The Hunters

Jan 18, 2022

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I got up to leave press row about 15 minutes after the game ended. I first looked left and there was a big gaggle of Purdue fans blocking the aisle. So I went right but I was behind three Purdue fans (perhaps parents?) looking for someone. I'm never one to give the frustrated "EXCUSE ME", so I just kinda waited for them. Purdue had basically taken over the floor of our arena after the game, so who was I to say anything?

About five minutes before that, I had gotten up to take some photos of the two Purdue fans shooting hoops on the court (the Illini court) after the game. That's them in the photo up top. One guy in a "Big Dog" jersey and the other in a Purdue sweatshirt. I tweeted the video (looking at the timestamp, it doesn't look like the video sent until I got home any my phone grabbed the wifi), and someone pointed it out to the State Farm Center Twitter account, and they responded saying that the DIA sells that as a post-game experience. So we're selling the opportunity for Purdue fans to shoot hoops on our court after they beat us? Quality troll, Boilers.

Got home and saw this tweet from former Purdue player Brian Cardinal:

If you're unfamiliar with those seats (where he's taking the photo from), those are the seats where we put recruits and their families (including football recruits). And where friends and families of the Illini players sit. The "I called up the school and as a former player they gave me tickets to the game" section. Brian Cardinal is a former Purdue player, but his dad worked for Illinois for 45 years, so I'm guessing that's how Brian Cardinal got the chance to cheer for Purdue while sitting with Ty Rodgers and Ty Pence.

Purdue didn't really bring a ton of fans to this one. I remember Big Ten games with a much larger traveling contingent. So this wasn't some Purdue Invasion or something. It's just that the Purdue people who were there got to walk around like they owned the place. Shooting hoops on the court. "Boiler Up"-ing from the recruits & families section. Blocking both floor exits as I was trying to leave.

Which was pretty much how the game went. We've won 20 of 21 Big Ten games (well, 20 of 22 now), and yet somehow Purdue was the hunted and we were the hunters. If there was a vibe to this game, that was it.

I mean, just look at the officiating. (STOP. I don't mean that how you think I mean that. Deep breath. Read these words slowly, please). Purdue was the protected team today. There is always a protected team because there has to be. There's no such thing as an evenly-called basketball game (it's pretty much impossible) so there's always a default direction. It's usually the home team, and I've written many times about how we only won a game because we shot 34 free throws and the visitors shot 12. Today, the protected team was #4 Purdue. Everything that usually defaults in the home team's direction seemed to default in Purdue's direction. Edey and Williams were given some leeway, not Kofi.

Again, I don't really have a problem with games being called like that. I'm not a "those damn officials were paid off by Purdue" guy. I'm good with Michael Jordan getting calls that Craig Ehlo would not. I honestly think it's a fair way to go about it. Watch the Illinois-Rutgers game in the BTT last year and you'll see the scales tipped massively in Illinois' favor. Miles Johnson (who really bothered Kofi when Rutgers beat us three months prior) and Paul Mulcahey (who really bothered our guards in the same game) were both immediately in foul trouble. At first Steve Pikiell was all "refs, you're killing me" and then he seemed to resign to "yeah, I should have won more games in the regular season if I wanted to get all these 50/50 calls."

It's not "the refs are in Team A's pocket", at least not in my mind. It's not some intentional "we're going to call everything on those guys because we want these guys to win". It's just that one team's stars will be protected a little bit more than the other team's stars. It's very subtle. Charge/blocking calls usually tip one way during a game. I just see it as referees "managing" a game, being careful not to directly determine the outcome of a game. Fourth and fifth fouls are often hard to come by for star players.

And I'm mostly OK with that because it's never going to be even. It generally helps you at home and hurts you on the road (unless the home team is Nebraska and the road team is Michigan State). I mean, MSU is probably a great example. Ayo's broken nose at Michigan State would have been called a foul 100 times out of 100 in Champaign. In East Lansing, it was called a block and the ball out of bounds to Illinois (no foul was called until the Flagrant Two on video review).

But today, the entire vibe in the State Farm Center was that Purdue was The Hunted and we were The Hunters. I was so surprised to see that. Purdue was 16-15 in 2019-20 and then 18-10 last year with a first round Tournament loss to North Texas. We hadn't lost to them since February of 2019 (winning here and there since then) and had won 20 of 21, but today, I guess because Purdue had reached #1 earlier this year, it felt like most everything defaulted in their direction. Illinois never reaching the double bonus despite playing two overtimes (in a game where Purdue shot 32 free throws) was rather stunning - 30 minutes, nine fouls. I had this "we'll get the benefit of the doubt here; Purdue will get the benefit of the doubt on February 10th" feeling, but it didn't come true at all.

