Game #9-535: Illinois State Redbirds vs. Northern Iowa PanthersMarch 8, 2013 9:35 pm
St. Louis, MO
A few days before Thanksgiving, right in the midst of ESPN's Feast Week, I turned on the television to watch a basketball game. Typical me. Ignoring family members to watch a bunch of college kids dribbling a basketball and aimlessly throwing it toward a net. On this particular afternoon, I was watching a bunch of kids play this stupid game in Hawaii, in a gym that held like 2,000 people and still had the practice nets from the sideways courts hanging from the rafters.
Butler was playing Marquette in the Maui Invitational. You know Butler. Went to two straight national championship games. Coached by Mr. Roboto himself, Brad Stevens. I'd never seen an ounce of emotion out of Stevens. Remember when his team missed 822 shots in a row against Connecticut in the 2011 title game, and he just sat there on a stool? Motionless and without human emotion? That's Brad Stevens for you. Stoic. Not afraid. Won't open up. So unbelievably confident that he doesn't need to express how he's feeling, because the basketball gods will take care of it.
This is how I'd always viewed Brad Stevens. Until I watched this Marquette game on ESPN. Maybe I was imaging things, but I picked up on some very subtle body language from Stevens. He was screaming a little bit. He was waving his arms. He looked like a basketball coach, for pete's sake! That's just not normal behavior for Stevens, so I began to wonder. During his run of NCAA Tournaments and Final Four appearances, Stevens never had anything to worry about. Even when things went wrong, he was never under all that much pressure. Sure, losing a game or, say, a title game would be horrible, but it wouldn't cost him his livelihood or his job. He was playing with house money.
On 2011-12, Stevens' team missed the NCAA Tournament. Nobody will dare criticize him for that, and rightfully so, but entering this season, there were some questions about this program. Ronald Nored was gone. Last year's team was one of the worst perimeter shooting teams in college basketball. With Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke and freshman Kellen Dunham, that was supposed to change this year, but there were no guarantees.
As Butler trailed Marquette in this tournament, I started to think about Stevens and his demeanor. He's feeling the pressure, isn't he? He wasn't stoic at all. He looked a little, dare I say, nervous. And again, this might be completely in my head, but he didn't look like himself. It's just not easy to be Mr. Roboto when you're not totally comfortable.
Then, at the end of the game, Clarke hit a ridiculous buzzer-beater from 40 feet as he fell onto the ground. Stevens was stoic again. Mr. Roboto folded his arms, walked to center court and said not even a word after one of the most miraculous shots of the college basketball season. A few months later, when Butler stole the inbounds pass against Gonzaga at the end of the game and again won at the buzzer on an improbable game-winner in front of a national TV audience, Mr. Roboto had the same reaction. His team was in the Top 25, he'd just won the game and there was nothing to worry about.
You're probably wondering why this has anything to do with an Illinois State/Northern Iowa game in the MVC Tournament. It's because I sat behind the UNI bench, which meant I had a front-row seat to watch coach Ben Jacobson.
I admire Jacobson. He is an excellent tactician, a renowned defensive coach and one of the most respected guys in not only the Missouri Valley, but in college basketball as a whole. Everybody knows Jacobson can coach. That's why his team won two straight MVC titles and stormed the NCAA Tournament with an upset win over Kansas in 2010. Ali Farokhmanesh got the headlines for that victory, but that team was downright nasty. That was one of the best defensive teams I've seen in a long time in the Valley, and it was a complete team in every sense. Big man. Point guard. Shooters. Scorers. And a feared leader in Jacobson.
Like Stevens, Jacobson hardly ever uttered a word. He didn't go to two straight Final Fours, but in his own way, he was Mr. Roboto. Never too high, never too low. It is scary how similar the two coaches' demeanors are. I've sat behind Jacobson for many years, and this has always been his most impressive attribute.
But there hasn't always been pressure on Jacobson. He had a comfy job and created a winning program, and during the height of his Stoicism, he had such a good team that he had nothing to worry about. But things have changed. Ever since that Sweet 16 appearance in 2010, Northern Iowa's program has stabilized. It hasn't fallen apart, but Jacobson hasn't again returned to the NCAA Tournament. In the three years since, he has finished with an eerie 20-14 record in each season, hovering around .500 in Valley play. It's good. But it's not great, and at Northern Iowa, people expect the Panthers to be great now.
With a talented Illinois State team in the house, I began to also notice a slight change in Jacobson's demeanor. He was still mostly Mr. Robot, but he'd have these odd, random outbursts at times. They were sometimes outbursts of excitement. Other times, he'd get angry at players, chew them out and act like, again, a basketball coach.
I could be reading too much into this. That's a possibility. But Northern Iowa lost to Illinois State on this night, cementing a third consecutive year without an NCAA Tournament berth for this program. Steven is back to being Mr. Roboto, but Jacobson might not be able to afford that anymore. To be stoic, you need to be completely comfortable. Maybe Northern Iowa will get back to those days.
For Jacobson's sake, I hope that's what happens. He deserves to be a cold, emotionless statue again.
ILLINOIS STATE 73, NORTHERN IOWA 65
ILLINOIS STATE 18-14 (8-10) -- S. Moody 11-21 6-8 29; B. Allen 1-9 1-2 3; T. Brown 10-17 2-3 28; J. Hill 4-9 3-3 11; J. Carmichael 6-9 3-5 15; J. Wilkins 4-9 2-2 11; J. Ekey 2-5 0-0 5; N. Zeisloft 0-1 0-0 0; A. Cousin 0-0 0-0 0; K. Keane 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-59 11-15 73.
NORTHERN IOWA 18-14 (11-7) -- M. Sonnen 5-9 2-2 16; J. Koch 4-10 5-5 14; A. James 6-18 0-0 15; D. Mitchell 4-8 2-4 10; M. Bohannon 2-3 0-0 6; S. Tuttle 2-5 0-0 4; C. Rank 0-3 0-0 0; A. Pehl 0-0 0-0 0; N. Buss 0-0 0-0 0; M. Martino 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-56 9-11 65.
Three-point goals: ILST 8-20 (J. Ekey 1-3; B. Allen 0-3; J. Wilkins 1-4; T. Brown 6-8; J. Hill 0-1; N. Zeisloft 0-1), UNI 10-24 (A. James 3-7; J. Koch 1-4; M. Sonnen 4-8; C. Rank 0-2; M. Bohannon 2-2; S. Tuttle 0-1); Rebounds: ILST 34 (J. Carmichael 10), UNI 31 (S. Tuttle 9); Assists: ILST 9 (J. Hill 3), UNI 12 (D. Mitchell 5); Total Fouls -- ILST 15, UNI 17; Fouled Out: ILST-None; UNI-D. Mitchell.
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