Merry Christmas, Illini Nation!
I hope that your stocking was stuffed with all your heart’s desires this morning. Pack of gum, a sleeve of Pro V1’s and your seventh tie with cartoon reindeer.
If you were extremely fortunate, maybe a few Starbucks gift cards slid their way into the toe portion for an extra treat. Nothing like a Venti Chocolate Almond Milk Shaken Espresso with an extra shot to knock the cobwebs out. Yes, that’s five shots.
Illinois head basketball coach Brad Underwood is figuratively not as giddy to pull out what has been stuffed into his red and white sock inscribed with “Brad” in red embroidery hanging above his fireplace in his basketball office at Ubben.
He may have even added something to his coffee, just to take the edge off.
Underwood’s Illini were just embarrassed by an inferior Mizzou team in St. Louis.
Here’s a deeper dive into that debacle. If i could come up with a word worse than debacle I would. Maybe ignominious effort would be apropos.
In the last handful of games the program has been in the national spotlight for what happens at press conferences after games, rather than what happens during them. Fart noise. Chemistry. Leadership. Disconnection.
Beyond the obvious eyesore of the scoreboard at the half and end of the Braggin’ Rights game, this outcome is troubling for a variety of reasons. All the trends that make fodder for writers and talk show hosts continued. The program, and its contents, may have hit rock bottom.
On a larger scale, it may be time to hand over the keys to the car to a different freshman PG in Jayden Epps. That’s another story for another time, altogether.
Here’s the top ten list of issues and stocking stuffers that this shellacking in the STL highlighted:
- Underwood is now 2-4 in such contests. His team was once again out-toughed, out-hustled and out-played. It doesn’t take a basketball savant to notice the large discrepancy in this departments.
- First-year Mizzou head coach Dennis Gates (from Cleveland State) made it look like his culture in CoMo is a decade old. Underwood looked like the only rookie in matchup.
- The once elite Illinois defense, aided by “switching everything,” has turned into a muddled mess of missed switches, poor communication and wide open lanes to the hoop from every direction by the opposition. Mizzou got all of its Christmas wishes answered on offense. It looks like Illinois needs to start trying different methods of playing screens and/or ball screens.
- Illinois can not shoot from distance or at the line.. They just can’t. Even though they elect a three-point attempt on 45.8% of their shot attempts, one goes in only 33.3% of the time. Free throws: 65.2% as a team (No. 320 in the country). From inside the arc, the numbers are amazing: 57.3% of twos find the bottom of the cup, good for No. 18 in the country.
- The offensive game plan by Illinois is not being executed with any degree of regularity, despite the recognized leader, Texas Tech transfer Terrence Shannon, Jr., enumerating the wants and wishes of the coach during the post-game press conference. I can’t remember a single time in the game that the Illini found a third side (after two reversals and/or skip passes).
- Underwood’s aggressive tactics after the Penn State game seemed to fall on largely deaf ears, yielding less results than sign language in the pitch black expanse of space.
- Coleman Hawkins playing the facilitator role is not working as anticipated. Hawk had six turnovers and zero assists against Mizzou. He does not actively try to score whatsoever.
- Dain Dainja has to play as much as possible. It seems like his role is limited for two factors: cardiovascular endurance and inability to switch defensively. Would Underwood be opposed to Dainja utilizing hard hedges, rather than playing drop coverage on every ball screen? He is too gifted offensively to let schematics keep him on the bench.
- The offense turns the ball over at alarming rates. The Illini get their ball taken on 10.5% if their total possessions. This is No. 267 in the country. They also turn it over without their ball being taken 10.7% of the time. This is No. 275 in the country.
- Underwood has tried to play the hard-ass, the wise-ass and the smart-ass. His latest attempt at coaxing results post-game was the soft-ass. Taking blame for every single aspect of failure in his program. No one who watched the game against Missouri, or Penn State for that matter, thinks that Underwood is to blame for lack of effort and outright apathy. At some point, the players have to take pride in their craft, and be personally offended when the play does not go their way on the court.
It is figuratively and literally a lot to unpack for Underwood and his staff during the last extended time off of high-major competition until next fall.
The rest of the 2022-23 basketball seasons rests on the shoulders of transfers Matthew Mayer and Shannon playing up to their potential consistently. Mayer has been dynamite of late; Shannon has been a mixed bag since lighting up UCLA in Vegas last month.
Illinois is currently a No. 6 seed in most bracketology predictions, safely in the tournament. With 19 games left before the Big Ten Tournament, and 18 of those in conference play, the season is still young.
If Underwood can solve even half of that Top 10, he’ll be well on his way to another NCAA Tournament. If he can get out of the first weekend, that’s a whole other story.
This is Illinois basketball.