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Illinois Basketball Missed the Boat in 2017-18

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Illini fans were waiting for a turnaround that was never coming.

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

There was a lot of excitement in Illini Nation when it was announced that Brad Underwood was taking over the Illinois program after the last few years of stagnation under former Head Coach John Groce.

Underwood was bringing an exciting style of offense to the Orange and Blue. He took Oklahoma State to the NCAA Tournament in his only season in Stillwater, even with a 0-6 start in Big 12 play. Underwood’s Cowboys were a top-ten offense that scored 85.5 points per game with an aggressive defensive style. Underwood also won three straight conference championships in his first three years as a head coach at Stephen F. Austin.

It was naive to think that Illinois could make the tournament after losing seven players from the team — Malcolm Hill, Tracy Abrams, Mike Thorne Jr, Jaylon Tate, DJ Williams, Maverick Morgan, and Jalen Coleman-Lands. But the excitement around the hire of Underwood and his previous track record gave fans reasons for optimism. Only two of our writers predicted no post-season play for Illinois in Underwood’s first season.

Now we all know that Illinois struggled heavily in the first season of the Underwood era. Illinois finished 13th in the conference with a 13-18 (4-14) record. Even the most pessimistic predictions didn’t see Illinois playing this poorly — well except Thumpasaurus, but Thump also lives in the heart of darkness.

So, how did Illinois get here?

Promising start

After the exhibition loss to Eastern Illinois, the Fighting Illini would win their first six games of the season. Sure, they didn’t play anyone of major note — DePaul was the biggest win of the bunch — but the team looked good and played an exciting style of basketball. The only real concerning game was a nailbiter in the second game against UT-Martin, in what ended up a too-close-for-comfort three-point victory.

Illinois scored 89 points per game during this stretch while only giving up 68.5 points per game.

Illinois Mr. Basketball Mark Smith was off to a great start to his Illinois career. He scored double-digits in four of the first six games and showed a great ability to get to the free throw line.

Leron Black was cementing himself as a solid scorer and veteran leader for the Illini. Having Michael Finke start at center didn’t look like the worst thing in the world, and his deep shooting ability helped Illinois space the floor well. Aaron Jordan was shooting out of his mind from deep.

The team had some obvious holes, but it looked to have a lot of promise, especially on the offensive end of the floor. The Illini didn’t necessarily look like an NCAA Tournament team, but it wasn’t crazy to think Illinois could make some noise in the Big Ten.

Come down to Earth...

The first true test of the season for Illinois was a road game in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge against Wake Forest. It was a tough and physical game where the lead bounced back and forth, but Illinois wasn’t able to pull it out in the end.

Next came the first two losses in conference play — due to the Big Ten Tournament for some reason (*cough Jim Delany) being played in New York, conference play had to start before non-conference ended. Illinois lost to Northwestern and Maryland in back-to-back overtime games.

The Illini picked up a close 64-57 win over Austin Peay at home before heading on the road to play UNLV to lose in yet another close game 89-82.

Illinois then played another one of those Chicago games against New Mexico State where they would lose by 5 points in front of a sparse crowd, before they pulled out a tough fought win in the Braggin’ Rights game against Mizzou. The Illini wrapped up conference play with yet another close game 62-58 over Grand Canyon.

Illinois went 4-5 through these nine games, and the overall record stood at 10-5. The cracks in this team were starting to show, along with the inability to close out games, but you could also argue that Illinois was in all of these games. The average loss was by 4.8 points and two of those games went to overtime.

However, only four of the ten wins for Illinois at this point in the season came over teams that would finish with a record better than .500 — Marshall, Austin Peay, Missouri, and Grand Canyon, and only one of those teams play in a major conference.

Maybe what was about to come should have been more obvious in hindsight.

...and then fall into a pit of despair

So it would be better if Illinois and all of its fans can just forget that the first three weeks of January ever happened.

  • Jan. 3 at Minnesota - 77-67 L
  • Jan. 6 at Michigan - 79-69 L
  • Jan. 11 vs. Iowa - 104-97 OT L
  • Jan. 15 at Nebraska - 64-63 L
  • Jan. 19 at Wisconsin - 75-50 L
  • Jan. 22 vs. Michigan State - 87-74 L

This was the low point of the season. Illinois led in many of these games, but threw away its chances to win with either late game miscues or long stretches of scoring droughts. When the team faced adversity, the Illini would respond in an increasingly poor manner. The idea that Illinois would go winless in conference play in Football, Women’s Basketball and Men’s Basketball was looking to be a real possibility.

If it wasn’t clear by then, it certainly became obvious that Illinois wasn’t a good basketball team this year. That loss to Eastern Illinois in an exhibition was more of a warning of things to come than what many wrote off as a small blip. Illinois struggled to create offense outside of its two star players. The defense was even worse at times.

The Marks — Smith and Alstork — were expected to be contributors on offense, but both struggled to score. Michael Finke wasn’t able to handle playing center in the Big Ten —not really his fault since he is a stretch four forced to play center in one of the most physical conferences in college basketball. Aaron Jordan regressed to the mean in a dramatic way.

Luckily, Illinois was able to pick up a couple of much-needed home wins over Indiana and Rutgers after this six-game losing streak to keep the Illini from having the worst season for a major college athletics program in recent memory.

Illinois, however, followed those wins by losing four more in a row and six out of its next eight. Illinois did get a second win over Rutgers in that stretch saving them from finishing in last place in the Big Ten.

Fans were all waiting for the turnaround that never came.

“As soon as the players learn the system, they’ll improve.”

“It’s a new coach, it just takes time.”

It was expected to finally click for all the players like it did for Underwood at Oklahoma State in 2017. It never did.

Modest Mouse’s Miss The Boat fits so damn well to sum up the season for the Fighting Illini.

