There was one moment in this game that stuck with me. No, not Coleman's 10th rebound (to get his triple-double) shown in Holly's photo right there. Great moment, but that's not it. It was an interaction between two Syracuse players. I'm now going to make too much of it.
I've written about "culture" a fair bit over the last few years. Brad Underwood and Bret Bielema talk about it all the time, and they're the winningest coaches I've covered in both sports, so I'm paying attention. If they say culture is vitally important, I want to know more.
Remember the Michigan State win last January when Kofi was out? We won 56-55 in an ugly game. Andre Curbelo was out as well (he had returned from the concussion but then tested positive for Covid). Michigan State was #10 at the time, we were missing Kofi and Belo, and we won. The video posted on social media after the game showed Underwood telling the locker room "that was a culture win right there - a culture win."
What did he mean by that? Build the right culture around your program and you can win a game against #10 when your two preseason All Americans are out. The younger guys will step up (Luke Goode was 3-4 from three in that game), your senior leaders will lead (Trent and Da'Monte), and the machine keeps humming even though key pieces are missing.
It's what Underwood spent several years building. After his first season seven players transferred out. He had found two freshmen to build around (Trent and Da'Monte), two upperclassmen who could bridge us to the next roster (Aaron Jordan and Kipper Nichols), and then went out and found "culture" guys like Ayo Dosunmu and Andres Feliz and Giorgi Bezhanishvili. By year five, everything was humming.
Now to the moment from tonight. In the second half, Syracuse freshman guard Judah Mintz tried to lead one of his teammates on the break but threw it over his head and out of bounds. Jim Boeheim called a timeout. Senior guard Symir Torrence, in a very Trent or Da'Monte or Feliz way, went up to the freshmen to settle him a bit. From my view, it appeared to be a very standard "you're pressing - just play within yourself" kind of senior-leading-the-freshman moment.
Mintz wasn't having it. He shoved his hands away and said some not so nice words to Torrence. A freshman telling off a senior? And the coach standing right there and seemingly doing nothing about it? Now I have something to watch the rest of the game.
For the rest of the second half I watched body language. I watched players on both benches talk to coaches. I watched teammates interact with each other. Yes, things were going well for Illinois and no-so-great for Syracuse, but you could really see a striking difference. The Illini players? Connected and communicating. The Syracuse players? Maybe they all just met each other right before the game because they barely talked at all.
Picture some meeting at work where your team is going to meet with the marketing team. And when the five members of the marketing team enter the room, you can immediately feel the tension. They had to have all been fighting in the elevator on the way up to the 11th floor. You're team is really trying to build some positive momentum in the meeting but every member of the marketing team is just counting the minutes until the meeting is over.
So when that one Syracuse player exploded at the officials and got a technical (and then exploded at the official for calling a technical and got a second technical), I was the least surprised person in the building. That was the entire vibe from the Syracuse team. It just felt like no one wanted to be there.
On the Illini bench? Players interacting. Coaches getting their attention the moment they'd yell something. An entire bench pulling for Coleman to get his 10th rebound. Again, I understand that wins are a lot of fun and losses are zero fun but this was the Syracuse vibe when Illinois was leading by five. They were playing hard, but they didn't seem to enjoy it (or each other) very much.
And that's what I'm getting at here. This wasn't an effort thing. They know their zone and they play it well. There was just something missing. Camaraderie. Being on the same page. An entire team focused on one goal and pushing each other to get there.
This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for the culture that Brad Underwood has built around Illinois basketball. Syracuse clearly doesn't have it, and Syracuse clearly had no chance tonight.
+ I really liked Brad Underwood's quote about Coleman Hawkins tonight. How he's really good "when he tries to hit singles and not home runs." That's such a great way to explain my experience as an Illini fan watching Coleman. When he's taking huge swings and not coming anywhere close to the ball, I get frustrated and wonder if he's ever going to turn into the player Underwood has been predicting he'll become for the last two seasons. And then he'll get in a groove and rake like drive after line drive and you're convinced there's no way he returns for his senior season.
That's probably too harsh. I'm not Ron Guenther slamming a table at the Big Ten Tournament and screaming "Dammit Warren!" (Carter). Coleman is simply the player oozing all this potential and as a fan I get impatient wanting to see it in the form of Continental Tire Main Event MVP. He'll have an 0-4 game with three strikeouts and a pop-up and I'll wonder if he'll ever put it together. And then he finds his groove (like tonight) and rope single after single with some of them finding the gap for doubles and I'm all in again.
More singles, Coleman. Tonight was just fantastic.
+ I noted this on Twitter but during his in-arena radio appearance after the game, Underwood said that there's been a bug going around the team. If you're wondering why Dain Dainja only played nine minutes tonight, Underwood said he's been sick and missed "four practices." He also noted that Coleman Hawkins and other players had been battling it and that several other players and staffers (including his son Tyler) had been dealing with it.
Hopefully all players will be clear of it by this weekend. Because we play #22 Maryland on Friday night and then #2 Texas on Tuesday.
+ This is one of the zanier box scores you'll see. Imagine if we had this conversation before the game:
"Hi, I'm from the future and I know what happens tonight."
"Oh yeah? Well tell me, do we win?"
"I'll let you guess. One game after his 8-9 performance, Skyy Clark is going to go 0-10. And Terrence Shannon Jr. is only going to be 5-17 from the floor. The Illini will shoot 36% from the floor and 28% from three."
"So we lose?"
"No, Illinois wins by 29."
+ One last thing but it's really dumb.
I'm looking at the box score on my screen in the second half and I see that Syracuse's leading scorer (at the time) is Benny Williams. But they can't fit his full first name and last name in the graphic so this is how it shows up in the box score:
If you see "Williams, Benn" on a basketball box score and think of Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn... you might be One Of The Seventeen.