Read: it wasn't just the officiating. Kofi did foul out of this one, but BBV played some great defense and kept us in the game to the point where we forced two overtimes. I'm actually glad this game went to two overtimes because it kind of erased everything else and just made it a five (and then ten) minute game. Purdue made the shots (those two free layups on defensive breakdowns were killers), we didn't, ballgame.

My point is that this entire day felt like Purdue had swagger and we didn't. The crowd was amazing, but at times the play on the court felt like Purdue was the home team and we were the road team. I just didn't understand why that was the case.

Perhaps I've just read our own press clippings too much (wait, wouldn't I be writing those press clippings?). Maybe the whole "37-9 in the Big Ten starting with the Purdue game on January 5, 2020" thing went to my head. But I just don't understand why we were not the team being hunted. Like, here's the stats starting with that Purdue game on 1/5/20:

Illinois in Big Ten games since then: 37-9
Purdue in Big Ten games since then: 24-19

Someone explain why Matt Painter would answer a question like he's trying to compliment some plucky 10-8 basketball team:

Am I making any sense here? Matt Painter is all "that's a nice little team you guys have here" and I'm all "uh, Matt, this is your first win over the nice little team in nearly three years and it took 7 of the first 15 whistles in the game being called on Kofi and Omar to get there". Just me? Probably just me. I get really, really bitter after losses.

It just feels like we should be claiming our spot and we're not. Zach Edey is getting the LeBron treatment from the refs, not Kofi. A former Purdue player asks for free tickets and we "sir yes sir here's some tickets right next to our recruits sir". I'm sitting there on press row after the game and I'm watching Purdue fans shooting postgame jumpers and I'm daydreaming about Deon Thomas leaving the Underwood radio interview, walking out on the court, grabbing the ball from them, and telling them to get the hell off our court. OUR court.

I don't know. Maybe we need more than just last year's one seed before we can expect to behave this way. Maybe 37-9 vs. 24-19 isn't enough of a sample size to expect that we'd walk into the SFC with all the swagger when playing Purdue. Maybe Loyola still hurts us here - I don't know.

But my main feeling today was that we ceded space that didn't need to be ceded. Even the meltdown at the end of the first half (the 17-0 Purdue run) felt like Purdue was playing with extreme confidence and we were playing scared (especially with Kofi in foul trouble). That moment where Mason Gillis hip-checked Da'Monte into next week left me wanting Da'Monte to actually retaliate next time down (even though a flagrant would have cost us). For whatever reason, I spent those 2.5 hours feeling like they were the bullies. With the refs being the vice principal who looked the other way just hoping for the end of the school day.

WE should be the hunted. WE were the team in solo first before today. They're the ones who lost to freaking Rutgers. I just hate that today felt like Illinois hunting Purdue when it should have been the other way around.

Do you think Indiana is allowing Purdue fans to have a shootaround on their floor after the game? Do you think Ohio State is giving Trey Burke free tickets in the Ohio State recruiting seats so he can tweet a pic and yell "GO BLUE"? I want the SFC to be the THISISOURHOUSE-iest college arena on the planet, and today, well, we did what I did when the Purdue fans were blocking my path to the exit.

Just kind of let them do whatever they wanted.


IlliniJoe81 on January 17, 2022 @ 07:00 PM

Right from the opening tip, I never really had any confidence that we were going to win this game. We just didn't have the poise.

We haven't really beaten anyone good this year. Purdue has. They knew what it took to show up in a big game. We're still trying to field a complete lineup without someone important sick or injured.

This team is still growing. Purdue has been #1. We fought like hell down the stretch but were were paddling uphill the whole way.

The good news is that most of the Big Ten stinks this year so we can punch down for a while longer until we really get our swagger.

I think this team is going to take until March to peak but when we do it's going to be epic.

NC_OrangeKrush on January 17, 2022 @ 07:03 PM

Nice takes Robert.. I completely agree. Swagger.. We miss so many open shots IN OUR OWN HOUSE... and I just don't get it... No home cooking against the REALLY GOOD teams... and in this weird game PU got all the rim bounces to go in... Frustrating...

But if we have those home cooking games in late February and March - even if on the road.... It will be worth it.

Dr. Chim Richalds on January 17, 2022 @ 07:23 PM

Great article - I totally agree with this take, and it took some courage to write about this and not just "great effort by our guys, gotta be encouraged despite the outcome." (Although that is still somewhat true).

