Remember Everyone Like You Remember Taylor Hawkins

Like most people, I woke up on March 26, 2022 to the sudden and unexpected news of Taylor Hawkins passing. At first I couldn’t believe it, but as I continued to scroll through Twitter it was all that I saw. A man whose spirit for music and life was so great it drew thousands of people into the world of Foo Fighters music was gone too soon.

While laying there in my bed wrangling with the emotions of someone that you felt like you knew suddenly passing, my natural empathy and sympathy for his family, friends, and bandmates kicked in. I wondered the emotions that they were experiencing, getting that sudden news that they had lost a loved one thousands of miles away from home, hours before a concert, off doing the thing he loved most. It’s almost always more tragic when someone so full of life leaves us unexpectedly. However, it is even more heartbreaking when the cause of death seems so preventable, but that’s what has inspired me to write.

I was not a really huge fan of the Foo Fighters. I had seen them in concert, which was absolutely amazing, over 20 years ago, and I have a few of their albums. I was never really drawn to their music as much as I was to their authenticity and ability to connect with people. Quite simply, I bought their music because I liked them as people. Watching them play or listening to them give an interview was always so much more engaging to me than actually listening to their music. Front and center to all of that was Dave Grohl, but right behind him, both figuratively and literally, was Taylor Hawkins. He seemed to be one of the few people that could match Grohl’s quick wit and boundless energy. It’s why the first person I thought of when I heard the news was Dave Grohl. My heart broke for him, and I don’t even know him. However, when you listen to interviews with Grohl and Hawkins, you do feel like you know them. I wasn’t sad about the future of the Foo Fighters; I felt a personal sadness that someone so likeable was dealing with tragedy. Even though he has been through this with Kurt Cobain, the relationship he had with Taylor Hawkins was so much deeper and genuine. It’s the same sadness I feel when an actual friend of mine loses a loved one, and it’s a sadness I hope that Hawkins’ death can serve as a reminder to all of us that we need to remember that everyone who dies has loved ones that mourn them.

Too many times in our country we become callous and judgemental of what we see and hear on the news. Unfortunately, Hawkins had a combination of illegal drugs in his system that likely caused his death. While the world mourns for him and those close to him, nearly 70,000 people die annually of drug issues without so much as a passing thought from others. Those that do make the news and do garner a thought from those that don’t know them, they typically get a callous response of who cares, or they got what they deserved. Is that how you felt when you heard the news about Taylor Hawkins? Why not? Did you really know him? Or, were you sad because he somehow contributed to moments of joy in your life?

Now, it is possible and likely that you’ve never met most people that have a drug overdose and fatally as a result. I am one of those people, and I am thankful for that. However, it doesn’t mean that those people didn’t bring joy to others around them in their lives, and that they shouldn’t be treated with the same sadness as the loss of a celebrity. I doubt people would say Hawkins’ death did society a favor, but if I asked a random person about a stranger overdosing on the other side of town that they had never met I probably wouldn’t have to go too far to get that response from someone I know. To me, that is really sad, and I hope that we can change that as a society.

Our modern world lacks empathy of any sort. I fear that technology is making us feel so much less connected to people emotionally, despite bringing us closer in many ways. I hope the next time you see or hear that someone has died from a drug related incident, you think about them in a positive way. They more than likely did many things to help society, just like the celebrities you mourn. The random stranger that dies from a drug related incident could have bagged peoples groceries at one point, put a roof on many houses, kept the books for an important company, provided health care to those in needs, or cleaned your dishes at a restaurant. Regardless of what they did, they were a person that was connected to others, and those other people left behind have the same emotions as Dave Grohl or others that you pretend to know.

Taylor Hawkins death is a tragedy. He’ll forever be the guy with the long blonde hair thrashing around on the drums and smiling in some of my favorite music videos of all time. I’m going to miss listening to him on interviews. I’m going to miss the smile that reminded us why we all wanted to be a rock star at some point. However, I’m also going to take his tragic death as a reminder to feel this way towards those that I don’t know and never met. Any life that is lost before its natural time is a tragedy. Please remember that the next time you cast judgement on someone’s habits. Everyone has a reason for the choices they make. It is not your responsibility to cast judgement on them, but it is your responsibility to try and show compassion to those around us, whether you ‘know’ them or not. I believe that Taylor Hawkins would want that as his legacy, and I know we would be a much better society if we all acted that way.

The Real Reason I’m Excited About the 2022 Cardinals

Yes, Albert Pujols is back where it all began. And yes, I’m am all sorts of nostalgic and excited to see him playing for the Cardinals again. He is the reason that both of my boys have worn #5 throughout their entire baseball playing careers, even though they both only have faint memories of him actually playing with the team. However, he is not the reason I’m excited about this Cardinals season; well, actually he sort of is.

The line on the Cardinals win total for the season is a 85.5. That number seems low to me, and I’m going to explain why. I am very aware of the questions the Cardinals have with their pitching. Their ace is currently out with shoulder issues, which are never good for pitchers, and most people that follow the Cardinals have learned to never believe what they hear from the team’s medical staff. Couple that with the fact your second best starter from a season ago is 40 years old, and the depth of the rotation is a concern. However, the Cardinals will feature a ton of groundball pitchers that will have the games best defense behind them, and that should be a recipe for success.

Dakota Hudson is one of the best groudball pitchers in baseball and had a full offseason after working his way back from Tommy John surgery at the end of last year. Miles Mikolas finally looks healthy, and Steven Matz is a groundball machine when he is right. Add in the fifth starter the has an incredible 101MPH sinker, and the recipe is set for the Cardinals to give themselves a chance to be in every game.

The bullpen certainly has some question marks as well. Giovanni Gallegos might be the most under appreciated reliever in all of baseball the past three years, and Genesis Cabrera has been extremely effective over that same stretch. However, after that, things look like they can get pretty interesting in the Cardinal bullpen. They brought back TJ McFarland, who truly saved their season last year, but the club and fans should not expect him to replicate the same stats he put up down the stretch last year. After all, this was a man that was released by a horrible Nationals team last season. Yet, the Cardinals have a lot of intrigue and upside in the bullpen as well. Instead of bringing in overpriced, fading veterans like they have in the past, the Cardinals made a number of under the radar acquisitions and internal promotions that have me more excited to see how things play out than anxious to see how they fall apart.

This Cardinal team is one that could settle right around those 85.5 wins, or be one that really exceeds that number. I think it will be the latter. Did you think you would ever watch a team where Yadier Molina was the worst defensive player on the field? Well, that will likely be the case for the 2022 Cardinals, and that is not a knock against Molina. at all. The Cardinals have 5 Gold Glove winner from 2021 returning to their lineup. That doesn’t include guys like Paul DeJong who has been a finalist in the past, and Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina who have both won the award multiple times. Dylan Carlson will likely be a finalist this season as well in right field. I’m so excited to watch this Cardinals defense help inflate their pitchers numbers above their projections. Yet, that still isn’t the reason I’m really excited for this season.

Like I said at the top, I’m excited about Pujols return to the Cardinals, but I’m more excited because the Cardinals for the first time in a decade have a legitimate offense and bench. In recent years, the Cardinals have relied on excellent pitching and defense to scratch and claw their way into a playoff spot, only to be eliminated by teams with more offensive firepower and late inning options off the bench. This year, I am extremely excited about what the Cardinals have and can feature coming off their bench.

In recent years past, the Cardinals have identified younger players they wanted in their lineup and simply cleared a path for them to get a lot of at bats. That formula has played out with mixed results. It took multiple seasons for Tyler O’Neill to show the promise that he had teased for so long. After watching the Cardinals consistently trade away good outfield production, it seems that Harrison Bader has rounded out into a consistent major league hitter. Dylan Carlson was not going ot meet the expectations of his prospect rankings in his first full season, but those at bats seem to have him primed for a big year in 2022.

Entering this season, it seemed natural that the Cardinals would just gift at bats to some of their touted prospects Juan Yepez, Lars Nootbar, and Nolan Gorman. In typical Cardinal fashion, they would hype these guys up, only to see them struggle and be left with no internal options to resolve the hole in their lineup. The past few seasons, the Cardinals offensive bench options have been absolutely pathetic. With the adoption of the universal DH, it seemingly forced teams like the Cardinals to go and seek out proven offensive bats, and I love what the Cardinals did. Instead of overpaying at the position or just gifting at bats to unproven guys, the front office went out and got a formidable veteran platoon of Albert Pujols and Corey Dickerson. If deployed properly, it is not unreasonable to safely expect 25 home runs and 80 RBI from that spot. That is solid production that exceeds any projections of the young guys above as rookies.

Now, I’m all for the Albert Pujols nostalgia tour that features him at DH every game and reaching 700 career home runs sometime in September in front of a sold out stadium. I’d love to go the ballpark and just know that I’m going to see #5 in the lineup, regardless of who the Cardinals are facing on the mound, but that is not what is best for him or the team. The Cardinals and their rookie manager, Ollie Marmol, need to realize the weapon that they have and deploy him properly. That goes for everyone on the bench. The Cardinals offense should be one of the best in baseball this season, but with the questionable pitching, I expect the Cardinals to need to score late in baseball games to exceed that projected 85.5 wins. The Cardinal bench is why I am excited and believe they can do that.

With the three batter mininum rule, teams cannot avoid certain pinch hitters coming off the bench like they could in the past. Therefore, if a team goes to a left handed reliever late in a game, the Cardinals can counter with Albert Pujols, who still hits left handed pitching really well. Conversely, if a team comes in with a hard throwing right hander, Lars Nootbar from the left side is a great option. A right hander with a good slider would seem to play right into the hands of Corey Dickerson. Getting outs 22-27 against the Cardinals should be a big challenge for any team this year. Couple that with the fact you have versatile players like Edmundo Sosa that can fill in at any infield spot and Nootbar that can play any outfield spot, and Marmol should be very calculated but aggressive deploying his bench. While Nootbar is better at the corners, Carlson and O’Neill can shift to CF when Bader is facing a tough right hander late in games. Also, Nootbar and Sosa provide good baserunning and decent speed options if Dickerson or Pujols are on the basepaths late in a close game.

The 2022 Cardinals should be a very exciting offensive team to watch. That hasn’t been the case much in the last eight or so seasons in St. Louis. They have a new manager that has talked about being aggressive and embracing a lot of the new philosophies in the game. While the Cardinals are not the youngest team, they now have solid options to play guys in the field while allowing a regular a chance to DH or take a day off all together without seeing much dip in production. And oh yeah, if the Dickerson and Pujols platoon isn’t working out well, you have young guys like Yepez and Gorman who only stand to benefit from getting more seasoning in AAA. x

While the Cardinals frustrated many, including myself, by not going out and addressing the pitching concerns by adding another proven starter or reliever, they quietly have put together a championship level bench. That is something that has been missing for over a decade in St. Louis. When you go back and look at some of the great Cardinal moments from 2011-2014, a lot of bench players were involved. Those guys tend to be the difference in teams that make the playoffs and teams that win in the playoffs. The Cardinals have a distinguished playoff history of finding a way to rip teams hearts out late in games, and I look forward to seeing that again this season with their stacked bench.

Don’t Judge Someone For Smelling Like Marijuana

Staying home during Spring Break while others go off on luxurious family vacations is nothing new for me. It’s just part of spending a life in education and working for intrinsic satisfaction versus the nice paychecks. I’m not bashing or jealous of others that get to do those things, but this year is even a little more disheartening because the weather in Northern Indiana calls for rain almost every single day. I can handle cold weather, but I at least want to get outside a bit during break.

In order to avoid complete cabin fever during this time and as a way to earn some extra income, I decided to take on a new endeavor: Door Dash. I have always loved driving and listening to the radio or music, so I thought I’d step my toe into these waters to see if it was a worthwhile way to make a little extra money while doing something I enjoy. Turns out, I really enjoy it. On a completely different side note, as someone who just figured out how and started listening to podcasts and who has never taken an Uber before, it is pretty darn easy and self-explanatory. However, the one thing that this new experience has done is opened my eyes a little more to the world of marijuana, legalization, and the impact it has on those that I am around on a daily basis.

As a Door Dash driver, I never know where that next pick-up and drop off is going to take me. I have been in some great neighborhoods, but I have also been in some really interesting apartment complexes. Places quite honestly, I never would go or visit if I weren’t getting paid to do it. Going there during the daytime or evening, I’ve never felt unsafe or worried, but there is one thing that has stood out almost every time I visit the majority of lower rent apartment complexes; the smell of marijuana is overbearing.

