Is there anything worse for a sports fan than seeing your team take the passive, play-not-to-lose role in a game? Well, yeah, if you’re team really sucks and doesn’t play hard…
But if you’re team is basically good, competitive, and tough to beat in most situations, it’s exceptionally frustrating to watch said team adopt a passive approach. Ten men behind the ball in soccer, the prevent defense or 3rd-and-long draw play in football, the milk-the-clock stall ball in hoops… Last night it was a last second loss by the Illini to Penn State: a game the orange-and-blue should have won. Illinois was the superior team for about 2/3 of the game, but with about five minutes left to go and an eight point lead, Coach decided it was time to run the stall ball. PSU went on a 12-3 run during that time and won on a last second shot. Sure, a few more free throws would’ve iced it, or a little better D at the end, but you could tell by watching — the Nittany Lions had the momentum, the Illini suddenly looked unhinged, and the motion stalled. Again.
By my reckoning, that’s four losses you attribute to end-of-game passivity and too much emphasis on the shot clock. Count them: vs. Clemson, at Michigan, at Michigan State, and this last game at Penn State. So what’s the answer? Adjust your strategy, Coach! If you’re team is playing well by taking a good look when it comes, getting out in transition, not worrying about running 20 seconds of clock before looking at the basket, let them play. Just let them play.
Truth is, Illinois really started to back it off with about 7 or 8 minutes left. And that’s way, way, too early. Sure, if you get inside of 3 minutes and you have a 7-10 lead, run the clock. But not 5 minutes. Certainly not 7-8 minutes. Not with the three point shot and the momentum swings you see in college hoops. And not with this team that only has one legitimate dribble-drive threat.
I told a co-worker today it was the college hoops equivalent of the Chicago Bears. He immediately concurred.
The local sportswriters were apologetic for the team in their assessments today. Remember, they wrote, no one thought this was a 20-win team, let alone a tourney team. OK, true enough. But please, for the love of the Chief, let’s not go down whimpering at the end of the year. If you’re going to lose, go out fighting. Don’t wuss around on the perimeter waiting for the shot clock to expire and let the other team take it you.
For once, Illinois has a team that could actually benefit from the typical stingy officiating in the post-season. So make the adjustment, Coach, and let them play. Go to it, boys. Play hard and carpe the damned diem.