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Illinois basketball was always going to struggle this year

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TCR staff writer Stephen Braun is left asking one question: “What did you, honestly, expect?”

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball secured sole possession of last place in the Big Ten with yet another infuriating loss, this time by allowing triple-digits to the hapless Iowa Hawkeyes. Projecting the future based on this 0-5 start certainly paints a bleak picture of an NCAA tournament resume for Brad Underwood, who’s never missed the Big Dance as a head coach, and after a miserable football season that saw one of the worst offenses ever fielded by Illinois go 0-9 in conference play, it’s understandable that some fans are on Twitter spewing bile, rage and despair.

...But is this appropriate?

Let’s start with preseason expectations. Two of my colleagues thought this would be the team to break our long dry spell and get to the NCAA tournament, and I know this wasn’t an uncommon sentiment among prognosticators and fans.

After all, Brad Underwood is a guy with a deep understanding of both basketball X’s and O’s and Jimmies and Joes, to borrow a Zookism. The film of him operating in practice really endeared him to Illini fans, as he showed a confident, assertive, tough-but-honest demeanor that had been sorely lacking at the Ubben center. We thought, “Hey, this is a guy who can get the most out of his players, and we have some pretty decent talent to work with!”

All of this is perfectly fair, and I share the same thoughts. I’m just as excited about the future of this basketball program as those of you who thought we’d be ‘Also Receiving Votes’ right now. However, there were two massive concerns that I had all summer that led to me predicting 11 wins overall, and they should have given even the most wide-eyed Illinois hoops junkie pause before declaring this year’s team the ones to break the curse.

Reason 1: Inexperience

Inexperience is a blanket word I have to use to describe what’s going on with this team, because while we have a lot of youth, we’re also in the first year of implementing a very different style of play.

Last year’s senior-laden team saw a number of key contributors graduate, but also saw more players transfer. Last night against Iowa, we started two true freshmen and a graduate transfer. Also, freshman Greg Eboigbodin played 25 minutes off the bench at center. Situations like this have produced winning teams, but only when those freshmen are top-25-caliber recruits.

Those freshmen and the returning players are on the same page in the spread offense Underwood preaches. However, it’s a pretty early page in a pretty thick book and as a result, mid-game adjustments to simplify things have been the norm. These players will enter next season much more comfortable executing the things Underwood wants them to do.

Reason 2: No Center

Speaking of learning new things, Michael Finke has had to take on an entirely new role. An effective forward last year, Finke is now playing center full-time...and really struggling.

He’s being pressed into center duty because at six-foot-ten, he’s the tallest player on the roster. Incoming freshman center Jeremiah Tilmon was poached by Cuonzo Martin after signing his letter of intent to Illinois and based on the way that went down, it’s hard to imagine Underwood could have done anything to prevent this from happening. Tilmon clearly bought into Martin’s vision, and he has every right to chase his dreams, questionable though as they may be.

With Tilmon gone, the roster was left without anyone that played center. Finke, then, would be the man by default. Underwood scrambled and flipped Eboigbodin from UIC, and he’s been better than expected, but bear in mind that he had the label of “project” from day one and was not seen as anywhere near a one-for-one replacement for Tilmon. Matic Vesel likely would have redshirted if not for the fact that this roster is so thin.

What does this mean?

Simple: we struggle to protect the rim and rebound against taller opponents, such as those found in the Big Ten. If you’d told me before the season started that we’d lose our first five Big Ten games, I would have looked at the roster and said: “Yeah, sounds reasonable.”

This isn’t a normal “look at the roster he inherited” situation where I’m suggesting that all the returning players are scrubs or something because there’s clearly talent here. But it’s a highly incomplete roster, and lacking size in the Big Ten is a recipe for disaster.

Five conference games is an awfully small sample size

If you think we whiffed on our coaching hire already, do some math. If five conference games with this roster are enough to make you okay with moving on from a head coach, you might need as many as four head coaches to make it through a season of Big Ten play.

Any coach with this much inexperience on the roster will face an uphill battle, especially early in the season. With the lack of options at center it’s like being in rear wheel drive, and then the “losing culture” left over from the previous regime adds icy snow to that uphill road.

When these circumstances combine, sometimes you can’t go uphill. Sometimes, you have to just spin around to the other lane and go back down the hill, and then you try to turn but instead of turning you just skid until you crack your rear wheel on the curb and dislodge your brake line, and then your stability control and ABS turns off as a result as you’re losing brake pressure, but you have to make another run up that hill to get to where you’re going, but now it’s just about impossible without getting a running start from somewhere flat and it takes tremendous concentration, effort, and skill just to skate the damn car into the parking lot.

What I’m saying is that I need a tow, and I also should have bought winter tires.

In other words, maybe Illini fans should have bought the winter tires of some grounded expectations.