When it comes to marijuana usage and smoking, I have absolutely no problem with it. I enjoy drinking alcohol, so why should my vice that intoxicates, clouds judgement, and dulls the senses be any less frowned upon than another? However, I started thinking a bit more about this as I’ve been in and out of multiple apartment complexes lately. When I drink, the alcohol is going directly into my body. My actions might impact others around me, but the effects of my drinking do not impact anyone else’s body or social status. And, the reason I bring up social status is because after visiting these apartment complexes I will never look at anyone who smells like marijuana the same way again, and I challenge you to do the same.

As an educator, and now school director, at a school that works primarily with the at-risk population, it is not uncommon to smell marijuana in my building on a regular basis. Working with adults, I don’t make a big deal out of it, but I do ask that they not smell like that when they return to the building. What they do on their own time is their own business, and I don’t want anyone judging what I do outside of work. When I smell that odor on my students, I assumed it was because they had smoked or gotten a ride to school with someone who was. I didn’t want to judge them, but in the back of my head I always wondered if that was necessary before 9:00 in the morning. It all seemed pretty simple to me, until I started going into these apartment complexes where most of our students might live.

When I arrive at a lot of these places and start walking towards the buildings, I can usually already smell the odor of marijuana in the air. By the time I get inside the building to drop off the food at the door, sometimes the smell is overbearing. I haven’t seen anyone smoking, so it is coming from inside someone’s apartment, but my point is that it is impacting anyone that lives in that building. A number of times, I can still smell the marijuana on myself and in my car for a good amount of time after leaving those buildings. Again, as an adult, it doesn’t bother me, but I’m not the one living there. While I might enjoy a good contact buzz, I can escape back to my own world; and more importantly, my kids aren’t living there.

I have been a strong supporter for full legalization of marijuana ever since states started moving in that direction years ago. If alcohol and tobacco are legal in our country, why not marijuana? I support anyone’s decision to do whatever they want with their health and their body. I believe that each person should have to own and deal with the consequences of their decisions, but who are we to say what is ok to put in your own body and what isn’t? However, I will say that I have been very appreciative over the last 15 years as more states and areas went to banning all smoking indoors. Again, not because I was necessary worried about my health from second-hand smoke, but because I was annoyed by the smell it would leave behind on me and my clothes.

Coming of age in the late 90’s and 2000’s, it was just standard procedure to go out to bars and have fun with friends. There was also a standard procedure that involved as soon as you got home throwing all of your clothes that you were wearing into a pile and jumping into the shower to rinse off the smell of all the second-hand smoke. Important decisions consisted of deciding to wear your coat into the bar on a frigid evening or forgoing the shower and just washing all of your sheets the next morning instead. These are things that today’s generation will never have to contemplate, along with worrying about being exposed to dangerous second-hand smoke. However, now my eyes have been opened to the world of marijuana smoking, and the impacts the lack of legalization is may be having on others.

Dropping off food in Indiana, which will likely be the last state to ever legalize marijuana, has made me contemplate even more why it should be legalized, but its use regulated more carefully. There are countless times in public or at school where I walk by someone and catch an odor of marijuana. Naturally, I thought that they were the ones that had been smoking. However, after my recent experiences I will no longer be making that broad assumption. It’s impossible to live in most apartment complexes these days without someone around you smoking marijuana, which makes it nearly impossible that your clothing and personal items won’t smell the same.

When I was first married, our neighbors in the apartment below us smoked cigarettes all the time. I used to get irritated because per the leasing agreement they couldn’t smoke in the apartment, so they would go out into the stairwell. Therefore, our apartment, specifically our bedroom, would frequently smell like secondhand smoke, and I would be paranoid that my clothing would make it appear that it was myself that was the smoker. The smell of marijuana is even more potent and transferrable to clothing. I can’t imagine living around someone that is constantly filling your own apartment with that smell and putting that odor onto your clothes and anything else you own.

Most apartment complexes where this is taking place likely do not have washer and dryer units inside each residence. Therefore, getting the smell off your clothes is time consuming, costly, and basically irrelevant because marijuana use is so persistent and prevelant in these buildings. So, if you are someone that can’t afford to live in an apartment that runs you more in rent that a lot of mortgage payments what do you do? The answer is that you likely walk around smelling like marijuana when you’re out in public, whether you’re the one who smoked it or not.

There are a lot of ways to mask the smell on yourself and your clothing, and most people that smoke do a decent job with that. However, most people that read this might make broad assumptions about the availability and cost of those items. Can you imagine trying to spray and mask the odor every single time you leave your apartment? What if the one time you run into them is when they’re in the store trying to purchase more spray? What if you run into them after they have gotten out of the car with someone who was smoking?

All I’m asking is that you consider these questions before you quickly cast judgement on someone and their lifestyle because of how they smell. I get that unwanted encounters with marijuana can cause contact buzzes that impact your health and ability to function, but there are so many people out there who are victim of their circumstances and may not be intentionally impacting you. There are many people who do not partake in smoking marijuana, but to the casual observer, it may smell and appear that they are the ones doing so and taking their odors out into public.

At this point, I haven’t even brought up the children living in these buildings. With the odors that I’ve encountered and have carried with me in my brief times in these buildings, it is darn near impossible for kids living in these buildings to not be high or having a contact buzz from the secondhand odors on a regular basis. Furthermore, when a kid might show up at school or in public with those smells, please don’t assume that the parent is the one not being responsible. Just like when people would come back from restaurants and bars smelling like smoke, these kids and familes live around that odor constantly. They cannot avoid it. Additionally, don’t assume that they have the ability or money to wash out those smells every single time before they leave their apartment.

In light of my recent experiences, I really hope that some legislation can come down that makes smoking marijuana in public acceptable, but with limitations. By forcing people to smoke in their place of residence, there are some severe and unintended consequences. People, and more importantly children, are being exposed to odors that can impair them. To compound that, those odors can impact their ability to get a job or how they are perceived in public.

I know not everyone follows the rules, which is greatly evidenced by the amount of smells I experience in Indiana where marijuana is illegal. However, I would like to see the smoking of marijuana inside apartment complexes made illegal. Allow people to smoke outside, where the smell will have less impact and lingering effects on the residents. Allow people to smoke in designated outside public areas, so the likelihood of them carrying that odor on their own clothing into public buildings is slightly diminished. Don’t make smoking marijuana feel like a criminal act. By forcing people to smoke inside, we’re impacting so many more people in negative ways, especially children. I have no idea how to enforce it, but landlords and businesses have learned how to enforce smoke-free guidelines in the past.

While the negative perception of smoking marijuana will likely not change in our country for a long time, it needs to be handled in a similar way as cigarette smoking was. I know this situation of marijuana smoking and odors in lower rent apartment complexes is not new, but it is new to me in my life experiences. Therefore, if you’re someone that views marijuana smokers and odors in a negative way, I challenge you to stop and consider that the person who smells like that might not have a choice as to why they smell that way. Show some empathy and understanding that not everyone might have the same luxuries that you do in your life. Most importantly, don’t judge someone based off a smell, but if you’re going to please understand that maybe it’s not their fault. I never thought being a Door Dash driver would be so enlightening, but I’m forever grateful for this newfound perspective.

Cinderella’s Last Dance

Coming up on the eve of the Final Four, the news around college basketball seems to be more focused on player and coach movement than the teams that are still playing for the sport’s biggest prize. The landscape around college basketball and sports has changed drastically with NIL deals and the transfer portal. Those two things have me pondering if this last tournament was Cinderella’s last dance in March.

For years, many sports fans have claimed that the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is the most exciting sporting event of the year. The first Thursday and Friday of the tournament is celebrated as a national holiday for many sports fanatics, including myself. I have not attended work or school on those two days since I was old enough to drive. There is something magical about watching win or go home sporting events while most people are still grinding out their workdays. Teams entire seasons are on the line while some people are fighting over the copier. Plus, the one and done scenario of the NCAA tournament means that anything can happen.

Personally, I think that too much emphasis gets put on the NCAA tournament by fans as a measuring stick of a team and program’s success. It’s not a fair measuring stick to play over 30 games, only to have your season and ‘coaching ability’ judge by a potentially bad matchup or off night in the first weekend. Teams that win conference championships or 20 games over the course of the season are deemed as disappointments because they can’t win two more games against really good teams in the tournament, while teams that may have had disappointing, uneven, or under-the-radar seasons advance past the first weekend and suddenly have fans celebrating their success. Win or go home scenarios really ignite the passion of fanbases, and for the same reason they ignite storylines and fairytales, hence the term, Cinderella.

Following selection Sunday, experts and fanatics spend hours analyzing the brackets and making predictions. We all know that upsets are going to happen, and most people get pretty bold in claiming to identify when and where they’re going to happen, cue Seth Davis. It’s almost a given that a 12 seed will beat a 5 every year, and it’s becoming less and less shocking to see 13, 14, and even 15 seeded teams win games. However, to be given the term ‘Cinderella’, a team needs to find a way to advance past that first weekend. Almost anything can happen in a given game, but can a team get both magic slippers to fit and keep dancing into the Sweet Sixteen? Those that can get remembered for ages by their alumni and by fans of the sport. And somehow, the last three NCAA tournaments we’ve seen the first ever 16 seed win and a 15 seed has made the Sweet Sixteen both years, and now an Elite Eight.

It has been 9 years since “Dunk City.” 9…years! However, I’m not even going to mention the name of the university that became the first 15 seed to ever advance to the Sweet Sixteen because all basketball fans know and remember like it was yesterday. 15 seeds don’t get nicknames, those are given to the blue-bloods that make national headlines each year and deep tournament runs like Phi-Slamma-Jamma, Forty Minutes of Hell, The Flyin’ Illini, or The Fab Five. Yet, teams like Dunk City are what make the NCAA tournament so capitivating. That squad did something that had never been done before, and will forever be immortalized in NCAA tournament lore.

Cinderella destroys the brackets that most spend hours laboring over to try and capture perfection, but she’s why we watch. We’re all aware that teams like St. Peter’s, Oral Roberts, and UMBC would have a losing record if they played in a power conference, but if they can find a way to win 1 game, or even two in 72 hours, they get remembered forever. It’s why people tune in. When the men are tearing up their brackets and cursing about lost wages, the wives comment on how Cinderella’s coach looks, their mascot, or their uniforms. The girl in your office that hasn’t watched a second of basketball all year suddenly is hated by everyone for a day because she is the only one that made the bold prediction based off of names, colors, or someone that she didn’t like that went to the higher seeded school and she wanted their team to lose.

Cinderella can come out at any moment those first two days. She can dance while people are in a mid-afternoon meeting at work, picking your kids up from a school activity, or after you’ve fallen asleep because you’ve got work the next day. However, when she does come out to dance, everyone suddenly is mesmerized by her. By the weekend, everyone knows who you are and is checking your invitation. If those teams can somehow win a second game, they now get nearly a full week of media attention shined on their program and school. Intrigued kids start to Google or wonder where schools like Oral Roberts, St. Peter’s, Loyola Marymount, or George Mason are located. As the stories unfold, most of those teams have one similar trait, upperclassmen.

A dangerous team in the NCAA tournament is a team of older, physically mature, and experienced players that have had to work hard without the spotlight for years. Those players and teams have developed an edge and continuity that a lot of programs that continually go after highly ranked prep stars and rely on underclassmen in the tournament don’t always have. Those teams will often play an entire season knowing that their only hope of even playing in the NCAA tournament is by winning their conference’s automatic bid. They have literally had to survive and advance just to get a chance to be in the spotlight. Yet, because they have the upperclassmen, they have been through that experience before and are more physically capable of hanging around than some other teams.

Once the NCAA tournament games tip, everyone in the arena is hoping that they can say they were there when one of the greatest moments in tournament history occurred. The only people rooting for the heavy favorites are the ones wearing the same colors as the team they’re cheering for on the court. Everyone else is getting behind the underdog. The longer they hang around, the more palpable the moment becomes. For the favorite, the longer they can’t shake the underdog it becomes less about winning and more about not losing. Each round Cinderella dances, the stakes become higher and higher, and the pressure even bigger. Eventually, the clock strikes midnight on our favorite Cinderella’s. Just as we get to know and fall in love with them, they get eliminated. The inequity in talent or the inability to make shots like they did the game before always seems to serve as a reminder that Cinderella came from humble circumstances, and eventually must return to them.

