2008-09 Game #15: Illinois State 86, Jays Much Less
The response to the Jays' 22-point loss in what was (so far) the biggest game of the year was eminently predictable. Because taken on the surface, that was what my old college roommate used to call "An ass kicking buffet." Illinois State kicked the Jays posterior, and then came back for seconds, and thirds, and later, dessert. The Redbirds were faster, more athletic, more fundamentally sound, played better defense, and hit every open shot. They were better in every aspect of the game. Period.
Its becoming a disturbing trait of this team that when they don't shoot well, the rest of their game goes into the crapper too. When Booker Woodfox is hitting shots and P'Allen is making plays, they rebound, play defense and beat good teams like Dayton and St. Joes. When they have an off night shooting, they get outrebounded by a million, play Bullfighter Defense, and lose the game.
Their energy for the other aspects of the game come from offense, which is not a recipe for success, because you're going to have nights where shots don't fall. Those are the nights that separate the good teams from the great teams. Do you win the games when you shoot 35% from the field and only make a couple of threes? The teams that do are the ones who win league championships.
All of that is true, and its an incredibly frustrating fact to choke down. But here's what else is true: The Jays can't play a worse game than that, and yet, for 30 minutes, Illinois State couldn't put them away. Despite shooting lights out, despite playing in front of their first sold out crowd of the year, despite being quicker and more athletic, the game was one or two possessions from going the Jays way for 3/4 of the game.
Sure, it didn't look that way, not when Illinois State is running 4-on-1 fastbreaks seemingly every other possession and throwing down alley-oops like most teams throw down layups. But the fact of the matter is, there were numerous times when the lead was only four -- and the lead was never larger than 11 until the last ten minutes, when things began getting away from the Jays.
Illinois State is damn good, as I noted in October when I pegged them to finish third in the league. I wrote at the time that "Eldridge is good enough to carry the Redbirds many nights, and he alone makes them a team no one will want to play come Arch Madness...much less in January and February." The junior year version of Eldridge is better than I, or anyone, likely imagined. He's explosive, at times unstoppable and seems to have harnessed his immense talent and become the best player in the league, with no debate. He not only is good enough to carry the team, he's good enough to make the Redbirds the best team in the league.
In late February when the teams rematch, will things break the same way? I understand the people who believe the Jays have minimal chances to beat the Redbirds anytime, anyplace, regardless of venue. They looked SCARY last night. But don't forget, this team fell behind by 15 at Missouri State. I'd like to see a tape of that to find out how in Gods name that happened. Were they playing 3-on-5? Did they play the game in La-Z-Boys? Did they eat bad clams before the game?
What if Eldridge and Champ Oguchi don't make shots from 35 feet away in Omaha? What if instead its the Jays' shooters feeding off the crowd and making those sort of shots?
Maybe you don't buy that Eldridge and Oguchi will ever not make those shots. Fair enough. But remember, when they were putting on such a display in front of 10,000 partisan folks, the Jays were in striking distance for 3/4 of the game. Put them in front of 17,000 folks screaming against them, and maybe they still make those shots, maybe not. But the Jays probably make more of the open looks they'll have -- and they had open looks last night. If those go in...I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin'.
In the meantime, do me a favor and forget the 45-28 deficit on the boards. Forget the flashbacks to the NBA of the 1980s. It was just one game, the Jays are still 12-3 and 2-1 in the league, and they still accomplished what most fans expected on the road trip -- a split. Protect home court, win the road games against lesser teams, and you're in good shape. Despite what Oguchi tells the Chicago media, that team isn't going undefeated. Not overall, not in the league. Not even the best SIU team of their current run managed to do that.
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