While we’re on the subject

Could we change the subject now?

Every Illinois fan in January.

Looking towards the future

We were begging for the past

Well, we know we had the good things

But those never seemed to last

Oh, please just last

The last decade of Illinois basketball summed up in five lines.

Everyone’s unhappy

Everyone’s ashamed

Well, we all just got caught looking

At somebody else’s page

So Nebraska and Penn State look pretty good this year, huh? Purdue is going to get a top-three seed.

Well, nothing ever went

Quite exactly as we planned

Our ideas held no water

But we used them like a dam

Remember when Illinois was suppose to have a seven-second offense with Mark Alstork leading the way in scoring. I ‘member.

Was it ever worth it?

Was there all that much to gain?

Well, we knew we missed the boat

And we’d already missed the plane

Nothing like some Illinois sports to turn you into a Kierkegaardian existentialist.

We didn’t read the invite

We just danced at our own wake

All our favorites were playing

So we could shake, shake, shake, shake, shake

Man, we used to kick ass. Remember when we kicked ass?

Tiny curtain’s open, and we heard the tiny clap of little hands

A tiny man would tell a little joke, and get a tiny laugh from all them folks

Sitting, drifting around in bubbles, and thinking it was us that carried them

When we finally got it figured out, that we had truly missed the boat

The tiny man telling the little jokes was Illinois fans on Twitter slowly realizing Illinois wasn’t struggling and was actually just bad.

But in the darkness, a light emergences in Trent Frazier

Trent Frazier wasn’t expected to be a big contributor for Illinois in his freshman season, but the Florida Mr. Basketball runner-up had other ideas.

After playing well off the bench behind Te’Jon Lucas to start the season, included a 20-point game against Longwood and a 22-point showing versus Mizzou, Frazier was finally given his chance to start on Jan. 8 against Michigan. He would start every single game for the rest of the season.

Frazier’s aggressive style of player and his ability to create his own shot instantly made Illinois a more exciting team. His deep shooting ability off the dribble was fun to watch. He made seven threes against Iowa and Wisconsin where he finished with 27 and 32 points respectively.

In fact, Trent Frazier in a losing effort was starting to become a thing.

  • 16 points at UNLV
  • 27 points vs Iowa
  • 19 points at Nebraska
  • 32 points vs Wisconsin
  • 14 points at Michigan State
  • 20 points vs Purdue

Fraizer led all Big Ten freshman in scoring at 12.5 points per game. For comparison’s sake, Brandon Paul averaged 7.8 points as a freshman and Malcolm Hill was at 4.4. He was also second in the conference with 1.6 steals per game.

It was a fantastic season for Frazier, and the future is incredibly bright for him. He may end up losing out Big Ten Freshman of the Year award to Jaren Jackson Jr., but that wouldn’t change how good Frazier was this season.

He’ll need to improve his shooting efficiency, free throw percentage, and turnovers going forward, but Frazier has “it”. He will be one of of the most electric players in the Big Ten for the next few seasons.

Hey, Leron Black improved a lot too

With the rise of Trent Frazier, one of the easiest storylines to overlook was the improvement of Leron Black. Black led the Illini in scoring at 15.7 points per game, which was a nearly a 100% jump from the 8.1 points per game he scored as a redshirt sophomore in 2016-17.

Part of this may be how consistent Black from for the entirety of the season. Black scored in double digits in 26 out of 30 games. It was obvious early on we had a new Leron Black, and it became easy to take his jump in productivity for granted.

Black proved to be an incredibly efficient scorer with an eFG% of 58.5. His scoring increase also came without a increase in his usage percentage. His fadeaway/turnaround jumper because one of the best shots for a struggling Illinois offense.

Black could, if he so desired, leave Illinois and play immediately as a graduate transfer for another school — one with a better chance of making the NCAA Tournament in his final season of college hoops. This would be a huge blow for Illinois, but it worth pointing out that this is just paranoid speculation at this point.

Please don’t leave, Leron Black.

Cautious Hope

There are some obvious places of concern moving forward for this Illinois team, the most glaring being the lack of a true center.

This team, however, is set up well for the future because of the strength of its backcourt.

Trent Fraizer is going to be a star for Illinois. He is a very confident scorer who can create his own shot easily. Frazier needs to improve on some small things and clean up his game like all young players do, but he has a very bright career ahead of him.

Pairing Fraizer up with five-star point guard Ayo Dosunmu from Chicago would give Illinois the most exciting young backcourt not only in the Big Ten, but possibly the entire country. Both players can create for themselves off the dribble and score in high volume.

It’s hard enough for most college teams to stop one of those guys from the perimeter. When you have two? Opposing teams may just have to hope one of them has an off-night.

Brad Underwood’s system heavily relies on guards to make smart decisions and score on offense, while being aggressive agitators on defense. Frazier and Dosunmu will be good starters while Mark Smith — oh boy, if he figures it out — and Da’Monte Williams will provide good minutes off the bench. Few teams wouldn’t be envious of the situation at guard for the Orange and Blue.

If Dosunmu can live up to his five-star hype, this Illinois backcourt will be by far the best it has been since Deron, Dee and Luther, and that is reason enough to feel some cautious optimism for the future of Illinois Basketball.

Yes, big man is a huge question going forward, but looking at how this Illinois team plays on defense, they may be able to work around it, and as these young players get more comfortable with Underwood’s offense, look out.

With Black likely returning along with Fraizer and the arrival of Donusumu, this team would be improved in 2018-19 with the needle pointing way up.

Is it 2019 NCAA tournament good? We’ll have to wait and see, but probably not. However the future outlook for the Fighting Illini is very promising. The team is moving in the right direction. There’s a lot of hope around Underwood. His enthusiasm and energy is tremendous.

We’ll see if it can turn into wins.