With today’s NIL deals and the transfer portal, I’m wondering if St. Peter’s is going to be the last great Cinderella story that we will be able to get behind in the NCAA men’s tournament. After years of being taken advantage of for lucrative TV revenues, student athletes now have the ability to make money off playing basketball games hours away from campus that end not much before midnight, causing them to arrive back home in the early morning hours, only to be expected in class less than twelve hours after walking off a court hours away from their classroom. I think the players deserve some sort of compensation for everything they endure and generate for the schools they play for. However, now NIL’s are almost like free agent contracts. Why would I stay at Murray State and play for next to nothing when I can transfer to Xavier and walk into a steady revenue stream? I arbitrarily chose those schools, but they’ve had about the same amount of recent on court succes recently. However, one program plays in a good-sized American city in front of sell-out crowds, while the other plays in mostly empty arenas all year.

Will we ever see another Ja Morant or Steph Curry like story again? A supreme talent that carries his small school to national prominence. My guess is that if those kids played in today’s NCAA, they would have transferred to make more money or play in front of more fans after their freshman seasons. When kids are looking to transfer, it’s not just about win and losses or playing time anymore. The question of how much money can I make is also a big part of the discussion.

Ja Morant playing for Murray State in the NCAA tournament.

These discussions are happening constantly because coaches and players are now caught in an endless recruiting cycle. Not only are college coaches recruiting high school players, but they are now forced to recruit their own players to return after every season. The NCAA transfer portal rules now allow athletes to basically declare free agency without any penalty one time in their college careers, so college coaches are like general managers scouring the waiver wire and free agency after each season looking for ways to immediately upgrade their clubs. This is a precedent unseen in any other sport.

Professional baseball or football players can’t declare free agency whenever they feel like it. They can’t secretly put their name into a portal and quit a team without a conversation with a coach or management like college kids can nowadays. They can’t decide they’re no longer going to play for their team anymore because they don’t win enough, get enough playing time, or make enough money like college kids can. While the NCAA had good intentions, what they have done is ruining the sport of college basketball and will quickly ruin the most exciting asset of their biggest moneymaker.

The transfer portal was created as compensation for kids that were locked into an NCAA scholarship and suddenly saw their coach get fired or leave for another program. In many ways, the NCAA tournament and Cinderella helped manifest the transfer portal. It’s pretty common for colleges to fire their head basketball coaches when they don’t make the tournament or when they have had a series of short March runs at a high level program. The top candidates to fill those vacancies are usually guys who have successfully built a mid-major program and enjoyed March success. Suddenly the kids who helped elevate that coach to a national profile are now left without a leader. While their coach was signing a multi-million dollar deal somewhere else and taking over a program immediately, kids were forced to sit out a year and start over at a new school. On the flip side, when a coach was fired, the returning players were forced to sit around and wait to see who was going to take over and adapt to a new style of coaching and play that they didn’t sign on for. However, under the old rules they had to suck it up and adapt to the new coach or decide to sit out from the game they love for a year because of the decisions of others.

In that context, it only seems fair that kids should be able to transfer and play immediately. Unfortunately, that’s not how or why the majority of kids are transferring these days. Kids are transferring after a semester at one school, under the same coach that they chose over everyone else a few short months ago. Kids that start almost every game at a school one year are jumping into the transfer portal just as much as kids that rarely saw the floor. Quite honestly, it is really amazing how these coaches can hold teams together these days.

I know that times are changing, and I’m aware that I am now a part of an older generation, but I just can’t get my head around what we’re seeing in college sports, basketball in particular. In football, it’s understood for most kids that they’ll need to sit for almost two years before they can expect to physically compete and play a high amount of snaps at the high D-1 level, so most kids don’t transfer until they are upperclassmen and realize that their path to playing time at their current school is blocked by others on the roster. By then, they have learned to deal with the highs and lows of a program and a sport, and they’re also almost or even finished with their college degree. They have shown some committment and grit. Yet, in basketball if kids aren’t starting or ‘running the show’ right away or by the end of their first couple of seasons, they are ready bolt for greener pastures. In many ways, it’s a replication of what people are seeing in today’s workforce with the younger generations.

For the high level programs, this plays right into their hands. Load up on elite talent and let the carnage on your own roster take care of itself. Keep winning and bringing in revenue from your fanbase and exposure from TV, the NIL money and allure of playing for an elite program will keep bringing high level kids to your door. Today’s college coaches are fools to not constantly be recruiting high level talent, even if that current position on the roster is settled, because you truly never know who will be leaving your program and when. Just like in pro sports, the teams with the most revenue and resources will simply reload, while those that do not will be forced to pick up what is left.

Mid-major coaches work just as hard as the high-level coaches, most times even harder when it comes to recruiting. They are on a much more limited budget, so they have to allocate their time and resources much better. To be successful, they have to identify kids that Power 5 programs may have overlooked, and then it is their job to develop them. However, in today’s world, all they could be doing is making those kids better and more attractive to be plucked by a bigger program at the end of the year.

I have a son that attends Ball State. Some families went down to watch a basketball game with our kids who attended the school earlier this year. Within the first five minutes of the game I noticed a freshman post player that had a big frame, good footwork, and nice touch to his offensive game. I half jokingly and half knowingly turned to my friend and asked how much he wanted to bet that the kid would be in the transfer portal at the end of the season. My friend was a wise man because he didn’t take the bet, because that kid is now in the portal and being contacted by programs from the SEC, ACC, and Big Ten. On one hand I can’t blame the kid for wanting to play in sold out arenas versus ones that have tarps over a large chunk of seats, but on the other hand why shouldn’t he have to honor his committment? Granted his coach was fired, but would that really have kept him there after this season anyways?

MAC Freshman of the Year, Payton Spraks. Currently in the transfer portal.

So, bringing this back to the NCAA tournament. How are mid-majors and small schools expected to compete with the Power 5 schools in the future? There is nothing keeping the star players at small schools from transferring. We’ve already seen Murray State potentially lose multiple members of its team that earned a 7 seed in the NCAA tournament, the highest in school history, to the transfer portal. I am only using the word potentially because players could always choose to come back if they’d like. Granted, their coach left; again, riding the success of his hard work and his players to greener pastures and a big time job, but where does that leave the program and its fanbase?

It wasn’t that long ago that everyone was trying to figure out what a Saluki was because Southern Illinois was consistently making NCAA appearances and noise. The Saluki’s made two Sweet Sixteen appearances in six seasons, despite having three different coaches. While Bruce Weber and Matt Painter went off to coach in the Big Ten, the players that elevated their profiles remained at the school and continued the success. Southern Illinois made six straight NCAA appearances from 2002-07 because there wasn’t a mass exodus of players, and they haven’t been back to the Big Dance since then.

What is the reward for St. Peter’s magical March run? Their coach is leaving to go take over a Big East program, which was perpetuated by his success and his players. Those players and remaining coaches won’t all get to follow Shaheen Holloway, so why not do the same thing and try to parlay their success into a higher profile and more money for themselves while they can?

In this past year’s NCAA tournament, there were 3 double digit seeds to advance past the first weekend. Those are the schools that get dubbed as Cinderella. However, are we supposed to get excited and sentimental over Iowa St. and Miami? Those are both programs that play in power conferences and on national TV almost every game. However, with the invention of the current transfer portal, those are going to be the ‘Cinderella’s’ that we’re going to be forced to root for in the future. Two of Miami’s top players were transfers, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise then that Iowa State’s top player was also a transfer.

Get used to being force fed the idea that 8 seeded North Carolina is a great story about overcoming adversity and knocking off top teams to make the Final Four. The little guys already had the deck stacked handily against them, but the current rules and situation in college basketball is only going to make it worse. There are so many debates about whether the little guy should even get into the tournament or that there are too many D-1 college basketball teams, but aside from that the NCAA tournament is…was the greatest spectacle in sports.

Fans love to root for the underdog and watch great contests between David vs Goliath in March. However, with the way things stand now in the game, get used to having more blue-blood Final Fours and Cinderella’s that look and feel more like the wicked stepsisters. David is going to reach into his pocket for a stone and come up empty-handed.

For those that love the long shots and the underdogs, have fun rooting for North Carolina this weekend. However, be sure to note that their second leading scorer is a transfer, and the reason they struggled so mightily for a while this year is because another one of their top players that is now out for the season is also a transfer. The mighty Tar Heels took advantage of this new system that will keep the little schools down and eventually suck the fun out of March Madness. It was a great getting to know you St. Peter’s, and I don’t think we’ll hear or see another story like yours for quite some time.

Sometimes Divorce is a Good Thing

Those words were used by former Illinois football coach Lovie Smith when explaining the dismissal of some of his more talented players from a promising young core. At the time, Illinois fans were frustrated with both the players and the coach as a languishing football program was dismissing a couple of players who received much acclaim after their freshman seasons and gave hope to a starved fanbase. Flash forward a few years and the Illinois basketball program finds itself in a similar situation with its mercurial point guard, Andre Curbelo.

Andre Curbelo leaps into the arms of Brad Underwood after a blowout victory at Michigan

Earlier today the sophomore point guard announced that he was entering the transfer portal, all but cementing his departure from the basketball program he helped turn around and win two championships. Some Illinois fans are probably happy to hear this news, while others are frustrated to see the talented guard leave after an injury-riddled season that caused him to take a step backward, instead of the major step forward that many fans had hoped for and anticipated. Either way, watching how the last few games of Curbelo’s Illinois career played out on the court, today’s news probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

Coming into Illinois, recruiting analysts boasted about the consensus top-50 guard’s ability to penetrate defenses and create opportunities for his teammates. Surrounded by shooters with his ability to finish at the rim or make passes others would not dare to even attempt, Curbelo was a guy that defenses often didn’t have an answer for as a freshman. Most times on the court as a freshman, Curbelo was surrounded by NBA talent or an emerging DaMonte Williams who cashed in on all of the open looks en route to leading the NCAA in three point shooting percentage. Playing more off the ball, Trent Frazier had the legs to be a much more consistent from three in 20-21. Quite simply, Andre Curbelo was the key that revved up the Illinois offense as a freshman and provided ample open jumpshots for Illinois’ arsenal of shooters.

It was only natural to believe that Curbelo would be all that and a little bit more as a sophomore. As a freshman, Curbelo shot 16% from three point range. While most Illinois fans didn’t and weren’t expecting him to jump up around 40%, many believed that he would likely around the 33% mark. The wild turnovers that sometimes plagued him as a freshman should be reduced with a full year of experience under his belt. When pondering who would become the closer after Ayo Dosunmu’s departure, most Illinois fans thought that torch would be passed to Curbelo. He might not be relied on to knock down all the big shots, but most people felt confident he would be able to create late clock opportunities for himself or his teammates that would translate to winning. Illinois fans were treated to that magic in Illinois 2OT loss versus Purdue when he returned from concussion protocol to ignite a stagnant Illinois offense and make unbelievable plays down the stretch to keep extending the game for the Illini. We saw his guts as he played through injury at a time when Illinois was teetering after an early season route against an average Cincinnati team and struggling to find itself with an above average Kanas State team. Unfortunately, those games were only the few highlights to Curbelo’s season.

The 21-22 Illinois basketball team endured constant injury and disruption, but it’s more likely that this team wasn’t perfectly fitted for Curbelo’s style of play, even if he had been healthy all year. In the 20-21 season, Curbelo was surrounded by Dosunmu, Frazier, Williams, Jacob Grandison, and Adam Miller. All five of those players were trusted guys in the rotation that shot 34% or higher from 3 point range. Quite simply, teams couldn’t help off shooters, which created ample driving lanes and opportunities for the slashing guard. In the 21-22 season, Curbelo only had two teammates, Grandison and Alfonso Plummer, that played consistent minutes and shot over 33% from three point range. Additionally, Curbelo and Plummer didn’t play a lot of extended minutes together because of their size and inconsistencies on the defensive end of the floor. Williams regression from three and Curbelo’s inability to raise his own shooting percentage allowed teams to pack in their defense most times when Curbelo saw the floor this year, which created fewer driving lanes for Curbelo this year.

