Uh, About That Pick For Illinois To Win It All? Better Luck Next Time, Greg

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It has been 33 years, but I was wrong once before. It’s just some obscure sports moment now, but back then, when Mike Tyson fought Michael Spinks, it was huge. Tyson wasn’t just a celebrity fighter or the guy who sings badly in the Hangover movies and punches out Zach Galifianakis.

Tyson was dominant. Spinks was a bulked-up light heavyweight. They were both undefeated.

I was sure, just sure, Spinks was going to beat the unbeatable Tyson. I was young; what the hell did I know? I kept telling my friends over and over. Spinks. Spinks. Spinks. And then he showed up before the fight and his eyes were twice their normal size. He was scared to death.

It was already over. Ninety-one seconds later, he was counted out.

“If you want to know who’s going to win the NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga or Baylor, here’s your answer: Illinois. You heard it here first.’’

I tweeted that a month ago today. And I said it again and again. That was before they were a popular pick. Illini. Illini. Illini. I was sure, just sure. And then they stepped onto the court Sunday against Loyola Chicago in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and were counted out 180 seconds later. The Illini were down 9-2 and never in the game again.

Loyola won 71-58. At least the Illini lasted twice as long as Spinks, who we never heard from again.

It’s hard to explain what happened in that Illinois-Loyola game. How long can you talk about 180 seconds? Punch, punch, take a knee. Punch, punch, you’re out.

Loyola has 101-year old Sister Jean, survivor of two pandemics 100 years apart, so Illinois shouldn’t seem like a big deal in comparison. But while Sister Jean is a great team mascot and inspiration — not to diminish her, god bless her — what happened Sunday was that Loyola was the far, far better team. The Ramblers bumped and pushed around Illinois’ stud guard Ayo Dosunmu and center Kofi Cockburn.

You can’t be Cinderella if you’re the bully. Loyola had two guys on Dosunmu, two on Cockburn and one on everyone else. They had seven players on the court, I swear. And then they slowed the offense and lulled  Illinois’ athleticism away.

Illinois was cocky, throwing overly chancy passes to try to look flashy. Loyola’s players were working their butts off. Loyola had a gameplan from Coach Porter Moser. Illinois had some guy standing on the sideline watching it happen. That was all in the first 180 seconds.

Loyola is a legit national champion contender now. 

I remember writing at a Masters once that Jack Nicklaus was “just for show’’ now. He was a ceremonial golfer. On the 10th fairway that Sunday, with Nicklaus only a few strokes out of the lead and charging, a reporter from Seattle actually spotted me and said, “Aren’t you the guy who wrote that Nicklaus can’t win?’’

In fairness, Nicklaus didn’t win that day. But I tore the column I’d written out of the Chicago Sun-Times and literally ate it, then wrote about what it tastes like to eat your words. Luckily, Spinks was just a thing between friends and me. (In fairness to me, Muhammad Ali picked him to beat Tyson, too.) 

I’m not sure why people care about writers’ predictions. We know some things; we don’t know others. A lot of it is based on history and patterns.

That’s what makes my Illinois pick so dreadful. The Big Ten hasn’t won a college basketball national championship in 21 years. And I picked a Big Ten team to win?

I won’t make that mistake again.

Turns out, the Big Ten was highly overrated. It got nine teams into the tournament. We still aren’t past the first week of the tournament — the final second-round games are today — and only three Big Ten teams are left: Michigan, Iowa and Maryland.

Some people had three Big Ten teams making it to the Final Four. But instead, the Big Ten has lost major upset after major upset. No. 1 Illinois lost to No. 8 Loyola. Purdue lost to North Texas. No. 2 Ohio State lost to No. 15 Oral Roberts.

Michigan State had UCLA beat and fell apart. Rutgers was about to get an upset win over No. 2 seed Houston, but choked.

Some people thought Ohio State could contend for the national title. When I watched some of its game, I started thinking that the Big Ten wasn’t any good after all and that my Illinois pick was shaky. I thought about Spinks’ eyes.

