After Brad Underwood was hired by Josh Whitman in mid-March, the Illinois basketball program began to change significantly. I don’t need to explain the Tilmon saga, but Underwood was able to nab the three other biggest recruits Groce had amassed — Mark Smith, Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams — to the relief of Illinois fans.
But Underwood couldn’t retain everyone. He lost Jeremiah Tilmon to Missouri and Jalen Coleman-Lands to DePaul, via a transfer.
I loved JCL. His freshman year was exciting, and he set an Illinois record with 87 made three-pointers. The Indy Star wrote a really nice feature piece about Coleman-Lands’ journey and why he chose U of I. He talked a lot about the business school in Champaign — now the Gies College of Business; thank you Larry Gies, you da real MVP — and a vision for his future in Champaign.
His sophomore year was admittedly disappointing. His three-point percentage dropped off a bit, his defensive capabilities were exposed and his ball handling left something to be desired. Nothing a coach who took a 12-20 Oklahoma State team into a 20-12 NCAA team can’t fix, right?
Well, it didn’t matter.
JCL announced he was transferring to DePaul in early July. (Their business school isn’t even as good as ours...)
The 2017-18 regular season
Things have not been ideal for the Fighting Illini this basketball season. Fans have complained time and time again about how there are holes in the roster.
The tallest player is a stretch four at best. The transfer guard who came in to fill in for Malcolm Hill’s scoring (17.2 points per game) is averaging 6.4. There isn’t a true shooter on the team who can be consistent from beyond the arc.
What do you get? A 2-12 Big Ten season — so far. The offense looks a little better, but the defense is giving up 60 percent shooting to Big Ten opponents. Illinois is 10th in the conference in field goal percentage. The most telling statistic, in my opinion — this is where JCL comes in — is that the Illini are shooting 31.2 percent from three-point land. That’s good for 11th in the conference, just ahead of Indiana and Rutgers.
What could have been
Coleman-Lands was impressive as a freshman. He shot 42.2 percent from three-point range and looked like he had endless promise for John Groce and the Illini. I noticed that he was working much harder on defense, but that did not translate to actually playing better on the court as a sophomore.
So the question remains: what would happen had JCL stayed on this team? I think two things would have been affected in a significant way.
Three-point shooting is the obvious one here. Let’s assume JCL shot at a percentage that was the average between his freshman and sophomore year. That would put him right at the 40 percent mark. Now if he could have averaged 2.5 three pointers made per game this year, which in Underwood’s offense is a conservative estimate, imagine how his shooting would have improved the offense. Having someone who can actually consistently hit deep shots would open up more opportunities for Frazier off the dribble and give Leron Black more room to operate down low. JCL would have added at least 10 points per contest, right around what he had his freshman year.
Now, the other question is how he would have affected the defense. JCL would not have improved the defense, I can say that much. But with the way the defense has allowed Big Ten opponents to score I don't see it getting a whole lot worse. I think his scoring and added dimension to the Underwood offense would outweigh any liability on the defensive end.
Northwestern, Maryland, Iowa and Nebraska. I think all of those games would've been wins had Coleman-Lands stuck around Champaign. An important piece of any offense is having a deep threat, and Illinois simply does not have one consistent enough to compete in the conference right now. Along the way, you also have a chance to beat an Ohio State or a Michigan State who you played pretty close for two-thirds of each game.
Realistically this Underwood team is around the 17-10 or 16-11 mark with a consistent and even slightly improved JCL. In the short term, that doesn't mean a whole lot. Illinois would still be an NIT team at best, but it would certainly keep some of the less patient Illini fans calm since the team wouldn’t have started conference play 0-8.
Do you think JCL would have improved this year’s Illinois team?