Another issue for Curbelo and the 21-22 Illini squad was Kofi Cockburn’s focal point in the offense. The season before, teams were forced to pick their poison. Were they going to try and have Cockburn beat them in the post, or were they going to dare Illinois’ sharpshooters to rain threes on them all night? This season, teams knew what the focal point of the Illinois offense was, Kofi. More times than not, when teams had success against Illinois they jammed up the lane and forced Illinois to try and make shots from long range. Cockburn was not much of a threat in the pick and roll because he wasn’t a threat to pop. Coupled with Curbelo’s inconsistent long range shooting, it made little sense to run pick and roll plays with those two players involved. Therefore, teams oftentimes dared Curbelo to shoot from three, leaving him wide open, daring, tempting, even begging the guard to shoot from three. Curbelo knew that was the plan going into the season, and even got teed up a couple times for showing emotion towards opponents when he would make a shot against teams that were daring him to shoot. Unfortunately for Curbelo, in the long run that strategy paid dividends for most high level teams as he ended the season having made just 4 three pointers in Big Ten and postseason play.

It’s natural to play the what-if game when looking at Curbelo’s career up to this point and his future. What-if he didn’t have the concussion that cost him nearly half the season? Would consistent practice and game reps translate to a better shooting percentage? What-if the guard had another full offseason to work on his outside shot? What-if Curbelo was the true point guard in an offense where guys like RJ Melendez, Luke Goode, and Brandon Podziemski were getting consistent minutes next year? The freshman trio had two guys shoot over 37% from three in their first season of major college basketball, so with them and an emerging Coleman Hawkins, it felt like the Illinois offense would look a lot more similar to the 20-21 team than this past season with or without Kofi back in the lineup. With Kofi back, the arsenal of shooters, and a stronger and more confidence Curbelo, this offense could really kick. Without Kofi and some bigs that can help create some better spacing on the floor and pick and pop options, Curbelo’s skill set could have put teams in a defensive blender. Unfortunately, we’ll never get to see those combinations and possibilities at Illinois with an experienced and healthy Andre Curbelo.

The other what-ifs with Curbelo swing wildly the other way. What if he didn’t develop a consistent jump shot? Would teams consistently pack it in on Illinois, taking away Curbelo’s driving lanes and stiffling Kofi or whoever else is working down in the post? What if Curbelo never quite got over his careless ways with the basketball? As a junior, Curbelo would have been nearly the exclusive point guard on the team. Could Illinois’ offense, and team, consistently function and win with a guy that is likely to turn the ball over 5-7 times a game while playing extended minutes?

At the end of the day, there were too many uncertainties with Curbelo’s game and how he fit into the big picture at Illinois. It’s not his fault; it’s not Brad Underwood’s fault. It’s reality. Illinois needed Curbelo to take a significant jump in his game this year, and due to a variety of reasons, he couldn’t and didn’t. As a coach of a highly successful, championship level program, you need to be certain that when you hand the keys of the engine over to someone that they are the driver that you have groomed and prepare. Brad Underwood and Illinois fans couldn’t have felt truly confident in Curbelo and Illinois success going into next sesaon based off what we saw this year.

It’s why Underwood brought in Andres Feliz in 2018, despite having Trent Frazier and welcoming Dosunmu aboard. It’s the same reason that Illinois has been going hard after 5 Star prep talent at the point guard position in the 2022 class this season. For all of the same reasons Illinois fans were frustrated with Andre Curbelo, the coaching staff saw the same things and had the same questions. Their jobs depend on making the best personnel decisions, the tough decisions.

Brad Underwood spent countless hours with Andre Curbelo. In ways entirely different than his biggest supporters, Underwood loved Curbelo. Just like in ways entirely different than his biggest distractors, Underwood was likely just as frustrated by Curbelo. It’s why he greenlit his staff to go seek out prep options that might be able to step right in next season and take on a lead guard role. Underwood had to prepare for this divorce. He had to prepare to do what was best for his team and for his program to continue on with their championship ways.

Divorce is never fun for anyone involved, but in this case it seems like this is a divorce that will likely leave both parties better off than if they had stayed together too long. Illinois and Underwood have made no secret their desire to add more length on the perimeter. Illinois is in deep with 6 foot 3 inch 5 Star prep point guard Skyy Clark and 6 foot 6 inch shooting guard Terrance Shannon, they’re pursuing 6 foot 5 inch combo guard Antonio Reeves from Illinois State, and recruited 6 foot 2 inch Jayden Epps as a point guard in waiting. Illinois was oftentimes exposed by bigger guards defensively this year with Frazier, Plummer, and Curbelo splitting and sharing minutes. While Curbelo made significant strides defensively on the ball, he was always going to struggle with bigger guards posting him up or going right at him physically. The Big Ten is a rugged and physical conference, that might not be the best match for Curbelo’s style of play and development. In many objective ways, it makes sense for him to pursue other options.

Can you imagine how effective Andre Curbelo could be in a far more wide open, guard friendly league like the ACC or Pac 12? Those leagues, along with the Big East seem like a much better fit for Curbelo to showcase his skills. Without a big man like Kofi anchoring in the lane, it’s hard not to envision Curbelo’s effectiveness going up in a much more open style of play that is similar to what is seen at the next level. It’s not hard to see why Andre Curbelo wanted to pursue a better option, a better partner for the next step in his basketball journey. It’s not a dis to Illinois or Brad Underwood, it’s an honest evaluation of what is likely best for Andre Curbelo’s options to make as much money in the future as he can from playing basketball.

Selfishly as a fan, it’s hard not to wish that we could have seen Andre Curbelo return and reach his full potential as an upperclassmen. Without Curbelo, it’s debatable if Illinois has either one of its championships from the past two seasons. If Kofi left, with Curbelo and a young supporting cast it’s debatable if Illinois would remain in the top half of the Big Ten next season. Thus is and was the relationship with Andre Curbelo and Illinois basketball. I think most fans are going to look back with great memories and moments of joy with the young man, but I also think many fans saw this end coming. I think it’s why so many Illinois fans are frustrated by Curbelo’s decision to transfer, but it is also why so many Illinois fans are likely to be just as excited in the next couple of weeks with incoming additions to the team’s roster at the guard spot.

The one thing I hope that Illinois fans wish is for a great landing spot for Curbelo. I hope he goes on to find great success in his basketball future. How can you not openly root for a guy like Curbelo who loved his school, his coach, and his teammates. I hope Illinois basketball continues to have great success without Andre Curbelo. It’s okay to wish for both things to happen and be disappointed they happened at the same time. Sometimes divorce is good, and at this time it feels like it was the best option for both parties involved. Best of luck, Andre, and thanks for the memories and the championships.

Matt Painter and the Glass Ceiling

In order to be victim of your own success, a person has to have a lot of success. While coaching at Purdue, Matt Painter has had a lot of success. During Painter’s 18 seasons as head coach at Purdue, he has accumulated a 384-192 record, winning .667% of the games he has coached at his alma mater. Not bad for a guy that took over a program that didn’t have a 20 win season the previous five seasons before he became head coach and endured a 9-19 season his first year in charge.

In the 17 years since, Purdue has averaged 22 wins each season while winning 3 conference championships, 1 Big Ten tournament championship, making 6 Sweet Sixteens, and 1 Elite Eight Appearance. Quite the impressive resume, especially when you consider what the man who coached before him, chose him as his successor, and has the court named after him did while he was in charge of the program. During Gene Keady’s 25 seasons, he went 512-270 at Purdue for a .655 winning%, while winning 6 Big Ten Championships, 5 Sweet Sixteens, and 2 Elite Eights.

Assuming Matt Painter coaches another 8 years at Purdue and wins 22 games a season, he’ll pass Gene Keady’s win total in a little over 6 more seasons. He might struggle to get three more Big Ten titles in that span, but the league has added three more programs and two more conference games since Coach Keady’s days. However, he has already advanced to the same points in the tournament as many times as his mentor, and right now he’s in his coaching prime. Purdue is revered as one of the most electric home court environments in the country and at 51 years old, Coach Painter could conceivably coach another 20 years for his alma mater. The question now is whether Purdue fans will recognize the great job he’s done or want to run him off for another March where raised expectations weren’t met in the eyes of the passionate fanbase. If some Purdue fans eventually get what they want, they’ll run off a guy that is a victim of the success he and his mentor created.

I was a student at Purdue from 1995-99, but I have a bit of a unique perspective. I grew up on the east side of St. Louis as a rabid Illinois basketball fan. The Flyin’ Illini were right in my prime years as a kid, and that team captivated a nation. As a kid outside St. Louis, I really didn’t hear or know much about Purdue basketball growing up. I knew they played in the Big Ten and a close family friend that was an alumus reminded me of how good they were, but there wasn’t much on a regional or national level that drew outsiders to Purdue basketball. This is from the perspective of a sports kid who grew up in the 80’s where Purdue won back to back Big Ten titles and finished in the AP Top Ten both of those seasons. As a kid, the only thing I remembered about college basketball from Indiana was Bob Knight teams and the 1987 national champion Hoosiers. Despite winning the Big Ten that season, it wasn’t Purdue that made a Final Four and cut down the nets, it was Bobby Knight. I remember following Indiana basketball and being able to name their starting lineup each year, but I couldn’t name one player from Purdue. During those back to back Big Ten championship seasons in 87 and 88, Purdue and Gene Keady only managed to win 3 NCAA tournament games. Yet, Keady went on to coach another 17 years at Purdue, and I’m sure Boiler fans are very thankful for that.

March raises the profile of programs on the national level, and unfortunately for Purdue, that’s been an elusive hurdle for them to get over. Most people in the midwest admire the consistency of Purdue men’s basketball, but outside of Big Ten country most people don’t really have many memories of Purdue basketball. Despite all of it’s success, Purdue is not and has not been a national brand. When I moved to Indiana in 1992, I remained a passionate Illinois fans. Being isolated from other Illinois fans only seemed to cement my passion and loyalty for the school. In high school, my friends still talked about the Flyin’ Illini. Even though the program had slipped a bit since then, they still had players that people around the country were aware of or were starring in the NBA. That in a backhanded way is how I ended up at Purdue University myself.

This is going to sound completely ridiculous, but when I was presented with college options, I knew I had to stay in-state to reduce tuition costs. I wanted to go to a big school that had a really good sports environment. I knew I didn’t want to go to Indiana because they were bitter rivals of Illinois on the basketball court, so there was no way I was going there. I disliked the school without ever setting foot on campus. However, in 1994 Purdue had the national player of the year, Glenn Robinson. He even had a nickname that everybody in college sports still knows to this day. Yeah, that school would do just fine, and it was an even bigger plus that I really didn’t know much about them, except there really didn’t seem to be much of a rivalry between them and Illinois. If you don’t think March success and sports programs in the spotlight attract students, I’m here to tell you that’s not true.

When I made my college decision in the fall of 1994, Glenn Robinson was no longer in school at Purdue, but the basketball program was still on it’s way to winning its second consecutive Big Ten championship. However, it was pretty cool to say I was going to the same school that Glenn Robinson did. One of us was the #1 overall draft pick, and the other was a scrawny, unathletic freshman. My freshman year Purdue basketball finished the three-peat of Big Ten titles. I have to admit it was pretty cool going to a school that was winning a lot of basketball games and had an electric home court environment, but it still didn’t stop me from rooting for Illinois every time they came to town. In fact, the only home game Purdue lost all season was to my Illini and their stud guard, Kiwane Garris. However, that didn’t stop Purdue from earning a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament where they narrowly escaped becoming the first team to ever lose to a #16 seed in the NCAA tournament by seeing two open shots in the last 5 seconds rattle off the rim and keep Western Carolina from being known around the country. Unsurprisingly, Purdue got beat handily in the next round by Georgia.

The bigger heartbreak came two years later for me as a Purdue fan. I had recently turned 21, and Purdue was headed to my hometown in the Sweet Sixteen. The path to the Final Four looked clear as could be. Purdue would have a big home crowd type of advantage, and they entered the regional semifinals as the highest seeded team remaining. Kansas, which would have owned the venue, had been shockingly upset in the second round. Speaking of shocking upsets, Bryce Drew, and the miracle shot Valparaiso Crusaders had advanced to the Sweet Sixteen as a #13 seed. Purdue came in as the favorites, and if they could get by #3 seeded Stanford they would have to either beat a #8 seed or a #13 seed to advance to the Final Four. I had no doubt I was going to witness my school go to the Final Four. Instead, they lost to Stanford 67-59 in a game that never quite seemed that close. I went into that weekend thinking that my school was going to the Final Four, in my hometown, and I was old enough to fully enjoy all of the festivities. Instead, I was back on campus watching the regional final between Rhode Island and Stanford from my room. It was really that moment that I came to realize that I would always like Purdue, but that loss with the previous years’ disappointments solidified for me in my mind that Purdue was always going to be that little engine that couldn’t quite get over the mountain. Unsurpisingly, Purdue lost my senior year after making a surprising run to the Sweet Sixteen, and then they lost to #8 seeded Wisconsin with a chance to go to the Final Four in 2000. At that time I was back living in St. Louis, and I remember my friends saying that Purdue would never have a better chance of making a Final Four. Purdue was always going to be a little over-acheiving type program that nobody outside the Big Ten took very seriously.

