In a matter of two weeks, the vibe around the Illinois basketball program has completely shifted.
We’ve gone from a statement victory over No. 2 Texas and postgame quotes about being one of the top teams in the country to back-to-back sluggish performances and postgame fart noises.
The Illini have shown real concerning flaws that have tempered the expectations of the fanbase and sparked many questions about whether this group can actually live up to their lofty preseason expectations.
So, is it time to sound the alarm? Is this merely the same small bit of adversity that in the past has turned out to just be a blip in the radar? Or should we truly be worried that Illinois may not be as good as we thought?
Something has to change offensively
Offensive struggles can largely be expected with so many new pieces, including four freshmen. But some of the scoring droughts Illinois has had? Much different than your average ups and downs.
On Saturday against Alabama A&M, the Illini went 8 minutes without a point in the second half. EIGHT MINUTES. Against a team ranked 334th in the country on KenPom, at home. That type of drought against that type of team is extremely alarming.
And this is nothing new for Illinois this year. Long scoring droughts have come on countless other occasions in the early going:
vs. UCLA - 0 field goals for 4:53 (Bruins go on 17-1 run)
at Maryland - 0 field goals for 7:02 (Terrapins go on 17-2 run)
vs. Texas - 2 points for 9:45 (Longhorns go on 16-2 run)
vs. Penn State - 0 field goals for 5:16 (Nittany Lions go on 14-1 run)
Yes, I know, basketball is a “game of runs.” At some point though, when you’re giving up these prolonged runs in every single game with seemingly nobody to turn to that can snap them, you’re entering into dangerous waters.
Playing from behind can only last so long
Because of these prolonged scoring droughts, Illinois constantly finds themselves trying to dig out of holes.
In the four games I highlighted above, Illinois trailed by double digits at some point in the second half:
vs. UCLA - Trailed 44-29 with 18:03 to play
at Maryland - Trailed 55-45 with 12:24 to play
vs. Texas - Trailed 56-46 with 7:42 to play
vs. Penn State - Trailed by double digits from 11:37 mark through the final buzzer
Give credit to this team for showing the ability to battle back from large deficits, but you’re just not going to survive an entire season playing this way. At some point, Illinois needs to be the team to jump out in front and grab the momentum instead of finding themselves in desperation mode.
The Illini are an 8-for-9 Terrence Shannon 3-point night and a Texas collapse away from really being 5-5 overall and in the danger zone heading into the new year. You can only play with fire for so long before you get burnt.
What’s going on in the locker room?
It’s been quite the week of media comments coming from both coaches and players.
By now, everybody has heard the infamous fart noise uttered into the microphone by Brad Underwood following the Penn State loss, amidst other criticisms of his team’s leadership, effort, and focus.
After Saturday’s game against Alabama A&M, Matthew Mayer delivered some startling comments of his own.
“I think we have a lot to figure out internally between the players and the coaches,” Mayer said.
Yikes. That’s not exactly something you want to hear your fifth-year senior, one who has been on a National Championship team, say publicly.
That’s not to say that things can’t get better. Brad Underwood has dealt with plenty of struggles across his coaching career. Maybe we’ll all laugh about this when Illinois raises another banner at the end of the year. After all, having two wins against UCLA and Texas in your back pocket despite a rough patch is pretty comforting.
Right now, though, this team needs to make some serious changes, both on the court and off. How they respond will define the rest of the season.
Let’s start on Thursday night in St. Louis.