When I was asked to write a season wrap-up post for Illinois following the regular season, I decided to wait until after the Big Ten Tournament in order to see if anything major could happen to change the story of the season. Even after that, I wanted to wait a few days in order to let my thoughts ruminate and try to come up with what this season all meant, but I grew to finally accept what is obvious about this season — and what is also true of last season.
It didn’t matter.
Illinois was never making the tournament this season, and only the most optimistic or — dare I say — ill-informed fans thought there was a shot. The team simply didn’t have the athletes needed on the wings and had little front-court depth, and were young while also facing the toughest out-of-conference schedule Illinois has ever seen.
I predicted the Illini to get to around .500 overall on the season, but fall just a bit short of that mark while not making any postseason play. Illinois fell short of that prediction by more than a few games, but would winning three more games change anything about where the Illini currently stand?
A lot is being made out of the 20-loss mark, and even I was initially a bit angry about having this team be the first Illinois’ basketball team to reach that number. It was yet another mark in futility for a basketball program that has hit far too many of them in the last few seasons. That 20-loss mark will just be a bit of trivia in the end. Nothing magically would be different if Illinois finished with 18 losses instead of 21. We may feel different as fans, but fans’ feelings don’t account for much. We missed the tournament in what was a meaningless season yet again. It doesn’t matter how many losses you have. Being nowhere close to contention is the same no matter the final record.
Illinois had many losses that left me with the feeling of utter and complete defeat (Mizzou, FAU, and Iowa, twice). But even after the home loss to FAU, Kofi Cockburn, watching that game on his visit, still committed to the Illini. The Mizzou loss didn’t keep Illinois from having Giorgi Bezhanishvili turn into a star and Ayo Dosunmu showing off his killer instinct when the Illini won 5 of 6 in early February. On the other hand, the high moments of beating Maryland in Madison Square Garden and upsetting Michigan State at home didn’t keep Illinois from heading to their inevitable irrelevancy come March.
This season was always going to end in a whimper for the Illini.
The only way this season mattered for the Illini was in building (Brad Underwood’s favorite word) the “culture” of the team and getting this team ready to compete in 2019-20. No one except those involved in the day-to-day aspects of the program can truly speak to how the “fight for the culture” is going, and we don’t have many new data points for the progress of this team this season.
The record in Big Ten play got a bit better. Illinois finished 7-13, compared to 4-14. Let’s say if there was a 20-game schedule in place last season, the team splits the games and goes 5-15. Let’s call it a marginal two-game improvement in conference. The non-conference record was as poor as it could have possibly been, but it can mostly be excused by the sheer difficulty of it.
The offense was perhaps a bit better if you squint, but the spread was abandoned halfway through the season for a more pick-and-roll and top-of-the-key handoff-centered offense. With Kofi Cockburn coming in next season and Giorgi likely moving down to the four, we are again going to see a retooling of the offense, and it's unclear if the high-scoring spread offense that Brad Underwood was hired for is ever going to fully come into play in Champaign. So what did we learn overall about the offense? Not much.
Defense was again a disaster for the Illini, ranking 310th nationally in opponent field goal percentage, while giving up even more points per game this season (75.2) compared to 17-18 (73.8). We did see far more zone this season, especially in close games in critical moments than before, despite Underwood’s insistence in sticking to his defensive system despite the struggles in his first two years with Illinois. Underwood told the Chicago Tribune: “It would have been easy for me as a coach to give in and play zone. But that’s not what we were going to be about.” But, in clutch game situations, often times zone defense was what the Illini were about.
Again, in looking for data points for next season, there isn’t much there on the defensive side.
The things from this season that we can look at for next season are few.
- Giorgi turned out to be total found money, and is perhaps the best pure post scorer the Illini have had in a long time.
- Dosunmu lived up to his billing as a more than capable top guard that can be a leader for the team.
- Andres Feliz was a more than solid backup point guard.
But we are left with even more questions for next year.
- With Giorgi likely moving to power forward, the four-out spread appears to be dead. What is it going to be replaced with? Brad Underwood’s offense is build around guards and ball movement, but the two recruits coming in next season as of this posting are both big men.
- Where is the shooting coming from? Are Tevian Jones and Alan Griffin going to be asked to fill the void on the wing after not being played much their freshman seasons?
- Do Samba Kane or Anthony Higgs have a future with the team?
- Will the Ayo-Trent Frazier guard partnership develop better chemistry after another year?
- Playing two true bigs, are we really going to stick with the high-pressing aggressive pick-and-roll coverage style?
In a season where I was hoping to see more answers about the future of the team under this regime, I am left with more questions. The team I thought was being built no longer appears to exist.
When the Brad Underwood story as the head coach of the Fighting Illini is written, this season may get a single sentence in his coaching bio, but more likely it will just be combined with his first season in a statement along the lines of “it started slowly for Underwood as he was trying to instill his vision of the team in the first two seasons, but...”
All that matters is what comes after that but.
I can sit here and try to draw some meaning out of this season, but this season was never actually about this season. We know little more than we did after this point last year. The story of this season is the continued build towards an uncertain future.
Illinois played basketball in 2018-19. There were some good moments and some more bad ones. We sucked. But in the end, it doesn’t mean a thing.