At the time, it was hard to disagree with them. Well, 22 years later those statements from my friends that did not grow up fixated on Big Ten basketball still ring clearly in my ears. Last night Purdue entered it’s regional semifinal game against a #15 seed. Not only was Purdue facing a #15 seed, but they had two dominant guys in the post that will likely be NBA draft picks, and a projected top 5 pick in their backcourt. Saint Peter’s is a #15 seed because they don’t have 3 NBA guys on their roster, and most small schools simply lack the frontcourt size and strength to consistently compete with the big boys. The other side of the bracket featured #4 seeded UCLA and #8 seeded North Carolina, both teams with good talent, but teams that had under-acheived all year. The path to the Final Four again seemed pretty clear, but then Saint Peter’s happened. Or maybe, Purdue happened.

For Purdue fans, last night’s game was an all-to-familiar game and feeling. Another game that had Purdue fans begrudgingly reflecting on a similar moment in Purdue basketball where they had their hearts ripped out. For a Purdue fan, it’s really not hard to come up with a game or moment that left you feeling very similar. But a #15 seed? Did that really just happen? As Purdue fans we expect a team that had really good regular season success, to fall short in the postseason, but this hurt in a different way. Instead of failing to win a game it should have, they became an easy target for jokes around the country.

Despite earning the school’s first ever #1 ranking back in December, this Purdue team won’t get to hang a banner of any sort. No reunions or rings, just another team that seemed to sweep up their fans and then drop them off at the curb just short of the intended destination while barely slowly down to drop off its passengers. More bumps and bruises for fans and alumni, but rest assured we’ll brush ourselves off and be back next year. Nearly, 23 years after graduation, I simply just smiled and shook my head. I’ve seen this before, and I’ll probably see it again, which is why everyone just keeps coming back.

However, the one thing that bothers me is the calling for Matt Painter’s job by some Purdue fans. Everything is magnified in March, and it is incredibly frustrating to see your team exit earlier than expected, especially when it seems to happen on a regular basis in the eyes of some. However, many fans fail to recognize the realities of this team. Despite earning a #1 ranking at one point this season, this was far from Matt Painter’s most talented team while at Purdue. Sure, Jaden Ivey is going to be a top 5 NBA draft pick, but he barely plays any defense and has no mid-range game at all. Both things he’ll work on while getting paid millions of dollars next year. Trevion Williams and Zach Edey will both likely be drafted by NBA teams, but both will have uphill battles to stick on NBA rosters in today’s game due to limitations in their game. Yet, when you have 3 NBA type guys on your roster, including the most phyisically gifted since Glenn Robinson, not hanging any banners and losing to a #15 seed seems like a collosal failure. However, I challenge Purdue fans to identify one of the 9 Big Ten teams that made the NCAA tournament where any of the other guys than the three I mentioned on Purdue’s roster would have been a starter. That’s not a knock on Purdue’s roll players, it’s just that they were limited.

Those limitations tap more into the great Purdue problem. Despite having one of the best environments in the entire country, Purdue always recruits like a mid-tier program. That’s not saying that Purdue doesn’t land really good talent, but Matt Painter rarely gets involved with top-50 prospects outside of Big Ten country. Painter’s strengths are getting the top prospects in his region that he chooses and then identifying guys that may be overlooked from outside of Big Ten country. He is a great developer of talent. He’s one of the few coaches in today’s game that can convince kids to join his program and then redshirt to gain strength, confidence, and experience that will make them a really good college basketball player. It’s why Purdue basketball isn’t and won’t fall off the map as long as he’s the coach. However, it may also be why Purdue’s ceiling always feels slightly capped.

It oftentimes felt the same way under Gene Keady’s guidance. Keady focused on landing the high level prospects in his backyard, and then identified the hard working guys that would fit into his system and culture. Team over talent. Those teams were very good, but the success in the NCAA tournament is a combination of elite talent, matchups, and who is hot at the right time. Those combinations never seemed to work out for Gene Keady, and it’s becoming a frustrating trend under Matt Painter as well.

However, the call for Matt Painter’s removal is just absurd. He’s going to win more games at the school than any other coach if he wants to. His recruiting is not slowing down, and when Tom Izzo steps down, he’ll be the dean of Big Ten coaches. Yet, that Final Four run is what keeps him from being mentioned with the likes of Bill Self, John Calipari, and Tom Izzo when it comes to the face of college basketball after Coach K’s march run concludes. Don’t think that Matt Painter isn’t keenly aware of that. The pressure is real. The comparisons between he and Gene Keady have already begun in terms of great coaches that never reached a Final Four. Growing up there was the narrative of how Gene Keady and Norm Stewart were arguably the two greatest coaches to never make a Final Four. Between them, they won 1,806 games, but never reached college basketball’s crowning jewel.

The reason I bring up Norm Stewart, is to remind Purdue fans of how dangerous a game it can be to simply expect that a really good college basketball program can pluck whoever they want to take over and expect even bigger success. Since Norm Stewart retired from Missouri after the 1999 season, they have had 8 LOSING seasons, twice as many Norm Stewart experienced in his 32 seasons as their head coach. Additionally, Missouri has seen it’s program investigated by the NCAA multiple times, as Quin Snyder and Frank Haith both realized how hard it is to consistently attract top talent to Columbia, Missouri. The Tigers routinely sold out every game and even built a state of the art new facility in 2004 that now is routinely two thirds empty for many games.

The knock on Norm Stewart was that he couldn’t win the big games when they mattered in March. Despite 967 career wins, he could only get Missouri to 4 Sweet Sixteens and 1 Elite Eight. In the 23 seasons he’s been gone, Missouri has made it past the first weekend of the tournament just twice, both times losing in the Elite Eight. Beginning next November, the Tigers will start the season with their sixth new head coach this century. Missouri fans still consider their program a national level type job, just like Purdue fans, despite never really arriving on the national stage.

The comparison between Missouri and Purdue may not be complete apples to apples in the eyes of many Boiler fans, but to those around the country I’d argue more would agree with me than against. The Purdue job is not as easy as Matt Painter makes it seem. Purdue basketball is in the same state as 3 other Power 5 conference teams. Indianapolis is a short drive for other national and regional powers to come and try to pry away the state’s top talent. To be successful at Purdue, it takes someone who understands the school and the state’s landscape. Taking nothing away from Matt Painter, but Purdue has benefitted tremendously from Indiana basketball’s uneven demise since Bobby Knight was ousted.

Additionally, I would ask Purdue fans who they think would come and take over their program that would do better than Matt Painter has. Louisville is searching for answers that Indiana hasn’t been able to answer for the last two decades. Florida basketball won back to back national titles not that long ago and is searching for answers. Their isn’t a clear ‘Purdue guy’ that’s ready to come in and elevate the program past its March stumbles. Cuonzo Martin was just fired from Missouri. Paul Lusk just rejoined the staff after an average tenure at Missouri St. Mike Shrewsberry just left to take over a Penn State program that can never seem to gain traction in the Big Ten. I don’t think the Purdue job is as attractive to established coaches as its fans want to believe.

During Gene Keady’s 25 years coaching at Purdue, he only had 10 guys drafted in the first two rounds of the NBA draft. I’m only using the first two rounds because that is all there is to the draft these days. In Matt Painter’s 18 seasons, he has had 8 guys drafted to the NBA, and he’ll likely be assured another two this season with Jaden Ivey and Trevion Williams. Those are impressive numbers, but they don’t match up with the programs around the country that many people would call elite over the last 20 years. Not that NBA players guarantee college success, but it sure makes things a lot easier for the coaches once the ball gets rolled out. But coaching is still important, as evidenced by Indiana’s 11 guys drafted into the NBA and marginal success since Matt Painter was named coach at Purdue.

I’m not saying that Purdue fans should feel complacent with another March run that ended before it felt like it should have. Fans have every right to feel angry and disappointed with what felt like another golden opportunity to make a Final Four missed. We’ve been here before, but that also gives fans a false sense of security and entitlement. Purdue has been coached by only two men over the last 40+ seasons. That has led to incredible stability and success, with frustrating knocks against the glass ceiling. I would argue that Matt Painter has knocked on that ceiling more than Gene Keady did, and Keady has his name on the court. If not for a miracle finish by Virginia at the end of regulation in 2019, Matt Painter would likely be viewed in an entirely different way by fans and around the country. Matt Painter is making Purdue baskeball more of a consistent national name and bringing in more NBA talent, but for some reason he hasn’t truly broken through in March yet. However, if you throw enough rocks at glass it tends to break. I just hope I’m around long enough to see that glass ceiling shatter, and I firmly believe that Matt Painter is the guy to do it. We all just hope it’s sooner rather than later for a program that always wins but hasn’t made a Final Four in 42 seasons.

Raised Expections Bring Bigger Heartbreak

Raised expectations make failures hurt just a little bit more. The Illinois basketball program has been the best in Big Ten play over the last three years, but thanks to a pandemic and two second round seeding upsets, the Illini have managed only two NCAA tournament wins during one of the greatest three year stretches in program history. For a tradition-rich program that couldn’t get out of the bottom tier of the Big Ten for most of a decade, it feels like a major swing and a miss coming off back to back seasons with Big Ten Championships and first team All-Americans. However, life goes on, and Illinois basketball will move forward in good hands.

Bright days are ahead, and today wouldn't hurt as much if last year versus Loyola didn't happen.  However, raised expecatations makes this loss hurt more than it should. #illini

The program rests in the hands of Coach Brad Underwood, who has gone from savior to suddenly possibly being a victim of his own success. A couple of years ago, all Illinois fans wanted was to be back in a position to feel hurt in March, and now that we’re here and we’re hurting, too many people want to blame the coach who got us here. Losses in March always draw more criticism for coach’s teams that don’t quite meet expectations, but I think Illinois fans really need to look at the expectations that were put on this team and if they were realistic.

All season long, this team battled injuries, illness, suspensions, and anything else you can imagine. They had very frustrating losses, and a few games where they were almost able to knock off one of the country’s top teams, but in reality, this team had a number of flaws. Illinois earned a 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, despite only beating one other top 4 NCAA seeded team. This team always felt like they were capable of more if they could get everyone healthy and in rhthym, but by March you are what you are, and this Illinois team was a very good team that struggled to beat really good teams all season long. I don’t think anyone is surprised they lost to Houston, but it doesn’t make the loss any easier. Unfortunately, as the season wore on, the recipe to beat Illinois became more clear, and they were cooked by it again today. The flaws in the roster were too much against really good teams, but it would appear those things are being addressed in recruiting.

Speaking of recruiting, most programs don’t get to set high expectations without having high level talent. However, you could argue that Illinois has gotten more out of its talent under Brad Underwood than most programs. When you look at Illinois primary starting lineup this season, only one of those recruits was a consensus top 100 guy coming out of high school. It is not to diminish the guys Illinois had, it is more of a credit to how Brad Underwood put pieces together and identified guys that could get the program to where it is. Underwood developed a new system to get the most out of the guys he had, but also to make sure that things went through Kofi Cockburn. Now as Kofi seems likely to move on and the two guards that played more games than anyone else in Illinois history are out of eligibility, the program seems like it is at the first crossroads under Underwood. However, Illinois fans should have confidence that as the roster changes, the coaching staff is bringing in the talent to keep getting back to this position and winning championships.

Kofi Cockburn is a once in a generation, maybe a lifetime, type of big man at Illinois. If you’re drafting an all-time Illinois team, it might be tempting to start with him first because of all the great guards to choose from, but there has never been someone like him. However, Kofi does present some limitations to what Illinois can do on both ends of the floor. Offensively, he isn’t a pick and pop threat, so it can often be difficult to lift interior shot blockers to create driving lanes for penetrating guards. We saw teams pack it on on the Illini and dare some of their guys to take wide open shots, but more on that later. Defensively, Illinois chose not to use Kofi to hedge or level off screens. Instead, they routinely played drop coverage on ball screens with Cockburn. I didn’t have a problem with that defensively because I didn’t see much benefit in risking your best player picking up fouls over 20 feet from the basket. Plus, Kofi has shown improvement with his lateral movement, but if he gets caught in a switch he struggles to keep guards from getting downhill. It’s not a knock on Kofi or the coaches, but we saw how that drop coverage led to opposing teams that had big guards killing Illinios in the mid-range game. Modern analytics say that’s the way to try and make teams beat you, but Illinois just didn’t seem to have the personnel or trust in Kofi to try and adjust how teams attacked them in those high pick and roll sets with Cockburn’s man coming out to set the screen.

