Through the Trifocals

This is the week Illini fans look forward to a whole weekend of watching Big 10 Basketball. Parties are being planned as everyone hopes the Illini continue their long winning streak prior to the NCAA Tournament. <br><br> But not everyone is looking forward to the Big 10 Tournament. In fact, Illinisports wouldn't mind if it were cancelled or at least modified. His latest column discusses the pros and cons.

It is time for another Big Ten Tournament. These are exciting times for many of us. The winner of the tournament gets an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, giving everyone a new opportunity to make the field. Fans love the format and look forward to 3 or 4 days of cheering their teams. Corporations with something to sell find it profitable to purchase advertising for the television and radio broadcasts. And the media outlets look forward to great profitability.

So why do I wish there was no tournament? Why would I want to go against the grain of all those happy people? Please allow me to explain my position.

It is true that the Illini have benefitted on at least two occasions from a Big 10 tournament. The first year it was held, we used it as a confidence boost for some outstanding future teams. We became the darlings of the Big 10 by overcoming our losing record and whipping three excellent foes (all ranked in the top 25 nationally) to reach the finals. We lost that final game and failed to make the NCAA tournament, but we gained respect from competitors and the media, and we gained a belief in ourselves for our near-miraculous accomplishment. It was a thrilling week for the Illini, and future teams will be hard-pressed to improve on it.

We also benefitted this past year. We had a team that came within an eyelash of winning the Big 10 Championship, losing at Wisconsin in a heart-breaker. Led by Brian Cook and some precocious freshmen, we used the Big 10 Tournament as an opportunity to prove ourselves as champions. We won three straight games, earned the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament, and unfurled a new banner from the Assembly Hall rafters. Life was grand.

However, that success last year was followed by a second round loss to Notre Dame that knocked us out of the NCAA's, prematurely by most estimates. Some say our loss to Notre Dame resulted from bad coaching by Bill Self. He had become concerned about their center Torin Francis from his outstanding previous game, so Self ordered a double-team on Francis that left ND's 3-point shooters free from the arc. Also, some complain that Self was slow to change strategies in the face of a barrage of ND 3-point buckets.

Others will argue that we simply had an off game for truly we shot poorly that game. I remember Dee Brown's frustration as he couldn't even seem to score on his patented ultra-quick layups. And I remember with sadness how Brian Cook ended his fabled Illini career with uncharacteristic shot inaccuracy.

But there is no doubt in my mind that we were mentally and physically exhausted by that time. We had endured a long, arduous Big 10 regular season schedule, and we had then played three games in three days at an emotional and physical peak. It is almost impossible for any normal human being to exert that much energy for that long without having some down periods to let the body recuperate. And three games in three days, with so much on the line, is especially tiring regardless of a team's physical conditioning. After completing the tournament on a Sunday afternoon, we then had to recharge in time for a Thursday/Saturday NCAA format. By Saturday, we had nothing left to give.

This season, the Illini have nothing to prove except to our own egos. We are undisputed Big 10 Champions, so we don't absolutely have to win the tournament to feel good about ourselves. We don't need the tournament championship to the degree we did last year, so we are less hungry. And, as most will remember from preceding years, it appears the NCAA selection committee places more emphasis on season records than conference tournament results. Illinois did not improve their seeding by winning last year's Big 10 tournament, and it is doubtful they have anything else to prove to the selection committee this year.

One of the original arguments for holding a conference championship was that it prepared teams for the rigors of a tournament format. Personally, I think that was just an excuse to justify some early-round losses by Big 10 teams in the NCAA tournament. I see no value in the experience factor. After all, the NCAA format is two games per three days in any given week and not games on three or four straight days. Any benefit of dealing with media and fan interest in a tournament format is surely just repetition after all the televised games and important competitions everyone plays during the season.

There is only modest if any correlation between the teams that win conference tournaments and their success in the NCAA tournament. I have not seen specific statistics, so perhaps I am a little unfair in that assessment. But I remember outstanding Duke and Arizona teams winning NCAA championships after bowing out early in their conference tournaments. Surely, such exceptions indicate a need for further review, if nothing else.

Lou Henson, who has always been a master of understanding the psychology of basketball (and who is definitely deserving of Hall of Fame recognition), described accurately the cycles of ups and downs that teams experience throughout any given season. For example, a team often plays real well after a blowout loss, and it often plays poorly after a runaway victory or a highly emotional one.

A team has a small number of great games and a small number of poor games each year, with most games being somewhere in the middle between those extremes. The team that can win during the bad times and maintain a high level of success during the average times ends up with the best record. And the team that expends tremendous amounts of emotional energy over a given period of time always suffers a letdown right afterward.

