Smile Politely

The Spoiler

Illini Nation is lucky to be unfamiliar with its new role. It’s the role Northwestern’s played in basketball for decades. Indiana does it in football.

We are now the team most likely to ruin another team’s season. We did it last night. It felt good.

I ran into Dan Flannell at halftime (which is more usual than unusual), and he observed that a loss to Illinois would kill Minnesota’s NCAA Tournament chances. Losing to the Illini is a “bad loss,” especially at home. That’s how far the program has fallen. But no matter how bad Illini basketball gets, it still seems to win at Minnesota.

Games at The Barn are, for one particular reason, especially memorable for me: The Illini media pool sits in the first row of the upper deck.  Jerry & Brian, Marcus, Steve and Shannon sat to my left on bleacher seats. The 1928 table top accommodates some ancient electrical wiring. The wi-fi is open to everyone, which means it doesn’t work for anyone (a tragedy of the commons). So there’s nothing to do but watch basketball.

It’s a great view. And over the years, The Game at Minnesota has proved to be the most important game of the season. That was true when Frank made the lay-up in 2002, to win a share of the league title.

It was true in 2012, in a bizarre loss that sealed Bruce Weber’s ouster. (C’mon, own up, how many of you were rooting for the Gophers in those last five seconds?)

It was true last year, when Sam McLaurin and Tracy Abrams resurrected a flailing team, and steered it toward The Tournament.

Two plays will likely stick in my mind from the 2014 game: Kendrick Nunn’s feed to a driving Nnanna Egwu, and Ray Rice’s downfield block for Nunn’s fastbreak slam. In the latter sequence, Gopher Joey King was in hot pursuit, and good position to make a play on Nunn’s drive. Ray ran ahead of King, spread his wings, and slowed his pace. It was a smart play, but memorable for its perfect, understated execution.

The former sequence was unremarkable, except that it involved  Nnanna Egwu. “A driving Nnanna Egwu” is not a phrase I recall writing, or seeing, anywhere before today.

Nnanna kinda admitted that he’s now looking to score. Perhaps, from his perspective, there’s no obvious difference between Nnanna 2.0 and its predecessor, Nnanna Vista. The earlier version was choppy. True to its name, Nnanna Vista spent a lot of time watching. Nnanna Vista ran toward potential ball screens, but didn’t ever quite set them. After not quite setting them, he rarely popped or rolled. In the last two games, Nnanna 2.0 charged to the basket, or sought a kickout from a dribble-driving guard.

When I asked about Nnanna 2.0 after Saturday’s Ohio State game, Nnanna gave a non-responsive answer (“every game is different”). But Wednesday night in Minneapolis, he went along with the theory. Or at least, he didn’t reject it.

I got on the overnight bus to Chicago even before that video could upload. I was pressed for time. And by the time I woke up somewhere on the Edens Expressway, I’d already forgotten one of Nnanna’s best moves of the night. So I guess some great Barn memories don’t stick as well. But when I opened the folder containing the pictures and videos I snapped, I was reminded of the defensive play in which Nnanna got a sideline warning from Lamont Simpson (who’s observed Nnanna’s sideline antics for three years, and has seen enough).

John Groce called for Jon Ekey to take Nnanna’s place on the baseline. Ekey timed the inbounds pass perfectly, and forced a turnover.  Nnanna ran to hug Ekey, and congratulate his awesome play. I thought that was cool.

Here are some other random observations, in video form.

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