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.
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.
this is the moment we knew it was going downhill. pic.twitter.com/VH6Bl8hMao— Champaign (Snow) Showers (@217Showers) December 23, 2022
And it wasn’t just him, either.
Not a good half of basketball. Mizzou up by 24 on the #illini at halftime.— Joey Wagner (@mrwagner25) December 23, 2022
Illinois shooting 32 percent from the field, 6.7 percent (!!) on 3-pointers and have nine turnovers.
Mizzou shooting 59 percent from the field and 46 percent on 3s...
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...
What’s scary now for Illini is the players are going home for a few days. Usually a few players go home and everyone is in their ear and they come back to school not happy and with bad advice. After that Braggin Rights performance and the last week team chemistry will be tested.— Sean Harrington (@smharrington24) December 23, 2022
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.
#illini Brad Underwood: That was horrible. As a coach getting these guys prepared, I didn't do a very good job. They out-toughed us. They out-fought us. They took our ball. They out-executed us.— Joey Wagner (@mrwagner25) December 23, 2022
Fortunately, Underwood was defiant, and not defeated.
#illini Brad Underwood pointed the thumb at himself for the current struggles. Mentioned they could re-think some things defensively and offensively mostly focused on toughness and trusting each other more.— Jeremy Werner (@JWerner247) December 23, 2022
"I have to get us out of this," Underwood said.
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.