I am, by nature, generally an optimistic Illini fan. Every year I get excited because of XYZ player, the new coach’s system, or some other facet of our revenue sports that leads me to believe football or basketball will finally return to its once-great form.
After the Michigan State game on Tuesday, I took a turn towards the pessimistic, all but giving up on calling this season a success in any way. We’ve seen it too many times; early on it was slow first halves and roaring comebacks that would only fall short in the closing minutes. (See: Maryland, UNLV, etc.) Lately, it has been the exact opposite. Illinois looked more than competitive against Ohio State and Michigan State, but came out of the locker room flat.
“It’s only year one of Underwood’s system.”
“These players are so young.”
“We don’t even have a true center.”
These statements are all factual. And I agree with them. But this team should be better than 3-14 in conference, even with the hindrances of having Greg Eboigbodin matching up with the Isaac Haases and Mike Watkinses of the world.
Going into the Purdue game, I was expecting a repeat of Michigan State. Stick around in the first half, maybe hold the lead for a minute or two, and take a small deficit into halftime. Then, just as we’re getting excited, the offense can’t get a basket for five-plus minutes to start the second half and Illinois falls by 15 or 20.
I was wrong. I’m glad I was wrong. And as I continued watching the game, I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. Here are the four things I took away from the 93-86 loss to Purdue:
1. We don’t deserve Leron Black
I hope you watched the Purdue game if for no other reason than to watch Leron Black. He tied his career-high with 28 points — which he set against Nebraska on Sunday — going 12-of-25 from the field. He hit three of his seven three-pointers. It was his fourth straight 20-point game.
If you have been watching the team since the beginning of the season, you are probably as impressed by Leron as I am. You might’ve read what one of our writers, Matt O’Neal (@matt1all), wrote earlier this week about Leron. He has made large leaps and bounds this season, and the numbers don’t lie.
Leron takes good shots, makes a lot of them, and he seems to be getting better as the Illini play tougher opponents.
Just look at tonight, for example. He is stepping out and hitting his long jumpers with confidence. In the first half, he made a fade away 12-footer over 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas, and in the second half finished over 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms twice.
How many wins would this team have without him? That’s something I don’t want to think about.
2. These freshman could be something very special...
...if they stick together. I was talking to a close friend earlier this week about John Groce’s 2013 recruiting class: Kendrick Nunn, Malcom Hill, Austin Colbert, Maverick Morgan and Jaylon Tate. That’s a really solid class.
Nunn, as you most certainly remember, got into legal trouble and was dismissed. He is now averaging over 25 points per game at Oakland (Michigan) and shooting 40 percent from deep.
Colbert left the program, too, albeit under cloudy circumstances. It turns out his measurables were pretty similar to Kevin Durant’s when Durant was at Texas. This is not a joke. I’m not saying he would’ve been the next KD, but he could’ve been a nice, athletic piece.
Then you’re left with Mav Morgan, who actually developed to be a good center by the time he was a junior and senior, Malcolm Hill who we all know and love, and Jaylon Tate. Enough said there.
A lot of people talk about the “what ifs” with John Groce. What if he would’ve landed Cliff Alexander and Quentin Snider? What if lllinois had beaten Rutgers last year? Those are great questions, but what if that 2013 class would’ve stayed together?
That’s why I think it is important for Smith, Frazier, Williams and Eboigbodin to stick around. We’ve already seen what Frazier can be, and I think Smith is the next man to make that leap. Spicy G and Da’Monte will also find important roles, if they put in the work.
Matic Vesel on the other hand? Eh.
3. Underwood is getting these guys to buy into the system
The quality I am seeing in Underwood’s first team at Illinois that I never saw in any of Groce’s teams is toughness. (Not toughness and togetherness. Just toughness). Groce’s squad would not have gone after that nine second loose ball in the Nebraska game Sunday. Groce’s team would’ve had a lot of blowout losses this year, just like last year. Groce’s team would not be near the top of the nation in turnovers forced per game.
I think it is entirely possible there will be some changes to this team’s roster over the summer. A lot of people are talking about Te’Jon Lucas or Michael Finke possibly leaving, which is all just talk and speculation from the outside.
I love what Te’Jon brings to the table at both ends of the court, and Finke is still Illinois’ tallest player, but Underwood needs the guys that are going to work for him. He’s old fashioned, coming from the Bob Huggins and Frank Martin coaching tree.
Some guys might not like how he does things on the sideline, and if that’s the case, they can leave. But for the most part, I think guys like Trent Frazier have really bought in. I saw Frazier pick off a pair of passes on Thursday night and take them the other way. That’s the brand of basketball I want to see Illinois play.
4. This team still has a ways to go
Things have improved since the Wake Forest and Northwestern losses early in the season, but that doesn’t mean this team is even beginning to reach its potential.
There are a lot of variables at work here: recruiting, injuries and transfers will determine in part how the beginning of next season goes. Mark Smith, Da’Monte and Greg have some work to do in the offseason with developing their offense.
We shouldn’t forget, though, that 10 of the 17 losses this season have been by single digits. I’ve already gone over potential scenarios where Illinois could’ve won some of those games, but those are all hypothetical. If there’s one thing I know as an Illinois fan, it’s that if something can go wrong, it will.
I hope Underwood can work more with these players’ offensive skillsets some more, improve rotation on defense when they double-team, and land a big. If some of these go in a positive direction, I think Illinois is set for an exciting 2018-19 season.