I think the loss to Loyola and the fact that we were awful for several years really hurt us in the swagger and national respect categories. We have our history and a passionate fan base, but for most of the nation it's like if Penn State basketball got a 1-seed one year. Would everyone be respectful the next year?

Most casual college basketball fans pay very little attention to other teams than their own until the tournament. Unfortunately we missed it 6 years in a row, then it got canceled so we don't get national credit for being pretty good in 2020, and then we lost in the second round as a 1-seed. It's going to take a tournament run or more top-5 wins to earn that kind of respect.

Bear8287 on January 17, 2022 @ 07:55 PM

Just me? Probably just me. I get really, really bitter after losses.

Really? I hadn't noticed. :-D

There were a lot of positives to take away from this game.

  1. Curbelo is back?!! Looked way better than I thought he had any right to. Questions about team chemistry after such a long lay off? Tied with DMW for team lead in rebounds with 6 while playing only 26 minutes (DMW played 45). Are you kidding me?

  2. Kofi fouls out with 04:19 left in OT1 and the team hangs tough and forces a second OT. Kofi only played 22 minutes out of a 50 minute game. This Illini team fought all the way to the finish. It was 92-88 with only 27 seconds left in OT2.

  3. BBV's defense? Wow. Where did that come from?

  4. With AC back, this team showed that even without Kofi on the floor, the guards can generate quite a bit of fire power. Plummer was 6-12 from 3 to help counter Stefanovic's five 3's. AP, TF, JG and DMW are all legit threats to score from behind the arc.

  5. Best team the Illini have played all year and only 8 turnovers in 50 minutes of play. Big step in the right direction.

Certainly hoped for a victory, but there's a lot to feel good about. As for hunter and hunted, the Illini just got back into the Top 25 a week ago. The last time I checked (looks at notes) the Illini are now 0-2 against Top 25 teams with both of those losses coming at SFC. I think that I've provided plenty above about why I'm still thinking that the ceiling is pretty high for this team, BU teams seem to continue to improve as the season goes on. There's a lot of film from this game to help the coaching staff continue to improve the Illini's game.

orangejulius on January 18, 2022 @ 12:48 PM

Curbelo was just unbelievable yesterday. I thought our defense on Edey was not creative enough. After he burns you several times, you have to give him another look. At least send in a 2nd defender occasionally to swipe at the ball when he's dribbling. Eventually we did that, but not until Kofi was on the bench. on January 17, 2022 @ 07:59 PM

Partially agree. Agree on the court control. If a mediocre iowa football team can haze visitors in the locker room we need to have better Control of the court. That’s the easy part.

Disagree that the bad reffing had any specific protection. This is the opposite of say Duke. No one has heard of or respects Purdue (not as ignored as wisconsin but not much higher). Their first #1 ranking and no final four in half a century. Don’t think that was protected by refs. I think people look at Kofi physically (even against a Yao Ming type of Zach Edey) and they expect him to take harder hits like parenting an older sibling. It’s happened to him his whole career where people just think he can play through anything. Garbage reffing yes, anyone protecting Purdue at SFC is a reach.

danny on January 17, 2022 @ 09:40 PM

Really that’s what you took away from the game. The Illini lost because of the ref’s. Really? You need to be better than that. There were many positives today. Curbelo, Frazier, Bosman-Verdonk.

Eagle on January 20, 2022 @ 08:53 AM

That’s not at all what he said. Look at the title of the article and the context. The takeaway is that we didn’t have the swagger we should have at home. Robert mentions that the refs were also an undeniable factor, but that’s not what the article was about. You read the article and your only takeaway is that he complained about the refs?

SactownIllini on January 18, 2022 @ 01:11 AM

Agree about us being the Hunters. Felt like that way all game. I kinda equate it to football when the team who is controlling the line of scrimmage usually wins...except for the great equalizers turnovers (football and to some extent basketball) and three point shooting (basketball). Purdue had the swagger and we were always trying to catch up to them. Except Curbelo offense and BBV defense.

HNLINI on January 18, 2022 @ 03:16 AM

Purdue is a good team, with a good coach. They did a great job going right at Kofi when he picked up his third foul; Kofi failed to adjust to the way the game was being called against him (and I do believe he gets less calls when he is fouled due to his size alone). By comparison, we had Michigan in the double bonus with 8 minutes left in the first half Friday and didn't shoot another free throw.

