COLUMN: Another Illinois Roadkill Dispels Any Notion of ‘Mackey Magic’

Matthew Stevens

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Spoiler Alert. You might want to shield naive young children from this column. There, I warned you.

Along with magic being inside Mackey Arena, I have obtained a list of other things Illinois head coach Brad Underwood doesn’t believe in:

1) Santa Clause

2) The Easter Bunny

3) The Tooth Fairy

4) The Great Pumpkin

5) Ghosts

and finally,

6) Humans having the ability to fly.

Believing anything or everything on this list of half a dozen items is cause for A) being a naive, happy and well-adjusted child or B) being a fundamentally flawed adult.

Illinois’ head coach and his players easily dispatched of that silly notion Tuesday night with the program’s first regular-season sweep of Purdue since 2008-09.

Maybe this is how the atrocity that is Twitter and social media work in Jan. 2020, but after the reaction became somewhat viral (from angry Purdue fans) I feel the need to set the record straight on what the Illini third-year coach said Monday afternoon.

When asked if it was simply the noise level about what made playing in Mackey Arena hard, Underwood added some things. He praised Purdue’s program by saying they historically have really good players and he also added that coach on the home bench is one of the nation’s best at his profession. What he didn’t cite was some magical power that led to Purdue’s Big Ten Conference championships and dominance in their own arena.

And after all that, Purdue fans (at least a loud majority on social media) were insulted. Why? Because they weren’t included in the path to success despite the ‘Paint Crew’ never being mentioned in any box score during the stretch.

How dare anybody question the magic of Mackey Arena, right?!

And so I ask, after No. 21 Illinois dispatched of Purdue 79-62 in the most lopsided home loss to the Illini in Matt Painter’s head-coaching tenure, where was this mystique? What happened to the magic of Mackey Arena? I’ll let Illinois leading scorer Trent Frazier handle that answer.

“All week they’ve been saying Purdue this, Purdue that and how this is the toughest arena to play in,” Frazier said. “We’re tough too. We go at it in practice for three hours and we’re in the Big Ten for a reason too. We had something to prove. We wanted to show who the toughest team was tonight.”

Coming into Tuesday night, Purdue men’s basketball had posted an 85-8 record in their home facility since 2014-15. And how do you suppose that happened? They’ve been really good at basketball for a ridiculously long period of time. And I mean, they’ve been really good.

Consider this: Before this season started, only two league teams have won more than 72 league games in the last five years: Michigan State (the current Big Ten program that expects Final Four appearances) and Purdue. No other team has more than 65. That’s not magic folks. That’s not some sort of mystical power of a student section, an old arena that carries sound well or being a resident of a U.S. state that consists of people who believe they’re God’s gift to basketball. That’s program building and trust me, Purdue could’ve won a lot of these games over the last decade on the moon.

Here’s another harsh truth. There isn’t any place on this planet the Purdue team who showed up Tuesday night or in Champaign just 16 days earlier could’ve won those games. Illinois had more talent and more grit on their roster.

“All you can really ask is for an opposing coach and an opposing player to say afterward that you played really, really hard and that you out-toughed us,” Underwood said Tuesday night. “Execution is fleeting. Shotmaking is fleeting. As coaches, (toughness) is substance. That’s the substance we want our program to be about.”

But don’t feel too bad Purdue fans. Wisconsin thought they had an impossible place for road teams to win. Suddenly, for the first time since the Final Four team of the 2004-05 season, Illinois has crossed off Mackey Arena and the Kohl Center in Madison as what Ayo Dosunmu described Monday as the new Illinois marking phrase for 2019-20: Road Kill. 

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