But this year is supposed to be different. Illinois has high profile recruits and talented veterans. The time is now.
3) This does not look like North Carolina’s year. While the national writers mostly put the Tar Heels in the top 10, my statistical model said they were not a top 25 team. And while it is still early, my statistical model looks right. The Tar Heels have suffered from the same problems as last year (lack of guard play, lack of depth), and North Carolina has looked extremely vulnerable. Not only have the Tar Heels lost twice, home wins against NC-Asheville and College of Charleston have not inspired confidence.
4) This is a very experienced Illinois team. If they are going to be better than North Carolina, they should be better in November, not March.
All together this is a horrible recipe. Nothing more than a resounding blowout victory will really satiate Illinois fans. And if Bruce Weber’s squad does not play well from the opening tip, the normally supportive home crowd will not hesitate to boo vociferously.
In many ways, the pent-up emotional energy is a recipe for disaster. That is because Illinois is a jump shooting team and an inconsistent one at that. True, Illinois has perhaps the greatest collection of jump shooters in team history. As Tim McCormick said during Saturday’s win over Western Michigan, if you had to pick a team to play HORSE you would pick Illinois every day of the week. They have 7 or 8 guys who can consistently knock down shots from 17 feet or further and that can be a nightmare for opposing defenses. But basketball is not a game of HORSE. And despite sophomore Brandon Paul’s improved hustle stats, despite freshman Jereme Richmond’s ability to score in traffic, and despite freshman Meyer’s Leonard additional size inside, Illinois still has the same starting rotation as last year. This is still the same team that was inconsistent enough to miss the NCAA tournament last year. In other words, even if Ken Pomeroy labels Illinois a 72% favorite, that 28% possibility is far from impossible.
Given the high expectations and high emotion, the game is almost a no win situation for Illinois fans. A win will only satisfy, it will not be worthy of a full celebration. And given this no win situation, it is tempting to employ the "DVR strategy". The "DVR strategy" is an evil idea, but one that works wonders when you have limited time and do not want to miss the good stuff. You record all your teams games, and watch them the next day, but only if they win. On the surface this sounds great. Lots of fun wins, no punches to the gut.
But that is not what sports are about. If all we cared about were monster dunks and three point shots, all we would need is SportsCenter. The joy of the game is the uncertainty. That unscripted, punch-to-the-gut, tears of joy, emotional investment you make in your team for two hours.
And so again, I will try to minimize my expectations for tommorrow. I will sugar-coat things and say Big Ten titles and NCAA tournament runs are more important than any November game. And I am sure Bruce Weber will tell his players to treat this like just any other game.
But it is not just any other game. This is North Carolina. When Deron Williams went to shake Marvin Williams hand after the championship game in 2005, Marvin Williams ran away from him to peel off his shirt and scream in victory. I remember the confetti falling from the rafters, and the Illini coming up one game short of winning it all. It might seem like November, but this is not just another game.