Dozens of multi-millionaire coaches expound daily on their basketball knowledge. They are intelligent observers with deep insight into the business.
Less well-compensated media experts research the scene, and have accumulated 20, 40 and 60 years of knowledge.
And then there are gamblers, whose livelihood is dependent on being more than half-right.
All these have one thing in common with the fans. When it comes to basketball, we don’t know a spittoon from a chamber pot. We’re all wrong.
Even when we’re right, it is probably for the wrong reason.
There are too many dynamics, too many moving parts, too many personalities, too many officiating discrepancies, too many varying systems.
When it comes to predicting outcomes, we’re all guessing.
Take one aspect: jump-shooting. By their nature, shooters are streaky.
They may be upset by the ref’s last call, or worried about a girlfriend breakup. They may have flunked a test or feel a touch of the flu. They may be ultra-confident or feel doubt creeping in. Sometimes they’re in rhythm and something they’re forced. Sometimes the legs are springy, and sometimes the legs are tired.
If you find a .500 shooter, he (she) will go 2 for 10 one night and 8 for 10 another. Too many variables.
Representing these extremes is UI scoring leader Brandon Paul. He is deemed the team’s biggest asset when he’s draining threes (he shot 41.2 percent through Gonzaga, and 27.8 since). He is compared to NBA first-rounders one day and to D-Leaguers on another.
Paul was the reason Illinois rocked Gonzaga (35 points) and Butler (20) but, when the Illini tumbled Jan. 12 against today’s foe, Wisconsin, he went 1 for 11 and scored a season-low eight points. At Michigan State on Thursday, coach John Groce broke down the better individual efforts and excluded him. Paul played just 24 minutes in the game.
This is just one player falling into the unpredictable category. As a team, the Illini squad that led the nation in treys in December is shooting 26.1 percent on treys in eight Big Ten games. And that shortcoming isn’t nearly as serious as a porous defense that has allowed 37 layups and dunks in the last two games.
No team is a better example of streakiness than Illinois, which started 15-3 last season and finished 2-14, or started 13-1 this season and has currently lost 6 of 8.
In assessing the Big Ten’s pre-Christmas scorecard, it was viewed as possible that Illinois could reach NCAA level by sweeping — or at least winning five of six — against seemingly weak foes Wisconsin, Purdue and Northwestern.
Now, having lost to all three, Illinois welcomes the Badgers on Super Bowl Sunday needing to beat all three to obtain a split.
Looking back, Wisconsin and Northwestern had lost their best players, Josh Gasser and Drew Crawford, respectively, and entered January as essentially starless. That hasn’t changed. The Badgers invade the Assembly Hall with one superstar, and that is coach Bo Ryan. During his term, he’s winning Big Ten games at a better rate than anybody. On the court, no Wisconsin player is averaging quite 12 points. The Badgers, like the Boilermakers and Wildcats, try to win by producing a sum effort that is greater than the individual parts.
Take Purdue. Matt Painter’s crew opened with a loss to Bucknell, ran afoul of Eastern Michigan and have been sporadic at best. In their last two, they suffered the worst home loss in Boilermaker history, 97-60, to Indiana, and fell by 15 at Northwestern. This same Purdue team beat a 13-1 Illinois team 68-61 to open Big Ten play.
OK, you might have picked that one correctly. Or maybe you didn’t. It was strictly a guess in either case. Whatever we think we know on Thursday is outdated by Saturday. If you’ve read this far expecting to be informed, you’re going to be disappointed. I attend games to see what happens, not to substantiate my beliefs. I just plain don’t know. I’m not surprised by results because I always expect the unexpected.
Take Missouri. Even with Phil Pressey missing repeatedly and shooting 3 for 19 in St. Louis, the Tigers appeared dominant in defeating the Illini 82-73. At 10-1 they looked like an Elite Eight team. Well, they’ve lost all four road games since, including a 15-point downer at Ole Miss and a 31-point collapse at Florida.
Or take Illinois State. The nearby Redbirds traveled to Louisville and fought the Cardinals into the final seconds. They probably deserved three free throws (to possibly tie it) on an uncalled foul at :01, and were 9-3 entering Missouri Valley play. What happened? They lost six straight. Six! And just when they righted their ship, the Redbirds blew a 16-point lead at Bradley and tumbled 83-77.
If some of you think you have it figured out, you don’t. As stated, there are too many moving parts, too many psychological misfits at work, too many 50-50 calls that can go either way.
Enough already. I confess. I don’t know what’s going on. And I haven’t met anyone else who does.
— The UI’s Mike Thomas leaves for Chicago a week from Monday for discussions with Big Ten athletic directors about a more geographical divisional realignment and the possibility of scheduling at least nine conference football games. The arrival of Maryland and Rutgers in 2014 has them thinking.
— In order to meet with the UI Board of Trustees in May, Thomas is obligated to have a firm funding model for 80 percent of the Assembly Hall renovation. That could be roughly $128 million in assured financing. Thomas reports no hiccups so far, saying the fundraising is on schedule.
— Work will be underway this week to remove the Memorial Stadium scoreboard. Daktronics will install a much larger (36 by 96 feet) video display and audio system, not to mention video ribbons and smaller scoreboards for those who are blocked from seeing the big one. This is a $7 million operation.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.