There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.
But sometimes that light is an oncoming train.
No, I’m not saying this to be hyperbolic. This season for Illinois Men’s Basketball was once confusing. But now it’s coming into focus. And the conclusions aren’t all sunshine and rainbows.
Illinois lost 73-60 to Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston. Northwestern rubbed salt in the wound by wearing their “City Edition” jerseys.
The native Chicagoan in me would like to send out a gentle reminder that Evanston is not Chicago.
So let’s rip the bandage off and get to it.
To be clear, my colleague Billy Lawton did an excellent job breaking down the state of the program. He broke down the data points that matter, so I recommend checking out his piece.
The Illini currently sit at 9-5. Losses to Missouri, Northwestern and Penn State have stung the soul of a team that had visions of a deep run. Think about all the perceived advantages this roster had coming into the season.
- A deeply talented, top-10 freshman class
- Two grad transfers from Big 12 programs with Final Four pedigrees
- A versatile roster with players who can guard 3-4 positions
- A cast of returning players who stuck it out through all of the staff changes
- Leadership in the huddle and on the bench
- Coleman Hawkins and RJ Melendez poised to break out and become NBA Draft early entries
This is the Mike Tyson moment. This is a program that has been punched in the face. How will they respond?
Teams with elite aspirations don’t collectively disappear for long stretches against teams like Alabama A&M and Northwestern. That’s both on the coaches and the players.
So what does Coach Underwood need to work with his roster to correct?
Here are three issues that are plaguing the Illini halfway through the 2022-23 season.
In conference play so far, defending guards has been an achilles heel for the Illini defense. Jahmir Young, Jalen Pickett, Andrew Funk, and Chase Audige have all gashed Illinois for 20+ point games during conference play. Much of the damage from opposing guards has been done behind the arc.
The failure to close out on catch-and-shoot opportunities has plagued Brad Underwood’s squad. And the solution doesn’t seem to be in sight. On one hand, close-outs are largely effort-based. This is a part of why many critics have pointed to a lack of effort.
Sencire Harris and Ty Rodgers could see themselves playing key roles as the season moves forward. They play with the kind of effort and fire that Underwood has praised and continues to seek. And possibly the return of the steady leader Luke Goode will help the underperforming perimeter defense.
But the insistence on trying to speed the game up so quickly and produce shots in the first seven seconds of the shot clock can create tired legs. This level of offensive urgency has produced well on the junior college level for Underwood, but his Power 5 tournament runs leave much to be desired.
Is it the chicken or the egg?
This is the roster Coach Underwood wanted. He craved a team full of versatile, switchable, positionless players. Gone are the days of hero ball in Champaign. Right?
Well, hero ball can cover up a lot of deficiencies when the roster is anchored by All-Americans like Ayo Dosumnu and Kofi Cockburn. Having legitimate go-to superstars helps paper over all kinds of deficiencies.
Also, having glue guys like Andres Feliz, Trent Frazier and Da’Monte F’ing Williams helped settle things on the floor when the seas got rough. The previous roster incarnations — largely built with major help from Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman — were built with the entire winning picture in mind. They weren’t constructed for one head coach to satiate his ego and build his roster in his image.
There were never leadership questions on those teams. And there was never a coach making a public spectacle of himself playing baller bully on the sidelines like his apparent hero St. Thomas of East Lansing.
But here’s the difference: Tom Izzo has a Hall of Fame ring and a national championship. That buys a lot of credibility. Fart noises and ego building your roster doesn’t. What good is a bully pulpit if your veteran players admit to tuning you out? You look like a baby having a tantrum when you yell at the air. You built this roster to do what you wanted it to do. Hopefully the accountability mirror isn’t a one-way mirror.
And speaking of issues arising from roster construction…
Brandin Podziemski is averaging over 18 PPG with 8.5 RPG and shooting 38% from behind the arc for Santa Clara. Illinois could really use that sort of productivity, even if the Big Ten is a tougher defensive conference than the West Coast Conference. But he transferred out.
Trent Frazier and Alfonso Plummer could go on insane heaters. Those heaters kept Illinois in some tough games last year. They’re out of eligibility and playing professionally elsewhere.
The current Illini roster doesn’t have a single player shooting above 40% from beyond the arc. That’s a problem when the team averages over 27 three-point attempts per game.
Some of this could be caused by the focus on getting such quick shots. Are the Illini moving the ball enough/appropriately to get the best shots? Are the right people shooting these shots? And is the roster constructed with the kind of catch-and-shoot snipers that can execute this offense with greater efficiency?
It’s easy to look to next season. It’s easy to think about the future of this program. Chicago St. Rita F/C James Brown got on up, got on the good foot, and decided that the next place he’d be living in America is Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
While the Illini have kept an open scholarship to take in a mid-year player, no significant players who would impact this roster have become available. Last year, this strategy produced Dain Dainja. Dainja has, at times, been one of the bright spots on this roster. But it’s going to take a lot more to reverse this roster’s course.
Coach Underwood has to do some work on the portal. He has to hold on to this year’s freshman class to avoid a Podziemski situation. Do you want to see Ty Rodgers or Jayden Epps become stars elsewhere?
This team may need a back-to-basics approach. Defensive fundamentals and free throw shooting have been constant plagues. That’s unacceptable for a team with conference championship and NCAA Tournament run ambitions.
The reckoning is upon us. The win over Texas in the world’s most famous arena seems so long ago.
And to paraphrase someone who once coached in that particular arena:
Kofi Cockburn isn’t walking through that door.
Ayo Dosumnu isn’t walking through that door.
Trent Frazier isn’t walking through that door.
Orlando Antigua isn’t walking through that door.
Chin Coleman isn’t walking through that door.
That means that if the answers aren’t in the current locker room, perhaps it’s time to look aggressively for solutions.