Hello darkness, my old friend. It’s good to talk with you again.
This is the Illinois basketball that I’ve been accustomed to watching for nearly two decades. No one in the locker rooms seems to be able to distinguish fact from fiction, truth from ignorance or motivation from misguidance.
Narrative is a buzzword popularized in the last half decade. Initially utilized strictly in political circles and commentary, the word has spilled into sports social media and even bearing its ugly head on LinkedIn, but I digress.
It seems like Illinois has flip-flopped issues.
Team building with nine new players was supposed to be difficult immediately. Out of the gate. That has not been the case with this Illinois basketball team.
Brad Underwood’s squad is the only one in the country with two Top 10 KenPom wins on its resume.
As it turns out, Shannon’s all-time effort of 8-of-9 from three against the Bruins may turn out to be a blessing disguised as fool’s gold. More on that later.
Underwood had his team playing great basketball earlier in the pre-season. After all of the talk about the departing players from a team that shared a Big Ten title last season, the current version of the Illini materializes the sum of all fears in the transfer portal era: building a team on the fly in high-major basketball.
At least, the attempt to do so. Why are these team-building issues coming to the surface AFTER success?
The Illini lose their Big Ten opener on the road to then-scorching-hot Maryland in a close game that featured a big Illinois comeback, and a long period of extremely terrible play to dig themselves into a hole. Maryland has since lost at Wisconsin and was completely dismantled on its home court by UCLA, whom Illinois had beaten in Las Vegas in November.
The embers began to smolder.
The Illini won an OT thriller against then-No. 2 Texas at Madison Square Garden, and it seemed as though the fire was put out emphatically.
In the now-infamous fart noise game, Illinois was dismantled by visiting Penn State in the Illini’s Big Ten home opener.
Illinois managed only 59 points for the game, while Penn State had 47 at the break. PSU also made 12 threes out of just 24 attempts, and quelled the late-game run by the Illini. It looked like the players were apathetic.
Fire set ablaze.
Underwood had a decision to make: put the fire out or douse it with gasoline. We all know what he did, and now we know the short-term results. The fire continues.
Matthew Mayer discussed his misalignment with Underwood about preparing his body to play games. Mayer implements intermittent fasting, where he does not eat for extended periods.
Mayer thought enough of this to bring it up in his allotted time for the post-game press conference. This is nothing new for Mayer, dating back to his reputation as an over-sharer at Baylor.
All of the talk of the diet with Mayer was completely unchartered territory for Underwood.
The talk of fasting and team chemistry is great for websites like this, and unbelievable viewing content on Twitter.
It sounds like Underwood doesn’t have any answers at the moment.
Underwood eviscerated his team after the Penn State debacle last Saturday. Lost in the shuffle of the fart noise was the coach’s outright admission that he had failed them miserably, and it was on his shoulders.
But after the Alabama A&M win, his demeanor in the press conference was calm, as he brushed off questions about chemistry.
Underwood also sat with his arms crossed for the better part of every timeout while his team was getting run out of its own gym, as the visiting Bulldogs reeled off 16 straight points. Illinois only mustered a measly two points over an eight-minute span to begin the second half.
The dreaded “Three Man Weave” around the perimeter is perhaps the hottest topic in all of Illinois fan lore. It makes it look like Illinois is just throwing something at the wall, and seeing what sticks.
Underwood spent some of the rare practice time implementing his spread offense that he popularized when he was at low-major Stephen F. Austin before making his way to Oklahoma State for a single season.
Many Illini players turned down open looks, and even layups, to continue the motion of the spread.
Illinois is running offense, and not playing offense.
The next logical question is where are the shots coming from, from a distance perspective.
Illinois shoots a three pointer on 45.4% of their field goal attempts (29th nationally) but only gets 34.4% of their points beyond the arc (132nd nationally).
When the ball doesn’t go in, you always look bad on offense.
Illinois is now just the No. 44 team on KenPom in OER (offensive efficiency rating). This metric accumulates the amount of points earned for each possession.
To put that No. 44 team ranking into perspective. that is No. 9 in the Big Ten.
Position-less basketball has translated so far into offensive-less basketball.
The goal coming into the season was to shoot threes on about 40%+ of their field goal attempts. Who takes them, and when, seems to have no pattern or logic.
Is that on the player or the coach? It’s the age old question that Illinois fans have been asking themselves since birth.
Are we any good this year? Well, that depends on who you ask.
This is Illinois basketball.