clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Illinois needs to find a rhythm

The 2022-23 Illini are at a critical inflection point for the season

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no way to sugar-coat what happened Thursday night. It was a really bad Braggin’ Rights loss.

But the season is far from over, and an eventual recovery to their earlier form could put the Illini back in contention for a Big Ten title and a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

There’s really not much point in dwelling on the game last night. It’s over, and bad losses to bitter rivals happen. All that’s important now is how the team responds to the coaching staff and regroups for the rest of the season.

In other words, the season is at an inflection point.

That’s hardly unique to this iteration of the Illini, since plenty of Illinois teams have been in similar situations before. In most cases though, the team either comes out of the inflection point stronger than ever, or completely collapses.

The 2011-12 Illini were a perfect example of the latter situation, when an otherwise promising and talented roster came apart at the seams and missed the Tournament. For you younger fans, the 2011-12 season was Bruce Weber’s last in Champaign, when he led a team featuring future first round NBA Draft pick Meyers Leonard and San Antonio Spurs guard Brandon Paul to a strong 11-1 start going into that year’s Braggin’ Rights game.

Ultimately, they lost in a nail-biter to the then-No. 11 Missouri Tigers by a score of 78-74, but the season was never really the same after that point. Brandon Paul’s 43-point effort against the No. 5 Ohio State Buckeyes, as well as the subsequent win over the No. 10 Michigan State Spartans, punctuated a series of seven frustrating losses against mostly less talented teams.

Then, on Feb. 18, 2012 in Lincoln, Nebraska, the bottom finally gave out. After jumping out to a 24-16 lead halfway through the first half, the Illini would then give up 14 unanswered points going into halftime, and the game would end in a 80-57 rout by the Cornhuskers.

This was the infamous game where Meyers Leonard cried in frustration on the bench, and Bruce Weber’s fate was effectively sealed.

AP Photo/Ted Kirk

This is clearly the worst-case scenario for the current Fighting Illini, but a complete bottoming-out is by no means guaranteed or even likely for the team at this point. For example, just last year the Illini faced an inflection point at the beginning of their season and found a way to get back on track.

Without Kofi Cockburn, No. 10 Illinois was upset in Milwaukee by the Marquette Golden Eagles during a game that came down to the final possession. A week later, Cockburn rejoined the team in Kansas City to face off against a fairly average Cincinnati Bearcats squad, but Illinois fell apart and lost 71-51. The Illini didn’t dwell on the defeat, and came back just the following day to right the ship and defeat none other than Bruce Weber’s Kansas State Wildcats.

The losses to Marquette and Cincinnati would cost the 2021-22 Illini their ranking until mid-January, but it was an opportunity for that team to shed their pre-season expectations, find a rhythm, and just focus on playing basketball.

That’s exactly what this current team needs to do as well. I’m not going to speculate about locker room issues or anything like that, since doing so from the outside is fairly pointless. What they need to do is play loose, relax, and to quote a common sports idiom, “stop thinking so much.”

Case in point, RJ Melendez probably hits this shot at least 40% of the time in practice and rarely misses the rim.

And it wasn’t just him, either.

Past Illinois teams have often been able to move on from tough losses by focusing immediately on the next game, like the Illini did after last season’s loss to Cincinnati.

Unfortunately, this team has only been able to play three games in the past two weeks.

And as former Illini Sean Harrington pointed out...

This team had a full week to overthink the loss against Penn State, another week to think about what went wrong against Alabama A&M, and now have yet another week to ruminate on the game last night. That’s not a knock against these players, as human beings we all have a tendency to dwell on negatives when we don’t have much else to focus on. It’s genuinely hard to get into a rhythm when you play so infrequently.

With that in mind, I’m going to be patient with this team. Things might still be rough for a while, but I do believe they’ll start to turn things around during the meat of the Big Ten schedule.

The only suggestion that I’d add is for the coaching staff. Back in 2012, after the Feb. 15 home loss to Purdue, Bruce Weber lamented that his team wasn’t as tough as the 2005 Illinois squad, and blamed himself but ultimately didn’t do anything about it. Last night, Brad Underwood echoed his predecessor in a lot of ways.

Fortunately, Underwood was defiant, and not defeated.

That’s great, but I don’t think sketching up some new plays and tweaking the defense alone is going to get this season headed in the right direction again. This Illini team has earned two neutral court top-10 wins, it’s not like they don’t have talent or ability.

What they might need is a different type of leadership. “

Tough love” has worked for Underwood thus far in his Illinois tenure, and some teams genuinely do respond well to being screamed at when they’re making mistakes. But maybe this squad isn’t one of those teams. Maybe it’s time for Underwood to start rethinking his overall approach to motivating his team as well.