The other glaring issue for Illinois defensively was the smaller guards. No player may have been tougher than Trent Frazier, but all the quickness and added strength in the world couldn’t help him overcome the size mismatch he oftentimes faced on both ends of the court. Plummer and Curbelo are also very dynamic players, but there are limitations due to their size on the defensive end of the floor. Ultimately though, it was the offensive side of the ball that came back to let them down in March, but those issues seem to be quickly fixable with the type of recruits they are adding.

Offensively, teams oftentimes recognized that Illinois wanted to play through the post at all times. The problem with that was that there were frequently times when Illinois would have 3 guys on the court that shot 30% or less from three on the court at the same time. Illinois best playmaker, Andre Curbelo, is unfortunately their worst three point shooter. When Illinois would get into a half-court game with Kofi on the floor, it would be difficult for Curbelo to find space and driving lanes to attack as teams would sag off him and drop off Kofi. When he was on the court with Damonte Williams and/or Coleman Hawkins, the lane became even more of a traffic jam, which inhibited his game even more. When Andre Curbelo was at his most effective during the season, it was often with Jacob Grandison and Alfonso Plummer on the court. Those two guys spaced the floor, and allowed Kofi to turn and seal when Curbelo would turn a corner.

The one thing that I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about more is the loss of Jacob Grandison. He didn’t play at all in the last game against Iowa, which the Illini were fortunate to survive. Then he didn’t play in the Big Ten tournament, which was a first game loss, and was a shadow of himself in the very limited action he saw in the NCAA tournament. When you have a team that others love to pack it in against to take away Kofi, losing your best shooter in terms of percentage drastically changes the look of the offense. In hindsight, it might have been wiser to get Melendez more opportunities, but he himself was working himself back from an appodectomy. Therefore, the loss of Grandison’s shooting ability really limited what this Illinois team could do offensively.

People that are talking about Underwood and his lack of adjustmests aren’t looking at what Illinois likely had to do to get more offense with this personnel. How would Brad Underwood have been viewed if he sat Kofi for long stretches to create more driving lanes for Melendez and Curbelo to slash to the basket? It would have certainly likely gotten more looks for Frazier and Plummer, but would they have been able to convert them over the lengthy Houston Cougars? Ultimately, Underwood chose to keep staying with the offense and personnel that won him a Big Ten title, and can you blame him? Illinois still had lots of good looks, but they are predictable offensively, as most teams would be with a mountain in the middle. Illinois needed some of the guys that didn’t shoot an incredibly high percentage from three to make jumpshots today, and unfortunately, they couldn’t.

The bright spot for Illinois seems to be that Illinois is stacking recruits and personnel that can make them a much different team in the future. Along with all other Illinois, I personally hope Kofi Cockburn returns, because if he does Illinois will firmly find itself right back in the Top 25 and upper tier of the Big Ten next season. However, there seems to be a lot of pieces that can get Illinois right back in that spot even without Kofi, as early as next season.

Now that Illinois has established itself as a desirable place for top recruits, Brad Underwood and his staff can get a bit more picky with who they recruit. They don’t have to take pieces and transfers that might be limited in one area of their game or slighly undersized. Next year, Illinois will only have one ‘undersized’ guard in Andre Curbelo. And without Kofi clogging up the middle and a full offseason to get stronger and more reps with his shot, I’d expect Curbelo to have a great offensive season. The Illini brought in Omar Payne as a pick and roll type of big man to pair with Curbelo’s skill set. Kofi’s return really seemed to styme Payne, and he never seemed to gain any sort of traction on either end of the court. He seemed very disengaged defensively because he didn’t seem to ever think about having to play extended minutes. The staff also brought in top 100 big man Dain Dainja, who is also a big man that can help space the floor. Coleman Hawkins is already a big with a similar skill set, so attacking guards like Curbelo and Melendez, along with recruits like Jayden Epps, Sincere Harris, and Ty Rodgers could really take advantage of what should be a much more open floor. We saw how good Curbelo was with Ayo Dosunmu as a driving threat, so next year Illinois get back to having multiple guys on the court at the same time that can break down a defense, without having the lane filled with traffic. If Kofi does return, you love the idea of Illinois adding more shooters with length to their lineup, so they aren’t quite as limited at one end of the court as they were at times this year.

The first weekend exits from the tournament are really frustrating, especially for a fanbase that has been frustrated for a really long time. I’d argue that Illinois fans wouldn’t be nearly as disappointed with this loss if last year’s team had made it past the first weekend. We would be upset, but by in large fans would be more open to seeing the limitations of this team. Last year’s NCAA tournament failure put more pressure on an Illinois team that wasn’t nearly as complete as the one before it. It’s not fair to the coaches or the players. Throughout the course of the season, we saw some games that gave Illinois fans of a run past the first weekend, but down the stretch we saw games that indicated the second weekend should have not been a lofty expectation.

The great thing about Illinois basketball fans are their passion, and it’s also at times the worst thing about them. Brad Underwood gets that, and he embraces that. Don’t forget the struggles that Jay Wright went through at Villanova before he broke through to an elite level. Illinois fans would have been beside themselves had Underwood gone back home and taken the Kansas State job, and I hope the ones criticizing him today remember that. This program is in great shape, and the big breakthrough isn’t far away. The roster is steadily adding guys who have next level size and skill-sets, and that coaching staff will continue to develop them into high level players like they did with the guys that weren’t quite as highly recruited.

It’s okay to feel disappointed, Illinois fans, but big things are on the horizon with this program.

Back on Top (Officially)

I don’t miss Illinois basketball games. You can ask my wife or my family, when Illinois basketball is playing my life pretty much is put on pause. I don’t answer my phone and I don’t go out and socialize to try and “watch” the game. If people in the house want to talk loudly or try to engage me in conversation, they are normally shooshed or told to wait. For two hours, whenever Illinois basketball plays a game, I am completely locked in. It has been this way ever since I was a young man growing up watching the Flyin’ Illini.

As a twelve year old boy living in Southern Illinois, just outside of St. Louis, I remember practicing my turnaround jumpshot from long range for hours. I think every Illinois kid in 1989 wanted to be able to do what Nick Anderson did at Indiana to cement a #1 seed and a legacy. That team is probably one of the greatest to not win a title in NCAA history. Had they not lost Kendall Gill to injury, they would have undoubtedly won the Big Ten. They only lost one game all year with him in the lineup, and that was to a Michigan team in the Final Four that they had beaten twice by double figures in the regular season. I remember crying to myself after that game. Everyone knew they were the best team in the country that year, but they couldn’t secure one defensive rebound and it cost them a shot at the title.

However, as a young man, all I knew of Illinois basketball was success. I expected this sort of team and dominance to last forever. I had known about the prior postseason letdowns against Villanova, where they couldn’t make free throws. I remembered the embarrassing loss to Austin Peay, but the 1989 team seemed to set the stage for years of continued success. Illinois was consistently locking down big time talent. However, the following season was very good, but ended in typical fashion with an early exit from the NCAA tournament thanks to a first round upset. What seemed like a building dynasty slowly eroded as the program was put on probation, and Lou Henson could never recapture the success of the 80’s during six seasons in the 90’s in which the program made the tournament 4 times, but never advanced past the first weekend.

With the program falling back towards mediocrity, Henson retired and Lon Kruger took over. He immediatly rejuvinated the program and returned them back to national prominence, making three tournaments in his four seasons, finishing in the top 25 of the national rankings in each of those three seasons. Things seemed to return to normalcy, as he managed to capture a Big Ten title during one of those seasons as well. Everyone was shocked when he bolted for the NBA with a loaded roster returning. As an Illinois fan that is used to having their heart ripped out, we feared the program might fall back towards mediocrity, but it didn’t seem likely with the recent success, returning talent, and the teams of the 80’s still fresh in the minds of many people.

Illinois replaced Kruger with a young coach by the name of Bill Self. He came in after a big NCAA tournament run with Tulsa, and he had success at Oral Roberts prior to that, but it was still a bit uncertain where the program would go under his direction. Well, it probably doesn’t take a genius to realize how good of a recruiter and coach Bill Self turned out to be. Under his direction, the program seemed to vault itself back into the glory days of my youth. Despite only coaching at the school for three years, he won two conference championships and a conference tournament championship. In his first season, Illinois earned a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight. The following season they advanced to the Sweet Sixteen and just missed out on advancing to the Elite Eight again. This seemed normal. This is what Illinois basketball should be. The following season, despite a lot of new players joining the rotation, Illinois earned a #4 seed in the NCAA tournament. Even though they were defeated in the second round, sustained success had returned and didn’t appear to be going anywhere.

Then, as we had become accustomed to, the Illinois basketball fan base got a gut punch when Bill Self took over the vacated coaching position at Kansas. He said it was his dream job and that he left because he felt that he had a better chance at competing for national championships at Kansas. Yes, Kansas had the long line of basketball tradition, but Illinois had earned 2 #1 seeds in the past 14 seasons, and Self was having no problem landing top recruits. He had molded and shaped Frank Williams into the Big Ten Player of the year and a first round draft pick, the same with Brian Cook. He recruited Dee Brown who would go on to be Big Ten Player of the Year, and Deron Williams and Luther Head, who would both be first round NBA draft picks. How much better could the Kansas job be?

For Illinois fans, there was nothing better than seeing him flounder in the NCAA tournament his first few seasons while our own program continued to flourish. Illinois brought in Bruce Weber who had served for years under Gene Keady and had built a Missouri Valley powerhouse at Southern Illinois. He had a shaky start with the players who were deeply hurt the following season by Self’s departure, but he managed to right the ship and guide Illinois to a conference championship in his first season. It was the programs third Big Ten championship in four years, and things showed no signs of slowing down as they advanced to a Sweet Sixteen. The following season was the magical 04-05 team, that won a fourth conference championship in five seasons, a conference tournament championship, and made it all the way to the national championship game in my hometown of St. Louis.

I had been able to attend the national semifinal game against Louisville, which to this day is one of the greatest days of my entire life. I watched the national championship game at a friend’s house with my wife. I watched as Sean May bullied his way to the free throw line and Illinois came up one three pointer short of capping the dream season. There were no tears that night. That’s the difference between a 12 year old and a 28 year old that was expecting his second child in a few months, but as we were driving home I remember telling my wife that I was heartbroken because I didn’t know if Illinois would be able to climb that mountain again. I told her that North Carolina would be back and likely win more titles under Roy Williams because…well, they’re North Carolina and he was Roy Williams. Despite everything that Illinois had going for them, I had this horrible feeling that they had reached their pinnacle.

The following season started off on an incredible note. Illinois went to North Carolina and won in Chapel Hill. The team roared out to a 15-0 start and climbed to #6 in the polls. They had gone an unthinkable 52-2 since the start of the 2004-05 season, but then the forces of reality began to take their toll. Illinois lost their first game of the Big Ten Tournament that season, the first time they hadn’t reached the conference tournament semifinals in six years. They cruised to an opening round win in the NCAA tournament as a #4 seed, but let a late lead slip away as they were upset in the second round by Washington. While I had felt that they had reached the summit and fallen just short the year before, I had no idea just how far the fall was going to go and how long it was going to last.

It didn’t take long for Illinois fans to realize that Bruce Weber might have been a good coach, but he didn’t have the recruiting accumen to keep Illinois in the national spotlight for the long haul. Weber refused to adapt to modern recruiting tactics and offer high level prospects early on in the process, so Illinois often found itself chasing high level in-state prospects. Instead, Weber relied on the old school tactics that worked well for Gene Keady at Purdue. Bring in good players and then work to develop them into really good players over the course of their time in the program. While that formula was successful in the 80’s where players weren’t looking to quickly jump to the NBA and for programs in the Missouri Valley, that’s not how you compete in today’s Power Five programs and with fans that expect you to be at or near the top of the league every year. Tom Izzo, Thad Matta, Tom Crean, Bo Ryan, and Matt Painter all had their programs flying high and right past Illinois. Yes, the recruiting services often times miss on some really good players, but they make money hand over fist because they are generally very good at what they do in terms of identifying top talent. It wasn’t hard for fans to see in the recruiting rankings or on the court that Bruce Weber was falling behind other Big Ten programs.

