A lot has been made of the Illini and their 4-12 start. If you go on social media, the sky is falling. People want to march down the street protesting Illinois Head Coach Brad Underwood in the same style of Frankenstein’s Monster.
Illinois fans want wins, like all fans do. Fans want to see a program that resembles the 1990’s and 2000’s teams that lit up college basketball. Most importantly, however, fans want to see improvement. It was a tweet I came across today that really got me thinking about how long of a leash fans should give Underwood.
Beilein took over a program that averaged a 64 Kenpom in the previous five years, Underwood took over one that was 68.8. Took him awhile as well as a few other successful rebuilds pic.twitter.com/VvhdzuItTL— Justin Houch (@HouchJ) January 11, 2019
Justin Houch sent out a tweet comparing Underwood to Michigan Coach John Beilein, Virginia’s Tony Bennett, Oregon’s Dana Altman, and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall. All four other head men inherited similarly poor situations, although I would argue Illinois fans may believe their position was worst.
Tony Bennett had a combined 31 wins in his first two years before turning Virginia into a national power. Beilein also had 31 wins in the first two years. Marshall was lower at 28 combined wins. Altman is the outlier, yet he also inherited a mess at Oregon. Now, Underwood is tasked with the unenviable job of trying to rebuild a program that was ravaged by poor recruiting, poor leadership, and eventually, fan apathy.
After a 14-win rookie campaign in Champaign, big things were expected in 2018-19 for this young team. Boasting one of the toughest schedules in the Big Ten — if not the country — fans were hoping for seven non-conference wins and two or three wins to start Big Ten play. Now, staring at four wins through 16 games, the season seems bleak and lost to even the most optimistic fans.
Coach Underwood has been raked over the coals for defensive play-calling, rotations, and player minutes, even by the staff of this site, myself included. Following the Michigan game, however, I believe Underwood needs time to build this program up to what he envisions it to be.
As it currently stands, Illinois has the 289th ranked team in regards to experience. This is an incredibly young team that has shown potential and flashes of brilliance. Far too often, however, that youth and inexperience has shown through. This team would likely have 3-4 more wins minimum with a little more experience. This isn’t debatable. Youth has cost this team, and this team will continue to improve with experience.
What you saw against Michigan was what I believe to be the beginning of the Ayo and Trent era for Illinois Basketball. On a night where they combined for 36 points and 12 rebounds, Ayo and Trent proved they could coexist on the same court and both perform well on the same night. The potential for these two to be the best guard tandem in the Big Ten is clear, and against the No. 2 team in the country, which boasts one of the best defenses nationally, Ayo and Trent shined.
Over the past several games, the Illini have shown immense talent when running the offensive mindset Underwood preached in his introductory press conference, the seven-second offense. When this team trails or pushes the high-tempo offense, they play incredibly well. When the tempo is slowed and spacing is required, things don’t play out quite according to plan. Underwood must push for a higher tempo offense and must stress the offensive mindset he preached to fans.
The incoming class Underwood has secured may possibly be the greatest accomplishment in his short time in Champaign. The recent commitment of Kofi Cockburn to go alongside Antwan January — in the midst of a tough season — shows this staff has what it takes to recruit with the best of them. Assistant Orlando Antigua, handpicked by Brad Underwood, has shown his value over the past year and a half. Underwood has built a decent staff at Illinois and some of the pieces are paying huge dividends.
I understand we all want to win now. Unlike a good set of writers here at TCR, I am old enough to recall the glory days. I yearn for national relevance. I think Underwood has the potential to take us there. I believe that, given time, his system will work here with the roster he is building.
I also believe that if year three or four is as bad as things appear to be in 2019, this administration must realize that and make amends. We cannot bury ourselves down further than we have in the past.
As for right now, step back, breathe a bit, let Underwood and Co. do their thing.
Oh, and stop tweeting at players. It’s weird.
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