Illinois’ conference woes continued on Saturday with a 79-69 loss at Michigan. There has been a lot of things to be happy, upset and downright sad about so far this season.
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of the 2017-2018 Illini Men’s Basketball season thus far:
A new offense: My biggest complaint about the Groce era was the seeming lack of any offensive identity. I’m still not totally sure if he really ran an offense, or if he was just hoping to land the stud point guard who could create one. Either way, games are much more exciting this year and Illinois has yet to lose by 20 points, which I got used to under John Groce. The team is averaging 80 points per game this year, compared with 72 last season.
Some stud freshmen: Trent Frazier, Mark Smith and Da’Monte Williams highlighted a solid recruiting class, and each one has had meaningful minutes for Underwood. Da’Monte is always heralded as doing “the little things,” crashing the boards, finding open men and being in the right place at the right time. Trent has provided much-needed scoring ability and may have earned a future spot in the starting lineup, as he took Te’Jon’s spot for the Michigan game. In addition, he is averaging 9.7 points per game. On the other hand, Mark Smith is averaging 8.1 points per game and, although he has regressed since early on in the season, has all the makings of an All-Big Ten type of player.
Leron’s improvement: Leron Black was probably the most important returner on this team, and he has been impressive even against Big Ten opponents. Last year he averaged a little over eight points per game, and he is up to over 14 this year and leads the team in rebounding. The high release of his jump shot, footwork in the paint and ability to absorb contact have served him well. I think he will continue to improve through the rest of conference play.
Mark Alstork: I hate making a blanket statement about any one player, but I think most people expected more from Mark Alstork offensively. He has not been the go-to scorer or shot-making threat that many felt he would be. While he does give valuable minutes with his timely passing and rebounding, he has not fulfilled the role that Malcolm Hill left.
Te’Jon Lucas: Te’Jon was considered one of the veteran players by Underwood in the preseason, but his play has been pretty inconsistent. He is not a huge scoring threat and he just hasn’t seemed to have found command of the offense. Again, he hasn’t been a dud, but I think people expected more from him. He does lead the team in assists with 3.1 per game and can make passes that not many others can, but I think he has a lot to prove the rest of the season.
Turnovers: The team, as a whole, averages 15 turnovers per game. This is a high number, but one that can be expected for a team learning a completely new offensive system. As the year goes on, this number will likely go down as the players move into their roles and feel more comfortable. But too many times this year, I’ve seen errant or lazy passes that lead to fast-break buckets for the opponent. Turnovers are something the team will certainly need to work on.
Slow starts: Until the Michigan game, it seemed like Illinois could not manage to take a lead into the locker room at halftime. Even when they fight back in the second half, like they did against Maryland on Dec. 3 (outscoring the Terps by 19 in the second half), it’s often not enough to overcome the slow start. The 0-4 conference record shows that.
Those first two conference losses: Man, I’ve never been as upset about Illinois basketball than when Illinois lost those first two games - both in OT. Northwestern hurts because it was essentially a neutral site game and I the ‘Cats were wildly overrated to start the year. Maryland hurts because, as my dad used to say, the Illini “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.” A better inbounds pass from Da’Monte or a box out by Kipper could have sealed that second-half comeback.
Let’s hope Underwood and the Illini continue to improve and turn their conference record around.