When we look at all teams during all seasons, we will find that these cycles do indeed occur to all teams. One can argue that teams like St. Joseph's, who has completed the regular season unbeaten this year, has not been subjected to these emotional ups and downs. But if we were watching them closely throughout their entire seasons, we could detect degrees of success and failure, highs and lows, in their games. Stanford almost duplicated St. Joseph's accomplishment, but it's last victory was so unbelieveably spectacular, coming from behind 8 points to Washington State in the last 20 seconds, that it was not surprising to see them lose to Washington two days later. Even if they had won, they would have looked poor doing it.

We are talking about relativity now, not absolutes like rocket science. I am not trying to predict outcomes of events, and neither is Lou Henson. But one of many reasons why Illinois had not won an outright Big 10 Championship since 1952 was the fact that Henson decided to emphasize preparation for the NCAA tournament over winning a Big 10 Championship.

Please understand that Henson always wanted to win. But there are always several outstanding teams in the Big 10, and Henson believed there were only so many games one team can play at a peak level. Thus, he wanted to make sure there was something left in our tanks for the NCAA tournament. As an analogy with track, the regular season was the "qualifier", with us needing to be in the top four to reach the "finals", which was the NCAA Tournament. In contrast, Gene Keady was always driven to win the Big 10, and he was simultaneously accused of underachieving in the NCAA's. I agree with Henson that there might indeed be a correlation there.

I had the good fortune to witness some of our previous teams and players up close during their seasons. Starting with physical conditioning in early September and running through practices and games that lasted into March, basketball season is extremely long. It is even longer now as coaches can work with players in small groups during the early fall and spring, and longer still as most players are encouraged strongly to stay on campus to work out all summer.

Each year, players complain that the season is too long. Their bodies become tired and more prone to injuries and pains. Their minds become mush as they try to rise to an emotional peak for each game and then have to deal with the inevitable postgame adrenalin crash. They have the constant strain of dealing with fans, some excited and some upset as they make their way to their classes and other activities. Their studies require work when they are dead tired and at unusual times such as on buses, in hotels or in airports. Yes, the athletes are being given full ride scholarships to perform this year-round activity, but they have little if any down time where they can just relax and let their minds chill out from all the pressure.

Another factor to consider is the nature of our opponents in a Big 10 Tournament. I don't know about you, but I am sick of seeing the same faces all the time, and familiarity can breed contempt. I know at least some of the players are too because that is true every year. It is extremely hard to play the same team twice, let alone three times. A perfect example is the Flying Illini. We defeated Michigan twice by a significant amount during our glorious 1988-89 season, but then they beat us on one of our rare off days on their way to the NCAA championship. We were the better team, but we couldn't beat them three times in a row.

The psychology is against us no matter who we play in the tournament because we have already beaten all the other ten teams. All our opponents will desire payback, and we may take them less seriously because we have already proven ourselves against them. Other than maybe Penn State, any one of the other teams can beat us on a given day. Some would question my inclusion of Minnesota, but their coach Dan Monson has never beaten Illinois. Do you really think he will lay down without a fight? No way.

And what about Purdue and Ohio State? Were our victories at their places so decisive that we can guarantee another triumph? Were their athletes so mediocre that we can't imagine them beating us in a rubber match? Do you really want to watch Purdue attack our players with their defensive intensity? Do you really want to risk that OSU's outside shooters will shoot as poorly while spreading us out to open up the inside for their big men? I don't. It is not that I fear them, but I am tired of looking at them.

By this time of year, we have been scouted so completely by all other Big 10 teams that they know every subtle nuance of our individual and team play. Sure, we know them just as well, but the advantage in this case always goes to the underdog because their intensity and focus will be enhanced by their degree of desperation. Our focus may be split between the Big 10 Tournament and our guaranteed place in the NCAA Tournament. Personally, I would like to see some new "meat", schools that don't have the time to scout us so completely.

Yes, I will root for the Illini to breeze through the Big 10 Tournament unscathed. But what if we should lose? Will we really be hurt that much by it? Actually, it might be a blessing since we would then have time to recooperate physically and mentally for the NCAA Tournament. We could then have a reason to prove the loss a fluke, thus inspiring us to get recharged emotionally for a successful run in the NCAA's. And perhaps our loss would allow a surprise Big 10 team to make the NCAA field, providing one additional opportunity to improve our conference image.

Sure, a few fans might have their egos bruised, especially those who like to brag on other teams' fan forums or with friends from other schools. And a small number of extremists will use it as an excuse to lambast our coaches and players for their imperfections. But such bruising is minor and temporary. Winning the season championship is much more a tribute to our quality than one loss in a post season tournament is an indictment.

Personally, I wouldn't mind if the Big 10 Tournament were discontinued. I know it won't be because too many people are making too much money to eliminate it. But I really don't think they are considering the needs of the players. At the least, I would recommend the format be changed to a Monday/Tuesday, Friday/Sunday format so the players can get some needed rest between games.

In the meantime, I hope we all enjoy watching the tournament. And I hope those who attend the games will help bring us home proud. But if we should happen to lose, it really could be a blessing in disguise. And it will make us hungry for the NCAA tournament. Either way, we are winners.

Go Illini!


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