The Big Ten had five of the top 14-seeded teams. Meanwhile, the Pac-12, which didn’t have a team seeded higher than No. 5, hasn’t lost a game yet.

Because of the pandemic, there weren’t many great non-conference games. So these conferences are being judged on their reputations, not their actual play. 

Fortunately for Dosunmu and Cockburn, they’ll go on to the NBA. I looked up Michael Spinks on Wikipedia. He talks to school kids and has to bring his title belts because no one knows who he is.

Well, I’ll probably get another pick wrong around 2054. Until then, I’d put my money on Loyola to win it all. I’m sure of it. You heard it here first.

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.


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  1. I think this season will be a great test for media bias. I am not talking about political bias but instead conference or team bias. With fewer games against non-conference teams it is left to the selection committee and to the sports reporters who is better. What were they making their decisions on? Was this a case of group think?

    After the season is over it would be a good test case for media bias and influence to compare analyze media positive/negative reporting and rankings. Then compare it to previous seasons when interconference play would decide the issue.

    Subjective (sports reporter opinion on which team is better) vs objective (game scores).

  2. I remember reading your article and thinking it was way off. Illinois is a good team when Frazier is hot but if he goes cold the team is vulnerable. Well he went cold against Loyola. Furthermore, I blame Brad Underwood for not making any needed adjustments. In fact, he just said, I don’t care if Krutwig scores 100 points. Well Loyolas entire offense is predicated off of movement around Krutwig. They should have collapses and doubled Krutwig and disrupted their offense just a bit. Get Loyola off balance. Instead Underwood stuck with his flawed game plan and allowed Loyola to be comfortable the whole game. Illinois was both outplayed and outcoached.

  3. I’m kind of a PAC guy(USC) but my brackets are blown because I trusted the CBB pundits. CBB is not a good product so I really only watch some USC/Pac, and just a sprinkling of other conferences late in the season. I’m dependent on the “experts”. They all told me the PAC sucks, the Big10 and Big12 is where the best ball is being played. After the first weekend no PAC losses yet, but three of my final four are out: Ohio State, Illinois, Texas. The Zags are still in it but everybody has them no worse than the title game I think. Thanks for nothing.

  4. I kept watching Dosunmu try to win that game by himself and screaming at the TV, “Pass the ball!” I was kind of rooting for Loyola, but it’s frustrating to watch such poor execution by any player.

  5. Thank you for your humble pie on this. I have been one who has continued to Remind you of your “Trust Me on This” about the B1G and specifically Illinois. I know it is tough to swallow now but hey, Wait ’til next year.

  6. It wasn’t a bad prediction Greg, just ended up wrong. Join the 13.4M who’s brackets won’t be perfect. I’ve lived in the West for over 50 years and have always been a Pac(8, 10 and 12) fan, and have been pissed every year by the obvious media bias towards West Coast sports teams. Even I didn’t think the Pac-12 would do as well as they have so far(Oregon just got done stomping Iowa to give the Pac-12 a 7-0 record so far in the tourney). With most teams playing the majority of their games in-conference, the media bias was going to be even greater this year. The only team on the West that played some outside of conference games was Gonzaga, and they beat top 10 teams pretty bad.

  7. In this Covid year with teams playing few non-conference games and several elite programs having awful years the expert option (and non-expert) were obviously even more meaningless than normal. In hindsight the Big Ten had a lot of good depth but probably no great team. It did get 6 in the round of 32 and was three inexcusable OT losses away from likely having 9. But it looks very likely the conference will not have a Final 4 or even an Elite 8 team unless UM goes on a run. Unlikely without Livers. The BiG 12 – the “other toughest conference” is also underperforming. Conversely the east Coast media has largely ignored Pac12 basketball for the better part of a decade, often with good reason, so nobody paid one bit of attention to them. That and few non-conference games and the bias that they Pac12 was mediocre was created, while in fact the conference may end up having the best tournament even without a title.

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