Well, it turns out that Illinois didn’t take a complete 180 in January and go from garbage to the Flyin’ Illini overnight.
There were plenty of moronic “We’re Back” tweets, and even a couple “columns” published, but they’re not back. Wednesday’s game against Purdue was enough evidence that they’re sorely lacking in a few areas, and they have a few things to prove before the fanbase can hold a “We’re Back” coronation. I’d argue — and Brad Underwood would agree — that consistency and longevity have a lot to do with a program like Illinois being BACK. So, announcing it at a point and time that Illinois hasn’t seen a NCAA Tournament in six years is probably outrageous from the jump.
Instead of being outrageous, I think it’s time to pay attention to how Illinois is setting itself up for next season. Besides for the truly delusional, that’s why the string of victories over Maryland, Michigan State and Ohio State were fun anyway, because we were getting a sneak peak of what’s possible next season.
Now that Underwood & Co. have hit a string of bad matchups and tough road environments, the shine of that win-streak has faded a little, but not the projectability of what can be a NCAA Tournament (and a dangerous one) team in 2020. But that’s obviously not a given, and we fans have been doing this “Next Year” projection ever since Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams gave a really good Michigan team everything it could handle while sitting on the bubble in 2014.
For Illinois to get off the program schneid and present its legions of fans with a really fun ride, it needs to take certain steps through the end of this season — and carry some priorities into the offseason.
- First, you’ve got to end well. You’ve got the ability to beat Northwestern and Indiana on your home court, and get into the Big Ten Tournament with a pretty good seed, and get a bye and see what happens. Northwestern just rolled over at home to Minnesota, and as a team without a point guard, that’s a potential blow out that would feel pretty, pretty, pretty good.
- Next, the Big Ten Tournament is a jumping off point. We’ve heard a lot of pundits say that nobody wants to play Illinois. Let’s see them prove it by knocking someone off and destroying a seed. I’ve watched Wisconsin (or like team) beat up on Illinois too much, so let’s ruin their trip to Chicago and move them down a line in the tournament.
- Brad Underwood and Co. need to close this recruiting season well. They’ve already added a future piece in Antwan January (please get in), and an instant impact monster in Kofi Cockburn, so I don’t have much frontcourt worry for 2019-20. What Illinois could use is an athletic wing and a shooter. A guy like Christian Brown, or some reclassification options could really catapult Illinois for next season, and because they’ve go the freedom to concentrate on just a few guys, they should be able to grab a wing that could contribute. Remember, Illinois’ only commit last year at this time was Ayo Dosunmu.
- The next step to ensuring a tournament next year lies exclusively with the coaching staff, Adam Fletcher, and the players who are already on campus. It’s time to get to work. This staff will be as honest as can be with the guys on campus, and they’ll have to stick around and work on their flaws, while working with Fletch to improve their strength, conditioning, and bounce. A future column will probably be needed to break down each guy and what they’ll need to work on, but nobody is without a flaw. Oh, and Ayo needs to come back.
- Finally, let’s not put this team through the meat-grinder next year. The Illini need to schedule some easy wins at home for the resume, and they need to build confidence for the Big Ten season. Yeah, you need some SOS through non-conference, but there are worse teams in the league right now that are on the bubble because they cleaned up. Illinois is already playing Arizona, Missouri, an ACC team in the middle of the pack, and probably a Big East team in the Gavit games. Schedule the sisters of the poor and get some blowouts.
Illinois isn’t back yet, and even if they were, we wouldn’t be able to say so for a few years. But, if Illinois can follow those steps, we’ll be a lot more excited this time next year.
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