For what seems like the first time this season, we did a great job adjusting without Kofi, but simply never got over the hump. We had some last minute of 2nd OT breakdowns, just like we had some last minute breakdowns in the AZ game. They won the battle, but all is not lost. We will get better as a result of the loss (and as a result of Coleman recovering from the flu and especially Curbelo returning); it is unclear if they will get better as a result of the win. Important thing is to approach our peak in early March. If it takes a few losses in the B1G regular season to do so, I'm okay with that.

Separately, we need Curbelo or Podz to pick up some of Trent's minutes so he isn't averaging 35+ a game. My gut is that his challenged offensive performance versus Purdue was because he was gassed as a result of dealing with Michigan picking him up full court on Friday.

All in all a great college basketball game for mid-January. Would I prefer a win? No doubt. But this outcome is likely much better for us in the long term than a blowout victory where we aren't challenged, or a game like Friday's where we won, but the primary challenge was to maintain our intensity with their top two bigs out.

Our game Friday at Maryland now becomes the most important game of the season. Why? Because it is the next 1 of 20 and it follows a loss.

orangejulius on January 18, 2022 @ 12:37 PM

no doubt, too many minutes for Trent with the way he plays, which is all out. I also worry about him getting injured playing those kind of minutes.

ATOillini on January 18, 2022 @ 09:20 AM

I’m confused by your analogy. When I think of “hunter” vs “hunted”, the former is the one on the attack, while the latter is the one cowering behind a bush or hiding in a cave….always looking over his shoulder. Don’t we want to be the first of those two?

And as another comment above indicated, Purdue seemed to be the aggressor from the opening tip. Yet we still managed to force double OT with a significant contribution from a player who hadn’t seen action in two months. A win would have been great. Still personally very ok with it. Good prep for what lies ahead.

rml on January 18, 2022 @ 12:11 PM

Maybe champ and challenger is another way to phrase it. In any event, the little numbers next to the team names might explain it.

orangejulius on January 18, 2022 @ 12:43 PM

It would be interesting to look empirically at how much home referee favoritism Illinois gets vs teams like Purdue and Michigan state. I wouldn't be surprised if the coaches who have been around forever (Painter and Izzo, for example) get better treatment from the refs. The refs have known them for much longer and may have implicit biases in favor of those coaches. I think sometimes the refereeing is just bad, and its bad by chance in favor of one team over the other.

HNLINI on January 18, 2022 @ 03:28 PM

Back in the late 1980s when I was attending games in person on campus, the prevailing notion was that B1G refs always gave the home team an advantage, unless Bobby Knight was the visiting coach, in which case we would get "homered" on our own floor. Now I tend to agree that this "star" coach bias is the more prevalent bias in officiating. At the same time, I don't think that the quality of officiating has kept up with the speed, quality and athleticism of the college game, and thus the overall officiating leaves both sides in any game with numerous opportunities to criticize.

JJNorthside on January 18, 2022 @ 01:13 PM

I think what's been somewhat frustrating for us is that we've done so well in B1G play the past 3 years, but we have no regular season titles or March Madness runs to show for it. We won the B1G tourney last year which was amazing, but that will always feel like it wasn't a REAL reward for how well we have been playing in the regular season.

IBFan on January 18, 2022 @ 08:29 PM

Kofi got punked. He was absolutely overmatched and was frustrated. His fouls were stupid and he was out of control. You could tell he was going to get his third the moment 2nd half started, which he did. Then to prove a point as crowd booed he egged crowd on. He immediately fouled on next possession twice but the refs let it go, not to be denied next possession he picks up a stupid 4th. Immature. Omar killed momentum, crowd, and fired up Purdue even more. They are the better team, they played harder, they played smarter. They deserved the win.

Douglascountyillinifan on January 19, 2022 @ 08:32 AM

Meanwhile, on the offensive end of the court, he's being bumped, grabbed hit in the head, etc. Guess that's just "big ten basketball, right? Fact is, in their first two b1g road games, purdue shot 30 free throws total. Not counting the ones at the end when we were trying to put them on the line. They shot nearly that many in our game. Why was there no review and flagrant called when our guys took shots to the melon? From my perspective, they were allowed to play harder by the zebras.

Douglascountyillinifan on January 19, 2022 @ 08:32 AM

Meanwhile, on the offensive end of the court, he's being bumped, grabbed hit in the head, etc. Guess that's just "big ten basketball, right? Fact is, in their first two b1g road games, purdue shot 30 free throws total. Not counting the ones at the end when we were trying to put them on the line. They shot nearly that many in our game. Why was there no review and flagrant called when our guys took shots to the melon? From my perspective, they were allowed to play harder by the zebras.

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