While Illinois was still getting good players, they couldn’t string together consistent recruiting classes or the necessary pieces to be consistently good teams year in and year out. After the 05-06 season that saw Illinois rise as high as #6 in the polls and finish with a #4 seed in the NCAA tournament, Illinois only made three NCAA appearances in Weber’s final six seasons, winning only one tournament game and never ending the season in the national rankings. Illinois’ best conference record after the 05-06 season under Weber was 11-7, and they only reached double digit conference wins one other time. The man who had been given the keys to a program with national championship level talent had run the program into territory that Illinois fans hadn’t known for almost 30 years.

After the 2011-12 season, Illinois fans were disgruntled, but we all felt like the early 2000’s and 2005 were still at the front of the minds of potential coaches and recruits. Illinois fans still believed this was an elite program and a top ten destination for coaches and players. It didn’t seem like it would be that difficult to sell high level coaches to come to Illinois. Just a few years ago they were coming off a national championship appearance and had won the conference four out of five years. It felt like getting Brad Stevens to leave Butler for a place where he would have access to great facilities and a bigger recruiting budget would be a foregone conclusion, but when he turned them down people had little doubt that Shaka Smart would jump at the opportunity, but he didn’t want the job either. Suddenly, Illinois whiffed on their first two choices. Two up and coming coaches at the time that had experienced high level, national succes, both said no to a program with rich history and somewhat recent success. Now Illinois had a well publicized vacancy and an athletic director that was in over his head. Illinois pivoted to John Groce, who had just taken Ohio University to the Sweet Sixteen by defeating North Carolina. He was part of Thad Matta’s staffs that had brought in the elite talent to that program, but Illinois fans were disappointed. Groce had led Ohio to two NCAA appearances in his four years at the school, but for a program that was seeking a return to national relevance, this hire seemed to be a bit of a stretch.

During his inagural season, Groce produced some big time wins and moments, including a win at Gonzaga and defeating #1 Indiana and climbing as high to #10 in the polls at one point early in the season. After a nightmarish start to conference play when the season started to feel lost, the team rallied and earned an NCAA birth. They came within a missed jumper of advancing to the Sweet Sixteen, and if you’re wondering why officials can now review all calls where possession is in dispute in the last two minutes of a game, you can thank Illinois getting screwed for that. Just like no other team has to worry about playing a true road game in the NCAA tournament, thanks to Illinois getting screwed in 1984.

As Illinois fans, we’re always waiting for something to go against us. As a Purdue alum, I think both fan bases can relate when it comes to agonizing basketball stories and almosts. When I was at Purdue, we earned a #1 seed, but couldn’t advance past the second round. Heck, we narrowly missed becoming the first #1 seed to get beat by a #16 seed, thanks Virginia. However, things came full circle as Purdue had their Elite Eight contest won, except for a miracle offensive rebound tap out and 30+ foot shot going in at the buzzer to send the game into overtime, and Virginia eventually onto a national championship. However, if you asked Illinois fans in 2019, they would have given anything to trade places with Purdue fans.

For Illinois, the 2018-19 season marked the sixth straight season without making an NCAA tournament appearance. In fact, despite winning seven games in the conference and knocking off a few top 25 opponents, that Illinois team would set the school’s all time record for most losses in a season. Despite seeing Brad Underwood slowly upgrading the talent, it felt like Illinois would still be years away from having their hearts potentially ripped out in March, or even experiencing exciting moments in March. Bruce Weber had deflated the Illinois program, and John Groce ran it into the ground. Groce seemed like a capable coach, but his staff had zero recruiting ties and juice, which was desparately needed to turn things around.

When Brad Underwood was hired, he came in saying all of the right things. Illinois was his dream job, so unlike Kruger and Self, if he did win, Illinois fans wouldn’t have to worry about him jumping to greener pastures. Like Self, Underwood came in with really high success at a smaller school, and he had just come off a really successful season at Oklahoma St. He brought in a frantic style of play, that while Illinois lacked the talent to win many games, at least was an exciting brand of basketball to watch. For all of my Purdue friends and fellow alumni that gave me grief about still being a die hard Illinois fan, I finally felt like we were about to see the playing field leveled like it was when I was at Purdue in the late 90s. And trust me, I heard about Brian Cardinal all of the time and knew his story all too well.

As a die hard Illinois fan who literally marks his calendar and plans accordingly with their schedule, these past few seasons have been so special. Not only is Illinois basketball back, but with Brad Underwood in place, it doesn’t feel like it’s going away anytime soon. These teams and his program seem capable of reaching the 2005 summit, and possibly winning a national championship some day. It doesn’t feel like Illinois basketball, and it’s 44-16 record in the Big Ten over the past three seasons is the apex. While that record is ridiculously good, and most rational fans should understand that a slight drop might be expected if Kofi Cockburn moves on after this season, Illinois basketball is not going away. The dynasties of the 80s and early 2000’s are back. Illinois basketball has returned to the program I grew up thinking it always would be. If not for some odd rules during the Covid season of 2020-21, Illinois would be celebrating back to back regular season titles.

So what does all of this mean? For me it means that people won’t look at me like I’m crazy for watching a game on my phone at a party in November against Texas Rio-Grande Valley. Ok, well most people will still think that is really weird, but at least they’ll see the relevance. Unlike years past when I would tell people I couldn’t meet them because I wanted to watch Illinois lose to North Florida, and then later explain to people that North Florida was projected to win their conference, so it might not be considered a horrible loss as the season went on. Yeah, that’s how bad things got for Illinois basketball. Those of us that are true diehards will never forget those times, as hard as we might try.

My sons who have never lived in Illinois, but are fans because of all of the games they’ve seen me watching now understand what this program is and can be. They have only known Illinois as losers in their lifetime. My friends that I’ve grown close to over the past decade, that know me as ‘the Illinois fan’ can see the passion met with some reward. It’s rewarding not being the butt of jokes. Purdue fans laughed at Indiana fans in 2013 when Illinois beat them when they were the #1 team in the country. They said things like, “I can’t believe you guys lost to Illinois.” In my mind, it felt like Illinois basketball had fallen to the level of Northwestern in the eyes of people around the Big Ten and beyond with that kind of statement. How could little ole’ Illinois beat mightly Indiana?

The other thing that makes all of this recent success so much more special is the fact that in the Big Ten, championships matter. I only know the Midwest in my 45 years on earth, but loyalty is what defines us. We remember things that happened 20 years ago like they were yesterday. We value consistency and hard work. While I would love to see Illinois basketball make run after run in the NCAA tournament, I get more excited about winning Big Ten championships. Maybe it’s because the schools are located so close geographically, and the fans are so passionate. But it’s more likely because in the Midwest we value consistency over time. Winning a Big Ten championship means you were consistently better than your peers through a long, cold winter. Winning in the NCAA tournament is often about matchups, and one game can suddenly change the perception of an entire season. Big Ten championships are things that are discussed years later. Living in Northern Indiana, it’s darn near impossible not to go out into a sports setting and find yourself among Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, and Michigan St. fans. Rivalries and championships mean something in this part of the country.

Had Nebraska not beaten Wisconsin yesterday, and Illinois still beat Iowa in a great game, it would have been exciting and fulfilling, but it would have been another year of almost with Illinois basketball. I would have gone to bed feeling good, but not elated. It would not have diminished the season, but it would have been another great team under Brad Underwood that didn’t get to have a banner raised to cement their legacy. Those banners mean something at Illinois. Even now, when I take my teenaged sons to Illinois baskeball games, I talk about those teams on those banners and the players who were on them. Now, one day I’ll get to tell my grandkids about the 2021-22 Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team when I take them to a game and we start pointing at the banners hanging from the ceiling.

As a fan, I am so happy and proud today, but I also feel relieved. I feel relieved for a guy like Brad Underwood that has worked so hard these past 5 seasons to get to this point. He understands Illinois basketball and the midwest. He wants to win national championships. He has openly talked about it this season, but he also understands the significance and legacy of winning Big Ten championships. He wants to win championships so badly for himself, his players, but also for the fans. All coaches say their fans are the greatest, but Brad Underwood has meant that with complete sincerity since he took over the job.

People doubted his methods after his first two seasons. People doubted his coaching ability after a tough loss to Loyola in the NCAA tournament last season. People doubted his ability to prepare teams and get up for non-conference rivals at the beginning of this season. Yet, through all of that he stayed true to himself and his beliefs. He wasn’t happy when his team narrowly escaped Penn St. a few days ago, but they found a way to win, something Wisconsin couldn’t avoid doing to Nebraska at home to secure an outright title. After the Penn St. game, you would have thought that Illinois might as well have surrendered the rest of the season if your were on social media.

Many of the same people praising the team and coaches today, were the same ones ridiculing them on Thursday night. Quite honestly, it’s embarrassing and why I stay off Twitter following losses or poor performances. However, it does show the passion of Illinois basketball fans. However, those aren’t the fans that were there to watch and criticze the Florida A&M and North Florida losses. While people may not look at things as analytically as I do or understand that all teams and humans have off days/nights, it is crazy how insane this fanbase can be. It’s why despite attending another Big Ten school with a highly successful basketball program for four years, my committment and loyalty to the program I grew up worshiping never waivered. Last night made all of the nights I upset my wife by checking out for two hours worth it. It made all of the times I told friends I was busy or unavailable during an Illinois basketball game worth it. All of the times I got snickered at for believing in an Illinois team that others could see was so flawed and lacking in talent, were now erased.

As we roll into the conference and NCAA tournaments, a lot of people will be out in bars watching Illinois games in large groups or with friends. Not me! I’ll be watching intently at home. Analyzing how other teams are attacking us or what we need to do to be successful on both ends of the court. I won’t overreact if things don’t go our way on foul calls, and if we don’t win the Big Ten tournament, I won’t talk about how we got outcoached or point out all of the reasons why we won’t make a Final Four. If we don’t have a long run in the NCAA tournament, I won’t call this season a waste or a missed opportunity. On March 7th, 2022, I am enjoying the feeling of seeing my favorite team crowned a 20-game conference champion and having a tremendous coach in place that is going to keep this program highly relevant for years to come. It’s a great day to be an Illini fan, and if the weather wasn’t so crappy today, I am half tempted to go outside on the basketball court in my backyard and practice my 35 foot turnaround jumpshots like I did 33 years ago.

Thank you Brad Underwood, coaches, and players. You’re champions today, and for the rest of your lives.

Work Hard Without the Camera

I’m getting older, I fully admit it and embrace it. The music isn’t getting too loud yet, but I don’t understand popular music these days. I can’t tell you what year I bought all of my clothes, but I definitely value comfort over style when I go out now. I stay active on social media, but I don’t get the purpose of filming everything I do for TikTok or Snapchat. I’m old school, but I still am averse in the new school world and thought process. However, I have to admit that when it comes to modern kids, sports, and this idea of filming all of their hard work, I just don’t get it!

The first thing I wanted to do to help make sure I wasn’t off my rocker was look up the definition of hard work. According to Oxford languages online, hard work is defined as: a great deal of effort or endurance. Ok, I agree with that. No big deal.

From there I decided to Google ‘what does hard work mean?’ According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, here is what I found: constantly, regularly, or habitually engaged in earnest and energetic work : industrious, diligent a hardworking young woman “Our students have to be very hardworking and committed. They put in long hours. Again, I agree with that.

I was starting to feel a little discouraged in my search to validate my concerns that kids today have a different idea of hard work than I do. I was starting to feel…OLD! Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t get it. Maybe I should just shut up and stay in my lane. Don’t worry about all of these videos I see kids posting of themselves on social media and talking about how hard they’re working. Maybe I should accept the idea that the idea of hard work has changed since I was brought up, but then I was saved. I was validated by one last search: work ethic.

According to the Business Dictionary, work ethic is defined as: Work ethic is a belief that work and diligence have a moral benefit and an inherent ability, virtue or value to strengthen character and individual abilities.

When I look at that definition, I see one word that sticks out to my old eyes, inherent. Inherent is defined as: an essential quality that is part of a person or thing. An essential quality that is part of a person or thing! Like a bird flying or a fish swimming, or like a kid posting their hard work on social media. Today’s young kids feel that somehow they need to have everything validated on social media. If people can’t see me working hard, then they won’t know that I’m a hard worker. They habitually put work and effort into building themselves up on social media. Maybe that’s what sticks in this old man’s crawl a bit.

