Happy Sunday, Illini Nation!
Inexplicably, Brad Underwood and the Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team has been able to squeeze my 40 years of Illini fandom into the three months that have comprised the 2022-23 season.
Emphatic victories over nationally relevant teams like UCLA (Vegas) and Texas (Madison Square Garden), sandwiched between compellingly awful beatdowns by Mizzou (by 22 in STL) and dual 15-point beatdowns at home to Penn State and Indiana...all three losses to unranked opponents.
The most recent swelling of momentum was a four-game winning streak in the Big Ten, all by double figures.
The Illini are going to go on an extended heater and right the ship.
Not so fast, my friend.
Underwood decides to not double Trayce Jackson-Davis and he goes 15-of-19 for 35 points.
Illinois didn’t regress back to the lack of effort against Mizzou or Penn State, the plan was either extremely poor, or wholly unexecuted. Underwood seemed to hint at installed “doubles package” in his post-game presser. Head-scratching at minimum, bewildering at a maximum.
If Illinois basketball is not perplexing, frustrating and compelling - it is nothing.
Here’s another TCR columnist unable to explain the season, or this team:
I’m in no position to coach this Illini team. My position requires my opinion, so I’ve decided to give my thoughts on how the team can make consistency a habit.
Start freshman point guard Jaden Epps and make scoring more consistent at the beginning of games and halves.
Admittedly, Epps was not great against Indiana in the latest contest. That result aside, it’s time to make a change in the starting lineup. Epps can score and create his own shot, and does a much better job of stretching the defense, giving Dain Dainja and others on the roster more operating room.
Sencire Harris has a role on the team, no doubt. His electric energy and defensive prowess are perfectly suited as the Energy Guy off the bench.
Epps is averaging 9.3 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists and shooting 81% from the line. His PER (Player Efficiency Rating) is 12.9 and he’s 36.6% from behind the arc. Good measurables. These are also off-set by being in extreme foul trouble twice and basically ineffective for two contests.
Epps commonly comes into games after 90 seconds...or even quicker, once Harris missed two contested layups or gambles to give up a hoop. If the leash is that short, why not insert Epps into the lineup?
Start making Coleman Hawkins get involved offensively at the beginning of the game.
I get that Hawkins is seen internally as a facilitator, and someone to run “offense through” rather than “offense around.” That makes obvious, logical sense. Hawkins has failed to either score, or be any factor whatsoever offensively in the first half of games.
He passes on open shots and does not look to score, even when he is in the paint and well-positioned to put the defense at a disadvantage. Even if he misses a few early, you have to get him in the high post on the wing or middle of the lane and run a few sets for him.
Hawkins could be at least twice as aggressive in looking for his shot early in games.
He is 9.6/6.0/3.2 (Pts/Rebs/Assists) on the year and only averages 4.1 shots from inside the arc a game. I’d like to see that number double.
Start mixing the press into the equation when the energy depletes or offensive movement stagnates.
This suggestion is clearly a direct result of the success of the press against IU in the second half. Illinois has gone away from making this a staple of their defensive game plan. I’m not pontificating that this needs to return.
Mix it in, particularly at home when the packed house is more than willing to lend a hand to the chaos.
Especially when you have Mayer-Melendez-Hawkins-Harris in with Dainja at the five. Do it for a possession or two and see if it bothers the other team, and to what degree. It couldn’t hurt.
Indiana had 14 turnovers in the game, and the Illini took their ball 11 times.
Playing some press every game also makes the other team prepare for it during practice.
Start a book club that meets weekly and read “Ruthless Consistency.”
I’m sure someone in the program has an Audible membership. My bet is on slimmed down assistant Geoff Alexander. He’s well-traveled and well-dressed. I would guess he learned some French or Italian on there, with the recent success of international recruiting.
This particular selection is free on there.
We’re off to a HOT start! Harvard Business Review states that “most studies show a 60 to 70% failure rate for organizational change projects, a statistic that has stayed constant since the 1970s.”
It’s hard to change an organization — or in this case a team — on the fly in a highly competitive environment. The point here is that you have to keep trying, and BU has to leave no stone unturned to get the consistency under control.
Oh, one more thing.
Get Dain Dainja more than a MEASLEY six shots a game. Go to the Dainja Zone.
Dainja is shooting mover 70% from the floor. He’s not made a priority whatsoever. With a PER of 28.5, that rivals anyone in the country.
He needs six shots a half, not six shots a game. Underwood has to make him a priority.
This is Illinois basketball.