I was raised in a society and an era where hard work was understated and self-driven. Now it seems to be the opposite. Kids today have to always be noticed and praised for their efforts by always putting it in people’s faces. Generation Xers pride themselves on working hard without being heaped with praise. In fact, some of the leading traits of Generation X are: results-oriented and hard-working with a tendency to be quiet achievers. No wonder why I can’t stand these kids that have to share every time they pick up a weight or do something outside of the designated practice or conditioning hours. It’s engrained in me to keep your mouth shut and produce results without drawing attention to yourself. It’s engrained that this is what is expected to get ahead in life, not something that you need to be praised for doing. If you want results you need to work for them. Does sharing your hard work on social media someone make you feel like you’re really working hard?

Hard work is what you’re supposed to do to get ahead in life! What makes the work hard is that it is done when others aren’t working or WATCHING, that’s what separates you from your peers. For me as a school director, kids filming themselves working out is the equivalent of an employee seeking out there boss to remind them of all the hours they’re putting in to try and get a promotion. If you’re really working hard, your results will stand out through your performance. The more time you put in at anything, the better you are going to perform, and that performance is what should stand out. We don’t want to sit and watch bands rehearse for hours, we want to listen to the album they produced as a result. The hard work and effort that was put shines through in the product that was put out. I have the same mindset with athletes today. We don’t need to see what you’re doing in the offseason, show us the product on the fields. In the mind of kids and parents today, does posting a workout make them think they’re impressing coaches? Won’t the coaches see the results at practices and in the weight room if you’ve really been working hard.

One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from J.C. Watts Jr. “Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.” When nobody is looking! This is a man who played Division 1 football at Oklahoma University and then professionally in Canada. He went on to serve as a U.S. representative in addition to being a clergyman. This is an African-American male that grew up without the luxuries in life during the Civil Rights era. This is a man that can attest to what hard work really is.

So this brings me back to the question I see of kids posting videos on social media of their workouts that feature personal throwing, hitting, and lifting records. In order to do that, someone needs to be there filming you! Kids today go to a workout and film each other as much as they actually workout. They’re not, grinding alone. They’re reliant on their friends to document the “hard work.” Again, my old man mindset comes to asking a co-worker to film me in my office before everyone arrives or well after everyone has left, so I can post about “the grind.” The entire thought just seems a little ridiculous.

I get it. I’m old. Kids today are from a different generation. Generation Z kids are fully present on the Internet. If you didn’t post it, it didn’t happen. Instead of doing things in person, they prefer to do things over social media. They have this fear of missing out. If I don’t post my workout and share it with everyone, nobody will know that I worked out. I commend the coaches from my generation that work with today’s kids. While the people on the tail end of Generation X may not feel old yet, we are feeling the big differences in generations.

As a Gen X, when I see kids posting videos about how hard they are working and how good they are, it triggers my desires to see them fail. It’s a horrible instinct, but it’s the way we were raised. People that needed constant praise, attention, and validation had massive self-esteem issues in our era. Those were the kids that typically got made fun of or picked on by coaches. Now if you’re not constantly praising kids for their efforts as an adult, parent, or coach you get labeled as ‘old-school’ and out of touch.

I certainly don’t want to be labeled as a grumpy old man, but my generation clearly has a different definition of hard work and work ethic than the new one. It will be difficult for me to ever see a video of a kid working out or posting something about one their personal records without rolling my eyes and wondering how hard they want to work when nobody is around with a camera. If you go back to the original definition I shared of hard work, I will always feel that kids who constantly post on social media about working out are putting in greater effort and endurance in regards to sharing videos of themselves than they actually are outworking anyone. I fear that these kids really have no idea of what hard work really is and means. It’s a lot easier to “work” when someone is filming your efforts, but that character shows through when you’re on your own.

I guess it’s just a different world now, so I’ll stay in my lane. However, I will always praise and honor the kids who get things done without needing that modern day validation. Give me a team full of those kids, and we may not win every game, but we’re always going to be in the fight because they don’t care about what they look like or others think about them. It’s like the saying goes, don’t ever get in a fight with an ugly man because he’s got nothing to lose, it’s the one that likes to be looked at doesn’t want to take the hits. A lot of modern athletes like to look good in the weight rooms or with their numbers, but when it comes time to show it on the field they don’t have the grit. We’ve all seen it with the perfect resumes in life too, but when it comes time to get the job done they’re not up to par.

As my Gen X blood boils to a Boomer like rage, I’ll let it be known that I think today’s kids do put in a lot more work than previous generations. There are higher expectations and time requirements put on them, but I’ll just have to try and accept that some things are different these days. I’ll stop writing and go back to scrolling through my baseball Twitter feed and leave you all alone now. But, I will say if you’re still reading this, get off my lawn!

Nobody Wants to Work Anymore

How many times have you heard that phrase in the last couple of years? I’m guessing too many to count. It seems like everywhere you go today places having ‘now hiring’ signs in the windows and are asking you to be patient because they are short-staffed. It’s not uncommon to wait to be seated at a restaurant while there are numerous open tables or get caught in a long check-out line because there is only one cashier available. You can pretty much guarantee that every time you are in one of these situations, someone in your group or around you points out that the business is short-staffed and utters the insightful phrase, “Nobody wants to work anymore.”

My response to that question will always remain the same, has anyone ever wanted to work? While I have been lucky to enjoy my career, and even the multiple jobs I had while in high school and college, I don’t ever recall waking up and ever wanting to work. In fact, many businesses where we encounter issues with staffing issues are in the retail, restaurant, or entertainment venues. Places most of us go to get away from and take our minds off work or from having to prepare our own meals. In short, nobody really wants to work. That is why I cannot stand these implied blanket statements about people being lazy and abusing the system.

Before I dive into that, let me go through some numbers. According to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor in December 2021, the current unemployment rate is 3.9%, which is almost identical to the historical pre-pandemic lows in 2020. What that means is that people who want work, generally, are not having a hard time finding work. So does that mean that people aren’t looking for work?

That is quite possible. One of the benefits from having such a strong economy over the past decade has been that people have more money in their pockets. Factor in some of the pandemic relief that families received, and potential workers are now not in quite as much of a rush to get a job. People can take more time between jobs or simply decide not to work for a while. Job resignations reached an all-time high in 2021, as people simply are getting more particular about where they work and what kind of work they want to do. Can you blame anyone if they have the ability to choose the option to wait to find a job they enjoy and is more personally satisfying, while meeting their financial needs? I am going to assume that the person who preaches about getting an education, saving money, working hard, and making good financial choices does all of that so it presents better options to get the type of job and career that you find most desirable. So why do so many people in that position want to cast judgement on others for trying to do the same?

For many years, our society has looked at certain jobs as status symbols and stepping stones. Long running allusions often refer to rocket scientists and flipping burgers as the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to work skills. However, if the rocket scientist could make as much money flipping burgers as they could…doing whatever they do…would we cast judgement on them for choosing a job that provides more personal enjoyment and financial stability? We have somehow developed this idea in our society that people that work certain jobs aren’t worth the same level of social status, and more importantly, financial status as others that have gone to school and work at a “stressful, highly-skilled” job. Yet, people who earn a healthy living driving trucks or working in factories are spared the burger flipping status jokes. All of these jobs are essential to our society and the lifestyles we enjoy.

So let’s take a look at some of those “low-skilled”, low paying jobs. These are typically the short-staffed jobs that cause us grief when we want to go out and relax or quickly get in and out of a store. According to statista.com, in 2021 47.6% of minimum wage workers were between the ages of 16-24 years old. Couple those numbers with the fact that teenagers that are working is at an all-time low, and that might explain why so many places have a help wanted sign prominently displayed.

I guess that means that we’re all doomed because this young generation doesn’t want to work. Maybe some people will come to that snap judgement, but I’ll push back with the argument that most teenagers aren’t working because they don’t have the time. Since 2000, the number of teenagers working went from 50% to 33%, and the biggest reason given was because of increased demands for academic performance to get into colleges and time commitments to athletics. Older generations can dispute this all they want, but teenagers and parents of teenagers can attest that in the world of everybody gets an “A” and everybody gets a trophy, the time required to separate yourself from the competition has drastically risen.

In the past, colleges would often times look at a student’s GPA and college entrance scores to determine who they were going to admit. However, as GPA’s have become inflated due to less rigorous academic expectations by schools and college entrance tests being minimized, students are having to find other ways to stand out on paper amongst their peers. This often requires joining clubs or supplementing free time with other school related activities that cut into previous opportunities teenagers had to work. High school athletes no longer have an offseason, which makes finding jobs for teenagers that play sports extremely difficult. Even if they can find a job, their work schedules are extremely limited. The simple fact is that employers cannot and should not rely on jobs being filled by teenagers like they were in previous decades. Especially when you factor in that most families are doing well financially from the previous decade, so the need for teens to work and help support their families is significantly lower than in previous years.

Let’s look at another eye-opening statistic. As of December 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor there were 6.3 million people unemployed and 10.56 million job openings in the United States. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, see what I did there, to see that we are in a labor crisis in our country. Quite simply, we have more jobs than people looking for jobs, even if you want to factor in people that may not technically be considered unemployed because they are not actively seeking work. The trickle down effect of this is that places that held higher requirements in order to qualify for a job and paid higher salaries are now accepting and hiring people that previously would not have qualified. The further ripple effect is that the jobs that pay the least, with the worst hours, and the least reward are now even less desirable than ever because better jobs are more easily obtainable. I’m pretty sure if your boss offered you more money with slightly better hours, benefits, and no additional education required you would be looking for the hidden cameras before jumping at the opportunity. More importantly, if another employer was doing the same thing, you can see now why resignations are at an all time high and employee loyalty is at an all time low.

Could this be a reflection of the younger generations mindset? Possibly, but they are simply taking advantage of the economy that has been created by our society and corporate greed. If businesses know that there is a labor shortage, why are they still operating and expanding like they did before? The reason oil prices and construction costs have skyrocketed has little to do with politics and more to do with supply and demand. The economy was so good for so long that those at the top are trying to get every penny into their pockets. When there is a labor shortage and employees demanding better wages because of a lack of supply, it is the consumer that pays the ultimate price. Quite simply, companies are being forced to pay employees more to attract them.

That is why I get tired of people using the political rhetoric of both parties to justify ignorant and simplistic statements and observations. We have not created a lazy nation through politics. Increased hand-held technology that produces immediate satisfaction and endorphins, along with sky-rocketing workplace automation is doing just fine at creating that culture. Quite simply, we have become a society that expects to get what we want almost immediately and with as little discomfort as possible. That has certainly trickled down to our younger workers who fulfill a lot of service jobs, but that has also led to an increased attack on service workers.

Teachers, police officers, servers, and retail workers are all under attack like never before because of the reasons above. We live in a society that expects everything to be catered to us, and when people that are perceived to be working for you don’t readily comply or meet your immediate needs without fitting into your idealistic views they get attacked and accused of not doing their jobs like they should be. I will digress before I get too far down this track.

However, I want to close things out with this. I work with people every day that are making an effort to go back as an adult to get their high school diploma. They do this because they want to better themselves and live a life with more comforts. They are not getting that life by not working or by living off the government. They often do this while they are already working to support themselves and their kids. They are often working the jobs that we look down on and complain about being short-staffed. They make that choice because living off what the government can or will provide in assistance is not enough to live a life the majority of people in our country could fathom. They make personal sacrifices and often work twice as hard to make ends meet and better themselves than most of the people who sit in judgement ever have. They are not lazy. They are not sitting at home living off the government. Those that live that life know how difficult it is and would welcome you to switch places with them. That is why I get so upset with people that use politics and blanket statements to assess situations. I try not to get political, as both parties and government have failed people in need. I would really like for anyone who strongly disagrees with me to come with me to work for a few days and get to know the people I know. It’s a little different when you have a face, a name, and a story that goes against the blanket statement that people are lazy, people want to live off the government, and nobody wants to work anymore. I think exposing people to the realities some face in our society will really change a lot of perspectives on things, but then again, that might require some people to work harder than they really want to in order to uncover the truth.

For every person that we can uncover utilizing the government and any assistance for their benefit to truly avoid working, I’m sure we could find a millionaire doing the same thing with government loopholes to avoid paying taxes. Is one smarter than the other? Is one lazier than the other? Well, that’s an entirely different debate. All I hope is that we can all avoid making blanking statements about people and society without educating ourselves a bit and blindly following political ideologies.

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